Country 061 – Uzbekistan (Taj Restaurant)


Location
: 1698 Eglinton Avenue West, Toronto
Websitehttps://www.facebook.com/TAJ-Restaurant-282739815479810/

When we told the waiter (and, I suspect, owner) at Taj that this was our first visit to the restaurant, he pretty much ordered for us.  He gave us a handful of suggestions, then when we neglected to order immediately, he said okay, how about you order this, this, that, and this, and before we knew what was happening the menus were gone and he was in the kitchen (to be fair, we could have said no, but it all sounded good, so we went with it).

It was really bizarre; in pretty much any other setting I probably would have been peeved, but he did it in such an earnest and friendly way that it was hard to be too miffed about it.

Of course, it also helps that all of the food was delicious.

And thankfully it’s an inexpensive place, so despite the fact that we wound up spending (and eating) more than we wanted to, it still only amounted to about 25 bucks each for more food than we were able to eat.

We started with a salad and an enormous round loaf of freshly-baked bread.  The salad, which consisted mostly of tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, and red onions, was simply dressed and featured really fresh ingredients.  It was quite good.

The bread was warm and homey and satisfying.  It was slightly sweet, and while we weren’t quite sure what we were supposed to eat it with, it was certainly high-quality bread.

Next was the samsa, which was kind of like a Chinese-style bun, but encased in delightfully flaky pastry.  It was crammed with juicy, fennel-infused ground lamb (it was also about the size of my fist and surprisingly heavy, so between that, the salad and the bread we would have been all set for lunch, but I digress).

The final dish was plov (and we got a plate each of this rather than the shared plate we were assuming).  This actually reminded me a lot of qabuli palau, which is Afghanistan’s national dish, and which I sampled at Naan and Kabob.  They both had a pretty similar base — rice, carrots, raisins, and chunks of meat — but the spicing here was much more satisfying.  The raisins and the carrots added subtle pops of sweetness rather than the in-your-face sugar assault from the Naan and Kabob version.

The addition of chick peas gave the dish some added substance, and the chunks of lamb were fork-tender and intensely flavourful.  I love lamb, so maybe I’m biased, but it takes a dish that was already delicious and cranks it right up to eleven.

Taj Restaurant - the salad Taj Restaurant - bread Taj Restaurant - the samsa Taj Restaurant - the samsa Taj Restaurant - the plov

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Country 059 – Egypt (Maha’s)


Location
: 226 Greenwood Avenue, Toronto
Websitehttps://www.mahasbrunch.com/

Maha’s is fairly well known for having very long lines, and very leisurely service.  And indeed, the line was long, and service was leisurely (we spent forty minutes in line, and another half hour waiting for our food to arrive).

Maha’s is also fairly well known for having amazing food; again, it lives up to its reputation.  There’s clearly a reason people are willing to wait through the lines and the slow service.

It’s a brunch place, though if you’re looking for the old standards like eggs benedict and pancakes, you won’t find them here.  What you will find is a nice selection of Egyptian-inspired plates and sandwiches; we started with hummus with charred balady bread (an Egyptian version of pita bread made with whole wheat flour), and I ordered the Cairo Classic.

The hummus was so good.  It was super creamy, with an amazing depth of flavour and a nice lemony zing.  It was a definite contender for the best hummus I’ve ever had, and I’ve eaten quite a bit of hummus in my lifetime.

That’s not to mention the balady bread, still warm from the oven and just about as perfect as you can imagine pita bread to be.  It had just the right amount of char, with a subtly crispy exterior and an amazingly fluffy interior.  Combined with the silky hummus, I could have eaten it all day.

The Cairo classic consisted of a heaping portion of foole (a spread consisting mainly of fava beans), a sliced hard boiled egg, a falafel, a tomato and feta spread, more of that amazing balady bread, and a salad.

I mean, after that mind-blowing hummus, would it surprise you to hear that the main meal was quite good as well?  Because yeah, it was pretty amazing.

The combination of the creamy foole, the eggs, and the zippy tomato and feta spread was seriously addictive.

And holy crap, that falafel.  I really wish I had more than just the one; it was perfectly spiced and delightfully fluffy, with lightly crispy exterior.  Like the hummus, this was a best-ever contender.

Maha's - the line Maha's - the hummus Maha's - the Cairo Classic

Country 054 – Bangladesh (Premium Sweets)


Location
: 7025 Tomken Road, Mississauga
Websitehttp://www.premiumsweets.ca/

One of the few nice things about being in Mississauga is that it makes doing this blog pretty easy.  Ethnic food from all over the globe is readily available — including, of course, Bangladeshi cuisine.

I wanted to try the sorshe ilish — it’s one of Bangladesh’s national dishes, according to Wikipedia — but apparently Premium Sweets only have a small assortment of what’s on their menu available at any given time.  So I went with the mutton bhuna, which came with rice, naan bread, and a small cucumber salad.

Everything was tasty, but not much more; it was one of those inoffensively enjoyable meals that’s good, but not memorable in any particular way.

The mutton bhuna featured chunks of reasonably tender meat in a thick, mildly spicy curry base.  The mutton may or may not have actually been mutton, though; there was absolutely none of that mildly gamy, distinctive flavour that you get from lamb (a flavour that should only be intensified with mutton).  I suspect that they’re using beef instead.

The sauce was tasty; it’s nothing too mindblowing, but it’s a solid curry.

The naan came tightly wrapped in foil; I really wish they hadn’t done that.  The lightly crispy exterior that you get from freshly-baked naan had been completely steamed away inside the foil.  It was fine, but it had none of the textural contrast that distinguishes great naan from the merely good; it was just uniformly soft and chewy.

The cucumber salad was a really good compliment to the main meal, with its vinegary crunch providing a nice contrast to the rich curry.

And of course, you can’t go to a place called Premium Sweets without trying the dessert, so I got a selection of six of their Bangladeshi sweets.  I have no idea what any of them were or what they were called (quality food writing, right?), but they all had a similarly crumbly, fudgy texture and a nutty, vaguely exotic flavour.  A couple were more crumbly and a couple were creamier, but they all tasted about the same. I enjoyed them, but a bit more variety would have been nice.

Premium Sweets - the mutton bhuna Premium Sweets - the dessert

Country 044 – Lebanon (Acacia Fine Foods)

acacia
Location
: 1170 Burnhamthorpe Road West, Mississauga
Websitehttp://www.acaciafinefoodsmississauga.com/

Thanks, Twitter — or more specifically, thanks, Suresh Doss (for the unaware, Doss has become the GTA’s go-to guy for recommendations on ethnic joints like this one).  I visited this place entirely thanks to this tweet, and I’m really glad that I did.

It’s a big place, and was almost completely empty when I showed up at around 12:30 on a Sunday (which, as will soon become clear, I think is a travesty).  I ordered the arayess, which I had never even heard of before, let alone tried.

It was amazing.  It’s ridiculously simple — it’s essentially just a fairly thin layer of spiced ground beef sandwiched inside a piece of pita bread.  It’s grilled over charcoal, which gives it a nice exterior char without making the bread overly crispy or crackly.

Whatever they’ve spiced the beef with tastes so good, and the juices soak into the bread so that the whole thing becomes an irresistible medley of beefy, perfectly spiced flavour.  It comes with two sauces for dipping — tahini and garlic — and while they’re both quite tasty, it was the garlic sauce that really got me all hot and bothered.  It was pretty much the standard thick white sauce that you get at most shawarma joints, but something about it made me want to grab a spoon and eat it straight-up from the container like pudding.

They gave us a couple of pieces of puffy, fresh-from-the-oven pita bread, and by the end of the meal I was tearing pieces off and dipping them straight into that amazing garlic sauce.

You can choose between fries, rice, or salad — since the tweet that brought me here specifically mentioned the rice, that’s what I got.

The rice, like everything else, was not kidding around.  Great flavour, and it complimented everything else perfectly.

I should also mention that my dining companion got the chicken and beef shawarma plate, and based only on the couple of mouthfuls I had, it seemed like some seriously top-shelf shawarma (I actually enjoyed it so much that I returned a few days later to try a chicken shawarma sandwich — it was quite good, though it was missing the crispy bits that made the shawarma on the first day so amazing).

I’m really not sure why the place was so empty — I’ve been doing this blog for almost a couple of years now, and this was easily one of the best meals I’ve had so far.  It was so good.

Acacia Fine Foods - the arayes Acacia Fine Foods - the chicken shawarma

Country 043 – Venezuela (El Arepazo)

arepa
Location
: 181 Augusta Avenue, Toronto
Websitehttp://arepazo.ca/

A good way of figuring out what to order for this blog is Googling “[Insert country here] national dish.”  In the case of Venezuela, their national dish is pabellón criollo, which consists of braised beef, rice and beans, and is typically served with fried plantain.

The version at El Arepazo is a bit untraditional– for one thing, it’s served on an arepa, which is essentially like a corn tortilla and a pita had a baby.  Steak is substituted for shredded beef, and given that it’s served in bread, rice has been taken out of the equation entirely.

I quite enjoyed it, though any notion that it could be eaten like a sandwich went out the window almost immediately.  The arepa itself isn’t exactly substantial, and they’ve filled it with a lot of stuff.  I took one bite and the whole thing collapsed into bits like a meat-and-bean-filled pinata.

Still, however you eat it, it’s good.  The steak is a bit on the tough side and all the flavours are probably more muted than they should be (though the two sauces that come on the side — a red and a green salsa — add some needed zip), but it’s otherwise pretty tasty.  The beans, the beef, and the creamy plantains are a good combo, and the gooey cheese helps to bring it all together.

Country 040 – India (Sweet India)

sweet
Location
: 7126 Airport Road, Mississauga
Websitehttp://www.sweetindia.com/

Remember when I was saying that a nicer-looking restaurant and a clientele that doesn’t match its ethnicity were both tell-tale signs that a place like this might not be all that great?  Well, here’s a definite exception to that rule: Sweet India is both very nicely designed and, when I went at least, around halfway full of people who looked like they’d fit in comfortably with the cast of Friends.

It was also one of the best meals I’ve had since starting this blog.

The restaurant is laid out like any number of food court joints; they’ve got food in warming trays, and you can pick what you want.  I went with the vegetarian thali, which comes with your choice of three different dishes, raita (a cold yogurt-based cucumber salad), rice, and a basket of naan bread.

I think it’s hard to tell from the picture what an obscene amount of food that is, but seriously: look at the fork and knife for scale.  The plate is about the size of a cafeteria tray, and it was crammed with food.  Not to mention the basket full of naan, and the generous serving of dessert.

Suffice it to say, after eating all that I was ready to lie down and go into a food coma.  And for less than ten bucks, it’s a pretty amazing deal.

The three dishes in the top row of that tray are: aloo baingan, a flavourful mixture of eggplant and potato; chana masala, a chickpea curry; and aloo methi, a potato dish cooked with methi leaves (also known as fenugreek).

It was all really good, though with its fragrant intensity, the aloo baingan was clearly the star of the show.  It was a flavour bomb in the best way possible.  It helps that the accompanying ultra-fresh naan was superb; it was the perfect combo of lightly crispy outside and chewy inside.

The dessert was moong ka halwa, a creamy, pudding-like dish made mostly from lentils.  Indian desserts tend to be a bit of an acquired taste, and I was so full at that point that I was kind of hoping I wouldn’t like it so I could take one bite and throw the rest out.  But it was so good.  So of course I had to eat the whole thing, food coma be damned.

If I had one small complaint, it would be that while everything was fairly spicy, it does feel like the spice level has been toned down to accommodate the aforementioned Friends-like clientele.  A bit more of a fiery kick would have been nice, but everything was so amazingly tasty that it really didn’t matter.

Country 039 – Turkey (Kabab 49)

kabab
Location
: 5308 Dundas Street West, Etobicoke
Websitehttp://kebab49.com/

So, here’s a fun fact (an actual fun fact, not E!’s version of a fun fact): Turkish doner was actually the first version of that particular type of vertically-rotisseried meat, preceding the similar shawarma and gyro by at least a few decades.  I always assumed that shawarma was the O.G. vertical rotating meat-stack, but nope, apparently it’s doner.

And the version they serve at Kabab 49?  It’s superb.  I ordered the mixed doner plate, which comes with a salad, a big pile of sliced onions, a generous portion of delightfully greasy rice, a few slices of freshly-baked bread, and of course, enough shaved meat to feed a small family.

Everything on the plate is quite good (well, except for the onions — raw onions are the worst thing in the world, and no one is ever going to convince me otherwise), but the highlight is that amazing doner.  The mixed plate features chicken and a mix of veal and lamb, and both were fantastic.  The veal and lamb was a bit better than the chicken, but both were moist, had plenty of the crispy bits you’re looking for in this type of thing, and were really well seasoned.

The meat works just as well with the rice as with the fluffy, fresh bread.  Eventually, you eat enough of the doner and discover a couple of bonus slices of bread at the bottom of the plate, suffused with tasty meat grease.   And then you walk out of the restaurant clutching your stomach and wondering how and why you finished the whole thing, because seriously: that plate is enormous.  But you kept eating it well past the point that common sense would dictate that you stop.  That’s how you know it’s something special.