Country 083 – Nicaragua (La Bella Managua)

La Bella ManaguaLocation: 872 Bloor Street West, Toronto
Websitehttp://www.labellamanagua.com/

It’s always a good sign when you go to a restaurant and hear almost no English from the proprietor or the surrounding tables.  There are so many reasons why living in a city as multicultural as Toronto is a great thing, but food is certainly at the top of that list.  I honestly don’t think there are too many other cities in the world where I could do a blog like this.

So I was fairly confident that I was in good hands at La Bella Managua.  Eating the food confirmed it.

La Bella Managua

I tried a couple of things.  First up was the Pollo a la Parrilla.  This featured a perfectly grilled piece of chicken, rice and beans (gallo pinto, which is Nicaragua’s national dish), salad, and fried plantains.

Everything was great.  The chicken was nicely grilled and seasoned, with some welcome crispiness on its exterior and a perfectly cooked interior.  White meat is very easy to overcook, turning it dry and unappealing, so kudos to them for preparing this so well.  And the sweetness of the fried plantains balanced nicely with the savoury chicken.

La Bella Managua

The gallo pinto was simple enough, but very satisfying, as was the salad (which consisted mostly of avocado, tomato, peppers, and red onion).  I’m normally not a big fan of raw onions in salad, but these were mild enough to be acceptable.

The other dish I tried was the Nacatamal, which is described as “typical Nicaraguan tamales stuffed with seasoned pork loin & vegetables.”

La Bella Managua

This might be the least photogenic thing I’ve ever eaten.  I mean, it looks horrifying.  But it’s the ultimate “don’t judge a book by its cover” dish, because it was absolutely delicious.

Unlike the tamales I recently had at Tacos El Asador, these were absolutely crammed with flavour, and the tender pork loin gave it a satisfying meatiness.  In case it wasn’t obvious enough from the chicken, this is a top-shelf restaurant doing top-shelf stuff.

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Country 082 – Georgia (Suliko Restaurant)

Suliko RestaurantLocation: 1311 Alness Street, Concord
Websitehttp://suliko.ca/

One thing I’ve noticed while doing this blog is the culinary overlap in various parts of the world.  Similarities like steak and egg dishes in Latin America, spicy rice in Africa, or more obvious ones, like noodles in Asia.  It’s hard not to notice overlap once you start focusing on the breadth of world cuisine.

Suliko Restaurant

The latest (and oddest) connection I’ve noticed is serving bread with a spicy, salsa-like condiment in Eastern European countries — I first encountered this at Moldova Restaurant, and now at Suliko.

Suliko Restaurant

In fact, Suliko goes one step further, serving their bread basket with three different salsas of varying spice levels.  It’s a tasty — if somewhat odd — combination.

I tried a couple of other things on the menu.  First up: hachapuri imeretinsky, which is one of Georgia’s two national dishes (according to Wikipedia, at least).

Suliko Restaurant

It basically looks like a pizza, though it doesn’t particularly taste like that dish, with a softer and breadier texture, and a filling that consists solely of cheese.  It was quite tasty, particularly when it was hot and fresh, with a nice contrast between the soft bread and the gooey, salty cheese.

The next thing we tried was khinkali, Georgia’s take on the dumpling, and their other national dish.

Suliko Restaurant

We tried a couple of varieties: pork and beef, and lamb.  They were both really satisfying, with a soupy, meaty interior that features a very distinctive spicing that set it way apart from a typical Chinese dumpling.

The wrapper was also thicker than you’d expect, which actually worked quite well with the strongly-flavoured meat.  It probably wasn’t necessary to get two different types of meat dumplings, however — though the lamb dumplings had a mildly lamby flavour, both types basically tasted the same.

Country 080 – El Salvador (Tacos El Asador)

Tacos Al AsadorLocation: 689 Bloor Street West, Toronto
Website: None

My one sentence summary of Tacos El Asador: tasty, but bland.  I tried a couple of things, and they were both good, but neither really jumped out at me.  Which is fine.  Not everything can be a taste bonanza.  Some things are just good.

It’s probably at least partially my fault.  “Tacos” is right there in the name of the restaurant.  I did not order a taco.  I wanted to stick to El Salvadorian specialties, so I ordered a tamale and a papusa.

Tacos Al Asador

My dining companion, on the other hand, ordered a couple of tacos and thoroughly enjoyed his meal, so I think that’s the thing to get.

I started with a corn tamale (well, technically I ordered a chicken tamale, but they brought me a corn tamale.  Things have to be pretty dire for me to complain at a restaurant, so I just ate what was in front of me).

Tacos Al Asador

It’s a good quality tamale, though flavour-wise there wasn’t much going on.  It was basically just plain corn meal with pops of sweetness from the whole kernels of corn.  The two hot sauces on the table helped to bring it some flavour, as did the little cup of sour cream that comes on the side.

Tacos Al Asador

I also tried the pork chicharron papusa, which was kind of like an arepa, but with meat baked right in.  And again, it didn’t exactly explode with flavour, but the pork was nice and tender and the exterior was satisfyingly crispy.  It also came with a little cup of hot sauce that suited it quite well.

Country 075 – Bhutan (Lhasa Kitchen… or is it Potala Kitchen?)

Lhasa Kitchen (Potala Kitchen?)Location: 1422 Queen Street West, Toronto
Websitehttp://www.lhasakitchentoronto.ca/

I’m not gonna lie: I’m kinda cheating with this one.  Lhasa Kitchen is a Tibetan restaurant — one of many on this particular stretch of Queen — but when I looked it up online, they had a whole section on their menu dedicated to Bhutanese cuisine.

Lhasa Kitchen (Potala Kitchen?)

When I showed up, however, the restaurant was actually called Potala Kitchen, and the dishes from Bhutan were MIA.  It was an odd turn of events (odder still: as I write this, there isn’t a single reference to Potala Kitchen online, even on the restaurant’s website).

Bhutan and Tibet are neighbours; their cuisine must be somewhat similar.  So… close enough, I guess?

Lhasa Kitchen (Potala Kitchen?)

I tried a couple of things.  I started with the beef momo — essentially a Tibetan version of steamed Chinese dumplings.  The skin was slightly dry and the minced beef inside was a bit tough, but these were still pretty tasty (not to mention a great deal at seven bucks for a very generous order of ten).

Lhasa Kitchen (Potala Kitchen?)

I also tried the pork shabtak, which was an unqualified home run.  This featured a whole bunch of thick slices of ultra-tender pork belly and slippery fried onions in an oily, intensely flavourful sauce.

Lhasa Kitchen (Potala Kitchen?)

It comes with something called tring-mo — a big, fluffy steamed bun.  You eat it kind of like you’d eat roti; you tear pieces off and dip it in the pork.  Rice is an option, but this was way more interesting.

Country 066 – Chile (Auténtica)

AutenticaLocation: 9 Milvan Drive, North York
Website: None

When I did Argentina for this blog about 30 countries ago, I tried a sandwich called a lomito, which I noted was served in Argentina and Chile.  Well, here I am doing Chile, and yep — I ordered another lomito.

Kinda boring, but I wasn’t crazy about the first lomito I had, so I thought I’d give it another shot.

Autentica

I tried this one at a restaurant called Auténtica in the Plaza Latina food court in North York.  That’s a really fascinating food court that specializes entirely in Latin American restaurants.

The lomito from Auténtica consisted of sliced pork, tomatoes, avocado, and mayo.  It’s served on a really interesting house-made bun that’s kind of like a cross between a traditional bun and a biscuit.

Autentica

It wasn’t bad — the pork was nice and tender, and the tomato and avocado were fresh and tasty.  But there wasn’t a ton of flavour here; the pork was barely seasoned, and I don’t think the avocado or tomato slices were seasoned at all.  It was a decent enough sandwich, but nothing about it particularly stood out.

Autentica

I also tried the completo, which is a hot dog topped with avocado, tomato, and mayo (they really love avocado, tomato, and mayo in Chile, I guess).  The hot dog was smoky and tasty, but again, the other components were a bit bland.  It really needed mustard or some other condiment to give it a bit more flavour.  Still, it was enjoyable enough.

Autentica

I finished with the tres leches cake, which was the highlight.  A tres leches cake gets its name (which translates to “three milks”) from condensed milk, evaporated milk, and cream.  This one also featured a layer of dulce de leche, which worked exceptionally well with the moist — but not soggy — cake.  The only issue here was that the whipped cream tasted like it was actually Cool Whip or something similar, which was unfortunate.

Country 065 – Laos (Sabai Sabai)

Sabai Sabai
Location: 81 Bloor Street East, Toronto
Websitehttp://www.sabaisabaito.ca/

I’m gonna admit that pretty much the only thing I know about Laos is that it’s where Hank Hill’s neighbour is from on King of the Hill.  I sort of figured that I’d be learning about all kinds of countries while doing this blog, but to be honest, not really (unless you consider eating a dish or two without context to be learning about a place, in which case, sure!  I’m learning a lot!).

But now I can tell you about a couple of Laotian dishes I had at Sabai Sabai, so I guess I know a tiny bit more than I did before.

Sabai Sabai

I started with the laap lao, which the menu describes as a minced pork salad, and the “most popular dish of Laos.”  Well, okay.  Sold.

I can see why it’s so popular in Laos (and elsewhere) — it’s delicious.  It’s a simple dish, with a bowl of ground pork accompanied by a plate of iceberg lettuce leaves for wrapping.  The pork absolutely pops with flavour — it’s addictively tangy and herby, and it’s almost impossible to stop eating.  The fresh crunchiness of the lettuce is a perfect accompaniment to the flavourful pork.  It’s great.

Sabai Sabai

My main was the mee kati (coconut noodles).  This was really tasty, though it was exceptionally awkward to eat.  It essentially comes deconstructed, with the plate consisting of a pile of dry noodles topped with crispy onions, a small bowl of sauce and chicken chunks, and an even smaller bowl of crushed hot peppers.

I wasn’t sure how to approach this.  Was I supposed to pour the sauce over the noodles?  The way the plate was arranged, it didn’t seem like it.  A bowl would have been more appropriate if this were the intention, plus there was a banana leaf on the plate, and if I poured sauce over the noodles, some of it would inevitably wind up under the leaf.  So… no pouring, I guess?

Sabai Sabai

But because the noodles were completely un-sauced, they all stuck together in one stubborn clump.   I eventually sprinkled the hot peppers onto the noodle clump, and then tore off chunks and dipped them into the sauce.  But I clearly over-dipped my first few clumps, because by the time I was about halfway finished with the noodles, the sauce was almost entirely depleted.  It wasn’t the best.

It tasted really good, though!  For all the awkwardness of actually eating it, that’s what really counts — the sauce was creamy, coconutty, rich, and delicious.  The crushed peppers gave it a mild kick, and the fried onions added some crispiness and a decent amount of flavour.  The chicken pieces tasted a bit leftovery, but all in all it was a tasty dish.  I just wish they’d drop the unwelcome pretension and serve it assembled in a bowl like normal people.

Country 062 – Greece (Colossus Greek Taverna)


Location
: 280 Lakeshore Road East, Mississauga
Websitehttp://www.colossusgreektaverna.com/

This will likely be my last post on this blog for a year or so, which is a shame, because yikes.  Yikes, this was an awful meal.  It’s sad to leave on a sour note, but what are you going to do?

We came at lunch, and my dining companion and I both ordered the “Authentic Gyros.”  Sadly, this dish isn’t on their online menu, so I can’t tell you exactly what it was supposed to come with, but if I recall correctly it was pork belly, tomato, greens, grilled haloumi cheese,  and honey mustard.  The presence of honey mustard on what is purportedly an “authentic” gyro probably should have been a tip-off that something was amiss.

And actually, my dining companion ordered his without honey mustard, and I guess they decided “well then, no one gets honey mustard!” because mine was sauce-less as well.

The sandwich came on a bun instead of pita bread.  That was bizarre, but who knows, maybe that’s the way they do it in Greece?  I doubt it, but hey, I haven’t been there.

Either way, it tasted like a stale Dempster’s hamburger bun.  It was not good.  It crumbled apart almost immediately after I picked it up, so I wound up eating the sandwich with a fork and knife.

The next oddity about this sandwich: it was supposed to come with pork belly, but the dried-out pieces of meat were clearly some other cut of pork.  If it was pork belly, it was trimmed in an exceptionally bizarre way — it was dry as heck and there wasn’t a speck of fat on it.  It was also uniformly gray, like it had been boiled.  It was so weird I actually brought it up with the waitress, and I’m usually a “eat whatever the hell is in front of me without doing anything that might even vaguely be construed as making a scene” type of guy.

I asked her if the sandwich was supposed to have pork belly on it.  Yep, she said, that’s pork belly.  I pointed at one of the pieces of meat to clarify.  “This is pork belly?  Are you sure?”  Yes, she said.  She was sure.  I didn’t begrudge the point, as I didn’t see any benefit to arguing over what was or was not pork belly, but no, I’m pretty positive that wasn’t belly.

Either way, it wasn’t particularly good.  The meat was fine, but it was dry and kind of tasteless.  The missing honey mustard probably would have helped, as it really needed some kind of sauce, both to lubricate things and to add some flavour.

Aside from that there were some sodden, mushy onions that, like the pork, tasted like they had been boiled.  Then there was the haloumi, which was actually pretty good, and the veggies.

For a place that is actually very well regarded online, the whole thing was shockingly bad.  I think it might be the worst thing I’ve ever eaten for this blog.

It came with a side of lemon potatoes.  They were nice and tender, I’ll give them that, but the lemony flavour was way too overbearing.  Normally these types of potatoes have a nice zingy brightness from the lemon that works well with the creamy potato; these were flat-out sour.