Country 057 – Kyrgyzstan (Chaihana)


Location
: 1000 Finch Avenue West, North York
Websitehttp://chaihana.ca/

Chaihana is tucked away in a fairly anonymous office building; though there’s a small sign outside, it’s very easy to miss.  My dining companion and I had the entire restaurant to ourselves — outside of the staff, the place was deserted.  It’s pretty much the definition of a hidden gem.

A lot of hole-in-the-wall joints like this can be dingy and unwelcoming, but Chaihana is clean and colourful; they’re definitely trying to attract more than just the grizzled regulars you’d expect in a place like this.

They specialize in the ‘stans: the website mentions Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan.  The dish I ordered is actually the national dish of Kyrgyzstan, so that’s a fourth ‘stan to add to the roster.

I ordered beshbarmak, which a pretty simple dish — boiled beef (which is sliced), topped with sauteed onions and served on a bed of very broad noodles.   There’s really not much more going on than that — there’s some green onions, dill, cracked pepper… and that’s about it.  It’s basic, hearty comfort food.

The pasta was a bit mushy and it was incredibly greasy (you know when you’re eating something really greasy, and your lips get grease-slicked with every bite?  Yeah), but it was pretty satisfying.  The tender beef, the noodles and the onions all go quite well together.

It’s served with an equally simple bowl of soup — basically just broth (mutton, according to Google) with a little bit of dill and some green onions for colour.

Chaihana - the beshbarmak Chaihana - the soup

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Country 029 – Hungary (The Goulash House)

goulash
Location
: 200 Main Street South, Newmarket
Websitehttp://thegoulashhouse.com/

I don’t think I’ve ever had an easier time figuring out what to order at a restaurant; I mean, it’s right there in the name.  The only question was which goulash to order — they have three different types, so I asked the waitress and was informed that the goulash of choice is beef.

It comes with a small bowl of soup to start, which in this case was a creamy, garlickly cauliflower soup that I quite enjoyed.

I also really enjoyed the goulash, which was absolutely crammed with fork-tender chunks of beef, not to mention the abundant cubes of potato and the pleasantly chewy dumplings, all in an intensely rich sauce.  It’s clearly designed to be shared; it even comes with a ladle to dole it out into the provided bowls.  I made the mistake of polishing it off by myself, and spent the rest of the evening clutching my stomach and questioning the way I live my life.

My only complaint (aside from the aforementioned stomach-clutching) is that it had one spice that I couldn’t quite put my finger on that gave the dish a vaguely medicinal twang.  I was mostly able to ignore it, but it was the one sour note in an otherwise stellar dish.

Goulash House - the soup Goulash House - the goulash

Country 026 – South Korea (Cho Dang Soon Tofu)

chodang
Location
: 5130 Dundas Street West, Etobicoke
Website: None

If the whole point of this blog is to try new things, then I’m failing pretty miserably with this entry; not only have I been to Cho Dang Soon Tofu several times before, I’ve even written about it for another blog.

Still, I haven’t written about the restaurant’s namesake dish: an intensely flavourful, bubbling hot stew that I can’t get enough of.

Like any Korean restaurant worth its salt, the meal starts with a generous selection of banchan — essentially a variety of small appetizers.  My favourite here are the crispy, addictively salty fried sardines, but the silky cubes of soft tofu (made in house) with a little bowl of sesame- and green-onion-infused soy sauce for dipping are also quite memorable, as is the obligatory (and delcious) kimchi.

But of course, the reason to come here is that delicious, piping-hot stew.  I got mine with pork, though several other options are available.  It’s spicy, flavourful, and seriously hearty — aside from the aforementioned pork, its absolutely suffused with the restaurant’s creamy house-made tofu, not to mention the egg that you crack into the bowl yourself, and the generous bowl of purple rice that accompanies the stew (made that distinctive colour by mixing black rice in with the white).

The best part?  All that food?  Eight bucks.  Yeah, it’s a deal.

Cho Dang Soon Tofu - the tofu Cho Dang Soon Tofu - the kimchi Cho Dang Soon Tofu - the sardines Cho Dang Soon Tofu - the soup

Country #020 – Israel (Sid’s Deli)

sids
Location
: 160 McCaul Street, Toronto
Websitehttp://www.sidsdeli.ca/

I know, I know — I’m cheating.  The type of deli that Sid’s is serving up is an American Jewish phenomenon, without much (if any) connection to Israel.  Sid’s should really fall under the United States on this blog, but since I’ve already covered that country, here we are.

Hey, if you don’t like it, start your own international-cuisine-themed blog.

The fact is, I couldn’t resist writing about this place.  There aren’t many things I enjoy more than a really good smoked meat or pastrami sandwich.  When a new deli opens in the city?  I’m all over that.

Sid’s menu features the usual assortment of deli classics; I went with a pastrami sandwich, and had it with a bowl of matzoh ball soup on the side.

I really wanted to like this — there’s a dearth of really great deli sandwiches in the GTA, and none that I know of in the downtown core (and no, Caplansky’s hasn’t qualified as anything better than okay in quite a stretch).   So I was crossing my fingers for greatness; alas, it wasn’t even good. It was catastrophically overseasoned.  Like, it was kind of insane how overseasoned it was.

The flavour was nothing but black pepper.  You could basically tell that there was a tasty piece of pastrami under there, but it was completely obscured under a deluge of overbearing spice.  You couldn’t take a bite without crunching down on whole peppercorns.  It was unpleasant.

It’s a damn shame, because the pastrami otherwise seems to be right where you want it to be.  I went with the hand-sliced option, which was cut into perfectly thick, yieldingly tender slices of fatty — but not too fatty — beef.  I had a bite or two where the fat was slightly unrendered and tough, however, for the most part it was perfectly cooked.

But this wasn’t pastrami — it was a pepper sandwich with meat.

It came with a small side of coleslaw, which wasn’t much better.  It tasted okay, but it was weirdly mushy.  The soup, at least, was quite good.  Despite my deli love, this was my first taste of matzoh ball soup, and yeah — I can see the appeal.  The matzoh ball essentially performs the same function as crumbling crackers into soup, only far more substantial and satisfying.  Aside from that, it was just an above average chicken soup.  Tasty stuff.

Sid's Deli - the restaurant Sid's Deli - the pastrami

Country 019 – Vietnam (Pho King Fabulous!)

pho
Location
: 2411 Yonge Street, Toronto
Websitehttp://www.phokingfabulous.com/

Let’s get the obvious out of the way first: the name of this restaurant is probably going to make you cringe.  It’s an unfortunate bit of frat-boy humour that belies the legitimately tasty food that can be found inside.

You’d also expect an authentic Vietnamese joint to be a bit more bare-bones in its decor; the best Vietnamese restaurants in the city tend to have an endearingly run-down vibe that’s a bit at odds with the slickly appointed dining room you’ll find here.  Again: don’t judge this book by its cover.

I ordered the Fabulous Beef Noodle Soup, which the menu describes as being filled with a cornucopia of meats: “Rare eye round, well-done flank, soft tendon, tripe, and beef meatballs.”

You have the choice of a medium or large bowl; the medium is absolutely crammed with noodles and meat, so unless you have a particularly voracious appetite, it’ll do.

A bowl of pho like this lives and dies by its broth, and this one has one of the most richly flavourful broths that I’ve tried (but then I’ve had maybe ten bowls of pho in my entire life, so don’t get too impressed).  Kicked up with a couple of spoons of chili sauce and a squeeze of lime, and you’ve got a really satisfying bowl of soup.

The noodles are perfectly cooked and abundant, and the variety of meats gives the dish an appealing mix of flavours and textures: there’s the tender combination of rare and well done beef, the distinctively chewy/crunchy bite of the tripe, the unctuous richness of the almost melt-in-your-mouth tendon, and the hearty meatballs.  There wasn’t a weak link here, which was nice.

Pho King Fabulous - the restaurant Pho King Fabulous - the pho

Country 010 – China (Magic Noodle)

magic
Location
1383 16th Ave, Unit 4, Richmond Hill
Websitehttp://www.magicnoodle.ca/

I’m going to paraphrase a quote from The Social Network here: you know what’s better than noodles?  Hand-pulled noodles.

There’s something about the addictively chewy texture of freshly-made noodles that really can’t be beat.

That’s not to mention the novelty of seeing them get made, which is on full display at Magic Noodle: stretching the dough, slamming it on the table, more stretching, more slamming, and the final, impressive act of noodlification.   The dough is pulled, folded over, and then pulled again and again, until a fat lump of dough has been turned into one long noodle strand, seemingly by magic.

This makes hand-pulled noodles impossible to eat daintily; because you’re essentially dealing with one absurdly long noodle bunched up in a bowl, the only thing you can do is bring a bunch of noodles to your face, cram as much as you can into your mouth, and then bite down to allow the rest to fall back into the bowl.  It’s a mess, but a delicious mess.

I ordered the House Special Hand Pulled Noodles, which featured a tasty, not overly salty broth (which was made even better when kicked up with the provided chili oil), a really generous amount of meat (a couple of different cuts of beef — both quite tender — as well as some tripe), cilantro and green onion, and a fried egg (which was way overcooked and easily the weak spot of the bowl).

And of course, those amazingly chewy noodles.  You can tell they’re made by hand because they’re not quite uniformly thick throughout, which only adds to their unique texture and intensifies their appeal.

Expect to wait, too; I came on a Friday night, and the wait was long enough to necessitate one of those pagers that buzzes and lights up when your table is ready, like at a chain restaurant.  I think it was about a twenty minute wait, which seems like a long time until you get your first taste of those noodles.

Magic Noodle - House Special Noodles Magic Noodle - Lamb Kebab

Country 005 – Dominican Republic (Mi Tierra)

tierra
Location
: 828 Saint Clair Avenue West, Toronto
Website: None

I was watching the Dominican Republic-centric episode of No Reservations, and a hearty soup called sancocho was highlighted as that country’s quintessential dish.  After a quick consultation with my good friend Google,  I found myself at Mi Tierra — though it’s technically a Colombian restaurant, they’ve got the ‘cocho on the menu (what’s that?  No one calls it ‘cocho?  Okay fine.  Your loss).

It’s alright, I guess.  It’s perfectly tasty, but I have a hard time imagining anyone getting too hot and bothered over it (but again, like with my recent experience with doubles, it’s possible that I got a mediocre version of an otherwise great dish).

The base is a pretty basic chicken stock; it’s a nice clean broth, but there isn’t a whole lot of flavour there.  It’s filled with some fairly sizable chunks of potato, plantain, cassava (which is like a starchier potato), oxtail, and roast-beef-esque chunks of meat.

It’ll certainly fill you up, though I wish there was a little bit more meat in there; there was only one piece of oxtail, which was really tender and probably the best thing in the bowl.  There were maybe three or four chunks of beef, which were a bit dryer than I’d like, but otherwise pretty good.  The rest was all potato and cassava and plantain.  It was hearty and very filling, no doubt about it, but a little bit ho-hum.  The dish primarily consists of starchy vegetables that all taste like starchy vegetables; there’s not much here that elevates them.

It came with a coleslaw-esque salad on the side, which had a bright, citrusy flavour, but which was a little bit too strong on the onion for my tastes (but I’m admittedly not a huge fan of raw onion).

Mi Tierra - the restaurant Mi Tierra - the empanadas Mi Tierra - the sancocho