Walk down Jane Street near Finch around the end of the workday and you’ll find folks with styrofoam or plastic containers in hand, balancing takeout while getting on the 36 Finch West bus.
Everybody’s got to eat. And while the pandemic shuttered restaurants, and Metrolinx construction has torn up Finch for years, the old places that have hung on and the new eateries that have popped up have all found ways to adapt to the shifting landscape.
The neighbourhood is changing, but some things, like a good sandwich or the universal need to gather around a warm meal, have managed to stay the same. Here’s a taste of Jane and Finch today.
El Sazón de Metapan
9 Milvan Dr, North York, ON M9L 1Y9
A mix of country music and traditional Latin songs blasts from a massive speaker sitting on the upper level of Plaza Latina. On a Sunday afternoon, even while sandwiched between construction, the plaza is buzzing. Food from all over Latin America is available, next to barber shops and stores where you can buy calling cards. El Sazón de Metapan lives on the top floor, its grey table tops and walls brightened by Mexican flags and a portrait of a Salvadoran church surrounded by food from the nation.
Owner Jennifer Tobias speaks about her restaurant with pride in rapid-fire Spanish, while her young son Leo, quick and polite, moves chairs and bobs in and out the door with menus in his hand. Tobias opened the place in July 2020, though some of her friends and family attempted to dissuade her, citing the economic hardships other restaurants were facing during the pandemic’s early stages. Green “Social Distancing in Effect” signs sit above UberEats stickers on the window. But on a Sunday in September business is brisk.
The restaurant serves a mix of traditional Mexican and Salvadoran food: yuca con chicharrón, made with sweet and nutty cassava and pork rinds, fried plantains, flautas de pollo with an ample filling of chicken, and pupusas hot off the grill, bursting with your choice of cheese and beans or pork. Chicken tamales, steamed in a deep green corn husk or banana leaves, are served alongside hearty Salvadoran soups like sopa de papa, a traditional dish made with cow hooves. Bright salads are served with slices of lime, and there’s fresh tamarind, passionfruit juice, and horchata to drink.
Tobias cooks everything, with the help of three other women. In the kitchen, where spices sit on a shelf above a rack holding pots and pans, Maria Perez cooks pupusas on the grill top, slapping and pinching the dough, before filling them with cheese and pork or beans. Their rich smell wafts through the kitchen as the pupusas make their way to her colleague Rena’s steady hands. She gracefully turns a corner to come out of the kitchen and places the pupusas gently on our table.
The restaurant often serves the families and employees of local businesses, but the plaza is a destination for Latin Americans from across Toronto, and even those living outside the city. Like Tobias, most of her patrons’ first language is Spanish. As soon as someone steps in here and is greeted in their mother tongue, she says, there’s a sense of relief. “You feel at home.” Tobias points to a couple enjoying their meal. “Peru!” she says, identifying their home country. She points out another. “Guatemala!”
Tobias admits that the ongoing Metrolinx construction has made things challenging, for locals and those who used to come from as far as Burlington and Windsor to eat her food. She’s not seeing the same business as she used to. Even so, our conversation is regularly interrupted by passersby saying hello, or customers thanking her for the food.
El Jefe De Pollo
45 Four Winds Dr Unit G, North York, ON M3J 1K7
Tucked away in the small University City Mall is El Jefe De Pollo, a small take-out restaurant with a personality that can only be matched by that of its owner.
A large portrait of the “chicken boss,” Chef Randy, is up on the wall. The real Randy Ngo greets customers with a fist bump before asking them whether or not it’s their first time in the restaurant. If it is, then he recommends the “Chef’s Special,” a sweet and spicy chicken sandwich dripping with honey buffalo sauce and garlic aioli and topped with colourful coleslaw. There are chicken and braised oxtail tacos, birria style, with goat cheese and bright mango pico de gallo, a “Plane Jane” fried chicken sandwich, along with fried shrimp mac and cheese. The menu also features specials that change from time to time, from butter chicken ramen to house-made sesame waffle tacos with sesame Thai rolled ice cream—an example of Ngo fusing his curiosity and enjoyment of food with his classical training as a chef. Encouraging indulgence, Ngo has disposable gloves available for customers to put on when eating.
The space opened in 2021. It closes late and operates as take-out only, a consequence of COVID, but it works for the students and working folks who come through. A massive photo from the Cuban diner scene from Scarface hangs across from the kitchen. Tony Montana and Manny Ribera look out their small window in a sandwich shop of their own, staring at the “Little Havana” nightclub and what it represents. “That was me,” Ngo says. “But it’s not always better out there.”
“Out there” refers to Ngo’s “old life,” a turbulent, challenging time in school, with experiences in the criminal justice system. Cooking remained a constant for him, and Ngo eventually returned to school, graduating from George Brown Culinary College with honours.
El Jefe de Pollo doesn’t serve alcohol. “It’s hard to get a liquor licence when you have a criminal record,” says Ngo. But the lack of alcoholic beverages works perfectly for his commitment to being 100 percent halal. He scrolls through his phone to display Instagram messages from a group that monitors halal spots in the city, sharing photos of his meat vendors’ certification stamps. “They hold me accountable.”
Last year, Ngo dressed as Santa Claus and hosted a Christmas turkey dinner drive. Earlier this month, at the Jane/Finch Centre, Ngo served tacos to families who came for free backpacks and school supplies. “It’s all about being a part of and giving back to the community,” he says. “These are my people.”
Pho Mi Viet Hoa
2887 Jane St, North York, ON M3N 2J8
In the Yorkwoods Plaza off Jane St. sits Hoa Quan’s “Pho Mi Viet Hoa.” In Vietnam, both his father and grandfather were chefs. Quan, however, trained and worked as an accountant, then a tool and die maker for years. Eventually he studied culinary management at Humber before opening the restaurant in 2008 with his wife, Ngan, who used to work as a hostess in another restaurant.
The couple started building their menu by inviting friends and family over to taste test, keeping the recipes they enjoyed the most. It’s a warm, casual restaurant, filled with families from the neighbourhood and York University students. Like everyone, they had to close their doors and sell takeout during the height of the pandemic. “It wasn’t the same,” says Quan. “Our customers are very fond of us. All in here together, we’re like a family.”
The menu offers banh cuon, banh mi, and pho: beef, chicken, or duck with noodles or rice, garnished with fresh vegetables and always with a salad on the side and bright peppers and condiments placed neatly on the tables. Beef rib rice and noodle soup is a new, popular dish. Meals are accompanied by iced tea or your choice of fruit milkshake.
Steam rises from a hearty bowl of pho ga while Quan speaks. “We don’t use store-bought broth. We make our own here.” Quan and his staff are constantly working to innovate the menu, while staying true to Vietnamese traditions. Photos of new recipes are placed at eye level on the wall.
Quan lives nearby and finds that construction has presented a challenge for him and his customers. “It’s embarrassing,” he says. But he remains hopeful about the revitalization in the neighbourhood. It will, he hopes, be good for business.
Caribbean Cuisine Delight
1530 Albion Rd, Etobicoke, ON M9V 1B4
Caribbean Cuisine Delight’s Ron Anantram is also waiting for the LRT. “Construction is killing us, but once it’s finished, we should be rolling,” he says. “Our customers tell us that moving from point A to point B can take them quite a while.”
It’s quiet in the evenings, but folks are still milling about upstairs in the Yorkgate Mall food court. Anantram’s establishment has been here since 2004 and has seen the neighbourhood grow and change over the years. He immigrated from Guyana to Canada in 1983 with his family. When they were younger, his daughters worked in the restaurant and still occasionally help out, catering weddings and events.
“We cook homestyle,” he says. “Our jerk chicken is our number one seller, and we’re number one in the whole area.” Caribbean staples like roti and dhal puri, kingfish, rice and peas, oxtail and curry goat sit behind a glass. Bara and saheena, and tamarind balls, hallmarks of Trinidadian street food, sit behind another. The portions are generous, meals are less expensive than some of Anantram’s competitors, and that’s not an accident. “I don’t keep up with them. It’s a working neighbourhood.”
Anantram’s uncle, a Guyanese army chef, opened “Caribbean Cuisine Delight” nearly twenty years ago. Anantram has been there since the beginning, officially taking over three years after its opening. He cooks everything himself, but hopes to pass the torch soon. In a few years, he says, he’ll be ready to retire.
Anantram says he’s proud to be in the neighbourhood, seeing people of different cultural backgrounds and stages of life move through the mall. “This is a walking neighbourhood,” he says. “People walk. They take the bus.” In his mind, the changes to the neighbourhood are a sign of better days to come, and the mall will be needed more than ever. “We’re not going anywhere… There’s a doctors’ and lawyers’ office, LCBO, grocery, and government offices. This is a one-stop-shop.” And his restaurant, he says, is going to be a part of that. “People need food.”
The Finch West Issue is made possible through the generous support of United Way Greater Toronto and Metcalf Foundation. All stories were produced independently by The Local.