This was my first experience at the Toronto Underground Market and I’m sure glad I made it out before they hibernate for the winter. It was a cool and drizzly November evening, but this didn’t slow the hordes of foodies from coming out in force. This was the fourth event put on by TUM and the buzz has definitely gotten around – the $10 tickets sold out within 24 hours of becoming available. Most items ranged from $1 to $6, so you won’t be emptying your wallet to fill your stomach with goodies. It took place at the Evergreen Brick Worksas usual, which in itself is a pretty impressive place setting. I’ll be alternating between “I” and “we” throughout this article because we took a team approach to sampling all the goodies at the show due to lack of stomach space!
Having done some research ahead of time, our plan was to make a bee-line to one of the two most popular regulars of TUM. In terms of hype and popularity the #1 booth would have to be the taco slinging crew at La Carnita Ltd.. Coming in close second would be the Mexican fusion cuisine offered up by the guys at Comida Del Pueblo. After quickly scouting out the layout and lines we decided to get into the relatively shorter line at Comida Del Pueblo, and boy was I glad we did.
The first of many items we tried this evening was the Jalapeño cornbread grilled cheese with guacamole and crema fresca. This was highly recommended by many other blogs and I would say they didn’t oversell it. The cornbread was moist and added a great sweet heat to the sandwich. Combined with the guacamole and crema fresca there was a nice cooling effect that balanced the flavors.
Overall, this was delicious in its own right but also gets bonus points for originality (Iron Chef-style) because it is a great reinvention of a classic. This became the benchmark of the entire night for us in the savory category and very few items came close.
For dessert we had the panqueque de manzana with green apple atole chorizo toffee. I have to admit, I’m a huge sucker for any dessert with apples and toffee flavors, so this instantly jumped off the menu board when I saw it. I didn’t even realize it was going to be a crepe until I saw them prepare it in front of me. There was a crumble of candied chorizo sprinkled on top of the crepe and this was my favorite part of the dish. The crunch and the salt of the chorizo was a great balance to the sweetness of the melted sugar sauce. Inside were pieces of apple which also helped to cut down on the sweetness of the dish. It was delicately topped with fresh-cut herbs which actually added a lemony flavor as well. I was later told that it was lemon balm, go figure!
As I said before I’m a sucker for apples so I had to also give the hot Jamaican cider from Comida Del Pueblo a try. It was a great way to wash down their other offerings with classic cinnamon spices but also some other type of hotter spice that I couldn’t put my finger on.
Next stop was the nearby booth of The Backyard kitchen for their banana beignets. They had three sauces on offer and the server recommended the mango coulis but wanting to try a bit of everything we got some of each. I wish we had listened to her as the mango was clearly the best of the sauces and it was overwhelmed by the chocolate whenever they mingled. The banana itself tasted fresh but tended to be the predominate flavor of each bite with the batter not making much of an appearance.
We then hit Merguez house to try an authentic Moroccan dessert called almond briwat, with crushed almonds and rose-water pastry dipped in honey. These were great small sweet bites that were sticky with honey (in a good way). Very tasty and I appreciated the size of these items because stomach real estate was a limiting factor the entire evening. To drink I had to try the fresh mint green tea, a classic Moroccan street beverage. The light mint taste went great with the sweet bites.
Continuing on our sugar rush we went to The Lunch Room to try more sweets. Another huge weakness of mine is creme brûlée. If you put that on a dessert menu I’m usually sold right on the spot. So of course I had to give The Lunch Room’s blue lavender and rose petal black tea creme brûlée served with lemon shortbread a go. The “creme” section was silky smooth and had a subtle hints of the black tea flavors. I’m always a big fan of fire and showmanship so I really did enjoy the enthusiasm with which they charred up the sugar-coating on my brûlée. The cookies were a nice touch, not overly buttery like some Scottish short breads. I ended up using it as an impromptu spoon to mix it all up.
We also tried their fresh smokey marshmallow s’more with homemade graham crackers, dark chocolate and smoked Maldon sea salt. The homemade graham crackers more closely resembled gingerbread cookies and had a delicious toasted marshmallow that was high on the gooey-factor. The cookies were thick and flavorful which overpowered the marshmallow and chocolate, making me wish that they had served these as an open-faced cookie to showcase the fillings more.
After all these dessert items we decided to change gears and switch back to more of the savory items. First up was Jeff’s empanadas. Their simple sign didn’t provide any indication of fillings but we dove in any way. From what I gathered the main ingredient was chicken with potatoes, sweet potatoes and mushrooms as well as a great blend of seasonings which I couldn’t put a finger on if you paid me to. The pastry was soft and I loved the sweetness of the sweet potatoes compared to the spices.
While enjoying our empanadas we bumped into a couple of friends who highly recommended the samosas from Mama Nashi’s Indian Fare. Running low on stomach space we opted to split a beef samosa. I have to say that these were the best samosas I’ve ever had, hands down. The meat was juicy and perfectly spiced, the shell had a strong crunch and was not at all greasy. They also offered a variety of sauces but by recommendation from the server we paired the beef with lemon juice and it was perfect. This was one of the big winners for small bites at the show. I didn’t personally take the chance to try the other two flavors (vegan and chicken) but heard great things about them as well. On offer were also small bags of samosa chips, which were simply samosa shells bagged to-go.
We bumped into a few more friends over at Elle Cuisine and I managed to grab a bite of the duck confit hash with soft poached egg & smoked tomato ketchup off one of their plates. This could be the winner of greatest bang for your buck – for only $6 you get a large plate of hash and a perfectly cooked egg which oozes yolk all over everything making it super rich and decadent. The crispy duck confit pieces sprinkled around the dish were rich in flavor and added texture as well. Not that it needed any more flavours, the homemade ketchup was zesty and suited it perfectly. This was voted by a friend as a favorite item at the show!
Nearing the end of our evening and capacity of our bellies we decided to venture outside into the drizzle to experience the campfire and headed right to the wood fired pizzas. The rain had nearly erased their entire board so I wasn’t able to gather the name of who was making our pizza, but I was able to figure out that we were ordering – a margarita pizza with fresh basil. The crust was the star of the show and had a ton of flavor. This was possibly one of the best handmade crusts I’ve ever had, including some slices I tried in Italy! Authentic wood fire taste is always a favorite of mine as well so it wasn’t hard to win me over here. The only thing lacking was a bit more flavor in the sauce and cheese to compliment the great crust.
The VERY last bite I was able to eat the entire night was the cedar flavored marshmallow and I’m very glad I tried it. It was highly original and really an interesting take on homemade marshmallows. It was toasted to order and I overheard the server describing how his Home Depot blow torch was his favorite kitchen tool. I can see why! The best way to describe this unique confection is to imagine sticking your face into a freshly cut Christmas tree and deeply breathing it all in. It brought back memories of taking in a cold tree off the porch and setting it up with family in front of the fireplace. This comes in close as the best value of the whole show at only a dollar.
Overall, the Toronto Underground Market was a great event that I’m glad I had a chance to experience before the end of the year. We all filled up for about $25 each so as far as a night out to dinner goes it didn’t break the bank. I can’t wait until the next one! Maybe then it won’t be cold and raining…
Top items (that I tried):