This is Toronto’s hottest new destination for steak sandwiches

This is Toronto’s hottest new destination for steak sandwiches

Bear Steak Sandwiches has been attracting lineups since it opened in November

A person uses a ladle to scoop chimichurri onto a steak sandwich

Like everyone else, friends Aki Erenberg and Ricardo Barrientos missed hanging out with their pals during the pandemic. So, in June of 2020, when indoor gatherings were still not permitted, the two held a barbecue with a handful of their buds in the backyard of Barrientos’s parents’ home in Little Italy. It was a sunny day, everyone was excited to do some socially distanced socializing and Barrientos busied himself grilling flank steak to a perfect medium-rare in the breezeway. Inside, he mixed up his homemade chimichurri, destined to top the steak in the first edition of what would eventually become something of a sandwich phenomenon.

The owners of Toronto's Bear Steak Sandwiches stand outside of their shop
Barrientos (left) and Erenberg

“I watched him finely chop parsley, grate garlic and stir olive oil into this gorgeous vibrant concoction,” says Erenberg. “I was a little hesitant about the parsley, since I’m not a huge fan of it, but the moment he smeared it on a juicy piece of steak and made me try it, I was hooked. I knew it was something special.”

At that time, neither Erenberg nor Barrientos had experience in the food industry—until recently, Erenberg worked in interior design and Barrientos held a government job. But, about a year after that initial get-together, still riding the wave of that perfect bite, they masked up and held a tiny pop-up out of that same backyard, serving a few dozen steak sandwiches to friends and family. Then they started advertising on Instagram and got themselves a Square site. After local media got a hold of the story, they could barely keep up with demand.

People mill about on the sidewalk outside of Bear Steak Sandwiches in Toronto

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Appetite for their steak sandwiches increased every week. With sharper chops and some new equipment, they held sold-out pop-ups every Sunday from June to August of 2021. “At that point, we weren’t even trying to turn a profit,” says Erenberg. “It was just a cool way to spend time on weekends. But we knew there was something here, so we focused on increasing production week after week.”

At the tail end of 2021, they did a short stint at Chef’s Hall in the Richmond-Adelaide Centre, and it got them thinking seriously about opening up their own location. They spent a year and a half hunting for the right spot, and last July, they finally found it—a 280-square-foot shop just steps from the backyard where their sandwich operation was born.

A person slices strips of steak

Steak and roast pork sandwiches in takeout containers

They opened last November to snaking lines, and when we popped by in early February, there were still people spilling out the door and onto the sidewalk. The shop serves only two main items. First, there’s the OG steak sandwich—flank steak, cooked sous vide to medium-rare and seared to finish, served on a fluffy bun from Golden Wheat Bakery and topped with house-made chimichurri. With a base of fruity extra-virgin olive oil, verdant parsley (no cilantro) and just the right hit of garlic and chili flakes, it sets off the meat without upstaging it. They also sell it by the jar for topping sandwiches, eggs or anything else that could use a herbaceous bite.

A person uses tongs to put slices of steak on a bun

A person holds a steak sandwich

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Second, there’s the South Philly–inspired pork sandwich. It’s made with pork shoulder that’s slow-roasted overnight and topped with sharp provolone and sautéed rapini on a sesame Vienna roll from Tre Mari Bakery. It comes with a cup of rich, deeply flavourful jus for drizzling or dunking. While these two sandwiches make up the core menu, customers can look out for monthly specials, including a recent collaboration with lawyer-by-day, chef-by-night Dan Seidman that featured his signature burger patty and chimichurri-spiked mayo.

A person uses a ladle to add a scoop of chopped up rapini to a roast pork sandwich

A person dunks a roast pork sandwich into a container of jus

Assuming demand keeps up (and right now, all signs point to yes), the pair plans to open a second location as early as this year. But the goal is to keep the selection tight and maintain quality. Nothing is going on the menu unless it’s as good as—or better than—their current hits.

As for their transition from desk jobs to the restaurant industry, Erenberg and Barrientos are still riding the high. “Even though we work longer hours than before, we feel invigorated,” says Erenberg. “We have renewed energy from building this name from scratch and creating something so many people enjoy. Seeing the happiness on people’s faces when they try a sandwich for the first time? That’s what keeps us going.”

Bear Steak Sandwiches, 550 College St., unit A,, @bearsteaksandwiches

A menu board hangs on the wall at Bear Steak Sandwiches

T-shirts hang on the wall of Bear Steak Sandwiches, a sandwich shop in Toronto

A sign with a picture of a bear holding a steak sandwich hangs outside of Bear Steak Sandwiches in Toronto