Street Wise: how spots like Hanmoto and Lucky Red are bringing the pleasures of Asian street food indoors
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There are two types of cities in the world: those with terrific street food and those without. For most of its life, Toronto, land of the boiled hot dog cart, has been without. No doner kebabs, huaraches, chicken ’n’ waffles, bhel puri, gruyère and ham crêpes, curry puffs, or octopus stews for us. City hall is downright hostile to food truck operators, who are required to pay $5,000 for a permit and park a minimum of 30 metres away from bricks-and-mortar restaurants, and then for only up to five hours a day. But matters are improving. We have summer street festivals like Night It Up (happening later next month), where 120 food and trinket vendors set up in a Markham parking lot, and you can try that peculiarly enrapturing Taiwanese oddity, stinky tofu. And a bunch of entrepreneurial Toronto chefs are opening restaurants that serve street food–style dishes indoors. Technically, anything you eat under a roof doesn’t count as street food, but I’d argue the term loosely applies when your meal doesn’t require utensils and you’re encouraged to use condiments—the spicier the better. Many of these street food restaurants only open for dinner and don’t really fill up until late—they’re adjuncts to the bar scene. You perch on a stool, which isn’t so terrible when you’re usually done and gone in under an hour. They serve the kind of stuff I crave in the moment, on a hot summer night.
The best of these places tend to be run by second- or third-generation Asian immigrants who riff on classic street food like bao, skewered meats and deep-fried everything. Mean Bao, a punkish food stand in the Village by the Grange, next door to the AGO, opened a Bathurst and Queen location last year, where they make bao stuffed with pulled pork and sloppy joe–style meat until 11 p.m. on weekends. Hawker Bar on Ossington (hawkers are street food vendors in Malaysia and Singapore) recently expanded to two levels and serves food until 2 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays and 11 p.m. on other nights. I usually order the deep-fried tofu rolled in lip-searing chili salt and a bowl of Singapore noodles with tiger prawns, then end with red bean ice cream and a banana fritter. Occasionally they’ll have my favourite, a special of Malaysian-style stingray slathered in a fish paste and chili sambal, wrapped in banana leaves and grilled until the thin layer of meat is smoky-sweet.
A few years ago, David, Peter and Philip Chau, the 30-something sons of the couple behind the Spadina Vietnamese sub shop Nguyên Hu’o’ng, opened their own, trendier takeout restaurant on Queen. They called it Banh Mi Boys, and updated the family recipes with pulled pork and duck confit. Last summer, when the store next door to their parents’ place became available, they took it over, opening another street food–focused spot called Lucky Red. The menu, dominated by steamed bao folded over pork belly or cheesesteak, didn’t immediately take, and before I got to try the place, it closed. Then, this past spring, it reopened with an emphasis on late-night snacking and the advantage of a liquor licence.
The Chaus don’t take reservations, and there’s usually a queue of artsy couples waiting at the door or milling around the bar, clinking Mason jar mugs of the house cocktail, a dark and stormy laced with Ribena. The place has amped-up energy, bouncing along to a soundtrack of Tribe and De La Soul, and orders fly at a frantic pace from the open kitchen. The cooks are speedy but skilled: they make a terrific spicy fried chicken and a magnificently multi-textural Vietnamese version of arancini, the golden rice balls zigzagged with mayo and topped with a twitching nest of bonito flakes. They kept a few bao on the menu, including the “hambaoger”—Korean-style beef, cheddar, gouda, mayo and pickles in a plush steamed bun. It’s seriously tasty, an ideal late summer snack with a bottle of Blanche de Chambly. For dessert, they lightly fry a bao and sandwich it with Nutella, torched marshmallow and crushed graham crackers—a s’more bao.
Leemo and Leeto Han, also brothers, are the original kingpins of Toronto Asian street food. They were born here in the early ’80s but grew up in Philadelphia, and bring to their restaurants a tattooed-sleeves-and-bucket-hat swagger. Leemo is the chef (he trained at Edo and Omi), while Leeto runs the front of house and oversees drinks. Last year, they sold Swish by Han, their new-wave Korean restaurant on Wellington, to devote full attention to their Ossington snack food spot, Oddseoul. It’s more bar than restaurant and more scene than substance. In my experience, the greeter always seems put out when you ask how long the wait will be (usually an eternity). For decoration, they have defunct boom boxes and Rambo posters. The menu showcases a meeting of Korean and American flavours, which sometimes succeeds, as it does in their oozing Philly cheesesteak made with bulgogi beef and kimchee. It can also result in dishes that are cool on paper but less pleasant to consume, like a chili-fired stew of enoki mushrooms, kielbasa and cubed Spam.
This past January, Leemo opened a solo spot, an izakaya named Hanmoto. It’s a short walk north, at Lakeview and Dundas, and the entrance is unmarked. The secretiveness contributes to a clubby quality, as does the tiny room. The place has the Hans’ now-trademark junk shop look, with mismatched vintage metal chairs, a sign reading “Prescriptions” over the bar and a maraschino cherry can serving as a pot for an orchid.
Maybe because it’s so intimate, or maybe because it’s simply a better place, I’ve fallen hard for Hanmoto. The drinks list is short but thoughtful (Asahi on tap, quality sake, and cocktails made with shiso leaf, kaffir lime–infused vodka and Asian pear), as is the menu, which Leemo divided, izakaya-style, into cold and hot dishes. The food is meant for snacking and sharing, nothing costing more than $18 (for six oysters dressed with ponzu and pickled chilies). Everyone raves about the Dyno Wings, which are stuffed with spicy pork and rice, deep-fried and served in a takeout box. I especially enjoyed the coating of peppery tare sauce, and admire the finicky work that went into partially deboning and shaping each wing. I was more impressed by a tartare of fantastically fresh hamachi, and by the nasu dengaku—Japanese eggplant charred until the flesh is creamy, the length of it covered in a crunchy, burgundy fuzz of finely shredded deep-fried beets. As at the best izakayas, the chef maintains a healthy disregard for dieters. Prime example: a sandwich of roasted, super-fatty pork belly, coated in soy remoulade, barely contained by a coco bun. It’s so rich I needed some vegetables—charred okra topped with bonito flakes had to suffice.
The only letdown was the Salmon Face—Leemo’s stunt-plate equivalent of the pig face that appeared not long ago on hipster charcuterie menus. Our server promised the fish was a revelation. What arrived at the table was a mountain of ginger- and chili-dressed slaw, through which we had to dig to find the salmon. The head (half, to be precise, along with a couple of inches of collar) had been roasted, the skin nice and crisp, but there wasn’t much flesh to speak of, and what there was of it was drenched in the slaw’s dressing. More work than reward.
My last time at Hanmoto, I sat facing the bar and its backlit prescription sign. My dinner date was late (she couldn’t find the entrance), and the bartender, after taking my order, told me he was feeling the effects of jet lag from a trip to Tokyo. He visits at least once a year, researching ingredients. He’s always thrown by the range of food you can buy on the street, he said—there’s nothing like it anywhere. He slid me a frothy, tart elixir of cherry-flavoured egg white and cherry-infused Bulleit, with a bourbon-soaked sour cherry speared on a stir stick. I nodded along to his story, and sipped. There are certain advantages to eating indoors.