Miles of Aisles

The future of grocery shopping is here—and it means sprawling spaces, cult-favourite products and even a 10,000-square-foot playground

Grocery shopping at the city’s new supersize supermarkets can be an all-day (in a good way!) affair. Here, a look inside Nations Experience (pictured above), Seafood City and Farm Boy—and what to buy at each of them.

Nations Experience

1980 St. Clair Ave. W., 416-767-5888, nationsfreshfoods.ca

When Target closed its Canadian stores in 2015, it left a megastore-sized hole in the heart of Stock Yards Village, the Junction’s sprawling shopping centre. Until Nations Fresh Foods, a Woodbridge-based chain, swooped in and filled the space with a store three times the size of its other locations. Here, shelves and bins are filled with all manner of hard-to-find imported goods, putting every other supermarket’s international aisle to shame: silkie chickens, aloe leaves, horchata concentrate, cucumber-flavoured Lays, frozen durian pulp and every kind of instant ramen imaginable. But that’s not all: Nations also boasts a food court, gazebo-shaped party rooms available for rent, a kids-only play area and an arcade (for both kids and the young at heart). It’s equal parts grocery store, dining destination and amusement park—and it’s spectacular.

Size

155,000 square feet.

Eat this

Hungry shoppers can snack on ready-made dim sum, Chinese barbecue (including whole ducks), sushi, teppanyaki and—because the chain’s motto is “Where east meets west”—pizza and griddle-smashed burgers, too.

Special departments

A semi-enclosed live-seafood department, and a constantly restocked produce counter where at least one employee is continuously cleaning and trimming bunches of leafy Asian greens.

Over-the-top extras

Tots-in-tow can let loose in the Happy Kingdom, a 10,000-square-foot play place with slides, ball pits and climbing structures, while shoppers of all ages will have just as much fun in the 135-game arcade—complete with a prize counter. Who even needs groceries?

Buy these

The beverage aisle is stocked with all kinds of imported drinks, like this bottle of sweet black coffee from Thailand:


You’ll find oodles of instant noodles here, including Japanese ramen in flavours like Kagoshima Berkshire black pork:


An impressive section of Latin American goods includes guava paste, tripe soup, Jarritos galore and this tapioca starch:


One aisle is devoted to international hot sauces, including habanero, hot mango, chili crisp and sambal oelek, to name a few:

More on Nations Experience

Seafood City

Heartland Town Centre, 800 Boyer Blvd., Mississauga, 289-334-3380, seafoodcity.com

Seafood City opened in Mississauga in 2017, becoming the first Canadian outpost of the Filipino-American supermarket chain, which has grown to more than two dozen locations throughout the United States since 1989. But it’s far more than a place to stock up on lumpia and longganisa—or even ocean critters, as the name suggests. It’s also an immersive culinary experience with its own pilgrimage-worthy food court, home to hunger-inducing options like Grill City (flame-grilled meats and fish), Noodle Street (a palace of pancit) and Crispy Town (deep-fried everything). There’s also a selection of self-serve street-food kiosks and Valerio’s Tropical Bakeshop, where they make fresh salted-egg bibingka, coconut-stuffed pan de coco and other Filipino staples. It’s the rare supermarket where eating might be more central to the experience than the shopping itself.

Size

50,000 square feet.

Eat this

You can barely get past the main entrance before spotting the glass-fronted grill room of Grill City, where these crispy foot-long chicken and pork skewers are brushed with a savoury-sweet glaze and put to the flame en masse.

Special departments

The seafood department is dominated by a huge serve-yourself ice table strewn with fresh, whole fish rarely found elsewhere in these parts: there’s pompano, milkfish, manini and moonfish, among others.

Over-the-top extras

Seafood City also has a Jollibee, the Filipino fast-food chain best known for its buckets of fried chicken, pineapple-topped Aloha burgers, sweet spaghetti, addictive peach-mango pies—and for the persistent throngs of Jollibee die-hards willing to line up for the goods.

Buy these

This “all-purpose” sauce is, in our opinion, best for one specific purpose: making rich cuts of meat taste even better:


Ice cream comes in a literal rainbow of flavours, including ube-coconut, fruity halo-halo, creamy mango and jackfruit:


The snack supply is second to none, with chips and cheese curls in flavours such as pizza, prawn, sweet corn and even chocolate:


These salt-and-vinegar-flavoured bits of fried pork belly are, as one might imagine, alarmingly addictive:

Farm Boy

1005 Lake Shore Blvd E., 416-469-0757; 841 Brown’s Line, 416-253-9379, farmboy.ca

Border-hopping foodies have practically memorized the route to the Trader Joe’s in Buffalo, the closest source for the cult-favourite grocer’s revered store-brand goods. But that trip might no longer be necessary, because Farm Boy, an Ottawa-based chain, opened an Etobicoke location last year, and another at Lake Shore and Leslie in late January. It’s a similar jumbo gourmet shop, with its own 500-and-growing private-label line of quirky, clever condiments, dips, chips, cookies, flatbreads, Italian sodas, kombucha, gelati and scores of other products you didn’t know you needed, precisely positioned for impulse purchasing. It’s not a one-stop shop—you can’t stock up on paper towels, dog food or diapers here—and that’s by design: the focus is entirely on food, including a section of neatly organized, picture-perfect produce and a cheese counter stacked 400 deep.

Size

20,000 square feet.

Eat this

The pizzas, made-to-order in stone ovens imported from Italy, are cracker thin and decked out in toppings like thick pepperoni cups and a notably tangy tomato sauce.

Buy these

Garlic flowers are like a pungent pesto—acidic, earthy and an instant flavour jolt slathered on steak, lamb or grilled bread:


Creamy pimento cheese has a touch of bite and works as a party dip or as the filling in a classic Southern sandwich:


A spoonful of this spicy Italian bomba (and it is indeed spicy) adds fireworks to any bowl of red-sauce pasta:


This perfectly balanced five-ingredient lemon-garlic dressing is just like homemade—but way less effort:


When frozen pizza is played out, one of these leek-and-cheese-stuffed Balkan bureks is a smart thing to stash in the freezer:


There’s a whole line of artisanal gelato, but the salted peanut and caramel flavour is uniquely rich and creamy, with just a hint of savoury:


It might not thrill heat seekers, but this “not too” hot sauce is ideal for adding a bit of zing without overwhelming the flavour of a dish:

More on Farm Boy

This story originally appeared in the March 2019 issue of Toronto Life magazine. To subscribe, for just $24 a year, click here.