In one of my more extreme examples of travelling for food, once or twice a year I’d take the subway from Don Mills station to Queen station, then ride the 501 streetcar all the way past High Park to get to the Cheese Boutique to buy cheese and charcuterie. It was a four-hour round trip on transit.
My outdoor excursions are now mostly limited to my neighbourhood in the northeast corner of North York near Fairview Mall. They will be limited even more so now with another lockdown announced Friday by Ontario Premier Doug Ford. I’ve lived here with my family for 30 years but mostly treated my neighbourhood like a hotel, only returning to sleep and checking out as soon as the sun came up.
But amid the COVID-19 pandemic I’ve reacquainted myself with my neighbourhood, getting most of my takeout from the handful of family-run spots at the Victoria-Van Horne Plaza, a mid-sized plaza at the corner of Van Horne and Victoria Park Aveunes, right where North York ends and Scarborough begins, and a 15-minute walk from my house.
I now lament not coming here more regularly before the pandemic, and I encourage everyone to get a better look at their local strip malls and plazas if they haven’t already.
“Plazas are gold,” said Howard Tam who runs Eat More Scarborough Food Tours. “Some of the best places to eat are in these nondescript plazas that’s not on the big main streets. The plazas might not be architectural marvels, but one thing they’ll excel at is the food. The rent isn’t as high compared to downtown so that allows more room to just focus on the food and innovate on dishes.”
Tam, who will be hosting a free virtual food tour of Lawrence Avenue East on Nov. 26, also noticed that over the years, a lot of the big fast food chains in strip mall plazas have been replaced by independent restaurants or regional chains that better reflect the multicultural makeup of Scarborough.
He points out that a longstanding Harvey’s at Sheppard Avenue East and Kennedy Road is now one of two GTA locations of Filipino food chain Jesse Jr., while the Mr. Sub across the street is now a Chinese seafood restaurant.
The Victoria-Van Horne Plaza near my house is distict due to its shingled roofs that indicate it’s definitely from another era.
Its owner, Schickedanz Developments, took over this patch of land in December 1968 and tenants starting moving in by 1970. The developers took out an ad in the Star in September 1971 looking for more stores to fill out the plaza. Under four large dollar signs read, “The Victoria-Van Horne Plaza is a money maker. It has the potential to make you RICH,” the word “rich” written in extra big, all-caps letters.
Today, there’s a fence blocking off one corner of the parking lot where a Sunoco gas station my dad used to visit to refill the propane gas tank for backyard barbecues once stood. The plaza is anchored by a Value Village, which to my best recollection used to be either an A&P or Dominion supermarket when I was a kid in the ’90s.
I wrote about the plaza last year when I looked into the origin of one of the food spots that I always passed by but never went into: John Anderson Hamburgers.
It turns out it was the original location of a burgeoning burger chain in the ’80s, started by a former Leafs player of the same name. It switched hands a few times and is now owned by Yeong Hwan Kim who took it over from a relative in 2013.
When the citywide shutdown started in March, I returned to John Anderson, getting my now-usual order of a banquet burger (no lettuce), a poutine and a can of cream soda, though sometimes I’d skip the soda and go to the adjacent Circle K and treat myself to a neon blue slushie.
Every time I would ask Kim how business has been he’d shrug and make a wave with his arm like a roller-coaster, saying that sales are down because the students at the nearby schools haven’t been coming in.
His eyes did light up on a recent visit though, as he asked me to try a new menu item: a bulgogi burger he started adding to the menu on Uber Eats. I asked him to put it in a pita. The thinly sliced beef is marinated just right and there is nary a bit of gristle. The pita soaked up the juices and I inhaled the whole thing in minutes.
As I started to post pictures on social media of my food from John Anderson, friends would ask about the other food places at the plaza.
I didn’t expect the plaza to be known to people who live outside the area, but a surprising number of people I know have gotten takeout from here. A fellow food writer told me to check out the empanadas at the Uruguayan bakery, and the owner of a nearby gym told me I’m missing out by not going to the Greek takeout spot.
“Most people come here by referrals because they’ve had our desserts and cakes at a party before,” said Jonathan Silvera, who opened MarJo Bakery with his sister Maria in August 2018. “We also have regulars who have been in this neighbourhood for a long time and they’d tell us what used to be here.”
The corner bakery is tiny, but sells a bit of everything from around the world: bread loaves, French macarons, Portuguese natas, tender alfajores, frozen lasagnas and fat empanadas with fillings such as spicy beef, ham and cheese, and spinach and ricotta.
Silvera tells me to keep an eye out for chaja, a Uruguayan peach meringue cake that sometimes makes an appearance behind the counter.
Next door is China China Express, serving Chinese-Canadian staples like egg rolls, chop suey, spare ribs and egg foo young. I come here when I have a hankering for a big cardboard box of chicken balls and that gooey, translucent red dipping sauce to bring back memories of my late grandpa taking the family to China Buffet King or the Mandarin for his birthday.
There’s also Mama’s Greek Cuisine, one of the newer spots, opened in March 2019 by Vivian Papathanasiou and her husband Vageli Floros.
Papathanasiou and her mother do the cooking, sticking to popular mainstays like souvlaki dinners and spanakopita, along with a few items like kokkinisto (veal stew) and soutzoukakia (meatballs) you likely won’t see at the mall food court.
“I’ve been cooking from the age of 10. I never worked in a restaurant, but all day I cook for my family, my three kids, so why not do something I love doing?” Papathanasiou said.
Similar to Silvera, Papathanasiou invites me to come back later for her specialty, the moussaka, which is only available on Fridays and Saturdays. For now I’m still thinking of the chicken souvlaki dinner that I couldn’t finish in one sitting, and the extra garlicky tzatziki that I could still taste hours later.
Lastly, at another smaller plaza just south of Victoria-Van Horne Plaza, behind the Value Village, the Japanese-owned, long-standing Aoyama sushi restaurant is known for its omakase and is considered a hidden plaza gem. It’s where I’ve been going when I want to treat myself to sashimi or a big container of unagi don.
The restaurant also has the most charming Instagram account with content spanning from menu specials to wholesome pranks its two young staffers play on each other (like hiding wasabi in a Timbit and trying to guess if a glass is filled with coffee or soy sauce).
The pandemic kept me in North York, but it made me get to know the people that make up my neighbourhood.
If there is a plaza, strip mall or even a corner store where you live that you’ve passed by many times but never stopped to check out, now is the time. Who knows what sorts of tasty meals you’ve been missing out on all along?