6 posts tagged with “dining out”

  • Last of the Strip Mall Gems: Readers’ Choices

    A spread at Hibachi Café in St. Catharines.

    Strip Mall Gems is a series of Eating Niagara, my column that runs in the St. Catharines Standard, Niagara Falls Review and Welland Tribune. This is my final instalment in the series and includes readers’ choices.

    It was about a year ago at this time that I walked into a burrito joint in a Niagara Falls strip mall, looking for lunch.

    I was there on chef Michael Olson’s recommendation and held out high hopes for my sweet potato wrap at a place that was nothing if not intriguing. It was Don Wong’s Mexican Asian Food Mart.

    How could I not be curious?

    As I waited for my order, I learned that owners Cyndi Wong-Lorenzo and Attilio Lorenzo had only been open three weeks. They moved to the region from Toronto, beckoned by a pace of life more meandering than big-city maniacal.

    Niagara Falls, where Lorenzo grew up, promised to be the perfect place to raise the couple’s own family. Their new takeout venture, a more multicultural riff on what they were doing in Toronto, would enable them to do it.

    As I took my first few bites of burrito, filled with generous pieces of sweet potato and splotches of guacamole, I wondered how many people were like these two, pinning their hopes on a shoebox space in those bastions of mundane urban architecture we call The Strip Mall.

    And how many of us just drive by, thinking ‘One day I’ll stop in’ or ‘I wonder if that place is any good?’

    My strip mall gems series was born at that moment.

    This past year, I stretched my freelancer’s bank balance and my waistline to tell the stories of some of Niagara’s dining treasures; some fancy, some no frills.

    They were stories of chefs trading in round-the-clock jobs in other people’s kitchens to put their own stamp on breakfast and lunch, and have time at night for their families.

    They were tales of people with plum day jobs packing them in to take a chance on a dream. Of new Canadians who longed for a taste of home and when they couldn’t find it, invited us to their tables to share their experiences and become part of their new communities through food.

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  • Peach Tree
  • St. Catharines dining scene mushrooms with Bolete

    Andrew McLeod of Bolete.

    My column, Eating Niagara, runs every second Wednesday in the St. Catharines Standard, Niagara Falls Review and Welland Tribune.

    My husband and I have a deal that he golfs and I forage.

    It’s worked out well for our marriage. So a few years ago when the opportunity arose to go mushroom hunting, I happily donned my Wellies and he his spikes.

    I returned with a haul of wild oyster mushrooms and the most beautiful ash bolete. I felt like the most clichéd kid in a candy store, or food geek in a forest.

    I also felt myself waver as I dumped my mushrooms onto my kitchen counter to make quiche.

    “What if my guide was having a bad day?” I worried as I brushed the dirt off that bolete. “Nah, surely he got this right,” I convinced myself as I pushed aside all thoughts of winning a Darwin Award — an honour no human wants.

    Still, I chopped slowly. Every twinge I felt in my gut for days after eating that mushroom pie prompted a mental edit of my final wishes.

    A few years later, Niagara chef Andrew McLeod found himself in a forest with a friend and their children, hours away from anything resembling civilization. His friend noticed something peeking from the ground under a tree.

    It was a bolete. At least he thought it was. A thorough scouring of their field guide and many questions asked of the Google gods left them fairly certain this was no evil, poisonous twin. They cooked it up and ate it, not sharing with their kids, just in case.

    So how did these stories end? McLeod went on to open a long-awaited restaurant in downtown St. Catharines named after that mushroom, and I lived to write a story about it. Lucky for you, especially because of Bolete, the restaurant.

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  • Peach Tree
  • Bakery a gluten-free haven in St. Catharines

    Jennifer Kuzyk of Edible Options, a gluten-free bakery in St. Catharines.

    Strip Mall Gems is a series of Eating Niagara, my column that runs in the St. Catharines Standard, Niagara Falls Review and Welland Tribune. This instalment is about Edible Options in St. Catharines.

    Jennifer Kuzyk’s eyes glistened as she put the final flourishes on a chocolate cake.

    It was stunning in its decadence — a beautiful mess of Toblerone, Turtles, popcorn, Kisses, 24 carat gold leaf and a Curly Wurly that took it from mere baked good to art.

    But that’s not what made the owner of Edible Options emotional.

    It was the trio of women at a nearby table in Kuzyk’s St. Catharines bakery that overwhelmed her. They were gabbing over coffee, sharing stories and treats in the shop that Kuzyk built.

    “I pinch myself when I think about what’s happening behind me. People are in my space, enjoying my baking. It’s like a dream,” Kuzyk said as she looked skyward in an effort to dam the tears. “They chose to come here instead of Starbucks. That’s pretty cool.”

    As a writer, I get it — the soul-baring and soul-bearing work of creating something for others to enjoy. And when they do enjoy it, it’s a relief that tricks you into wanting to do it again.

    Still, Kuzyk’s unfiltered emotion caught me off guard. If anyone could convince people to buck mass-produced treats from one of the world’s most popular coffee chains, it’s Kuzyk.

    The woman is formidable, not just for her cake decorating prowess but because of her tenacity in building a successful certified gluten-free bakery that, unless you asked, you’d never know eschewed that most reviled wheat protein.

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  • Peach Tree
  • Noodles draw oodles to Viet-Thai joint

    Kim Pham of Pho Xyclo.

    Strip Mall Gems is a series of Eating Niagara, my column that runs in the St. Catharines Standard, Niagara Falls Review and Welland Tribune. This instalment is about Pho Xyclo in Niagara Falls.

    You could call Kim Pham picky.

    After all, it’s how the Niagara Falls restaurateur will describe herself if asked.

    But then, you can’t build the city’s best Vietnamese eatery, according to crowd-sourced ratings, by being willy-nilly.

    Pham, who owns and operates Pho Xyclo (pronounced Feu Zicklow) with friend David Chau, is nothing short of exacting when it comes to turning out bowls of pho, the noodle soup slurped at street food stalls in Vietnamese villages and now beckoning Niagara locals to the restaurant’s home in a Dunn Street strip mall.

    Ditto for the stir-fried southeast Asian dishes that round out the menu at Pho Xyclo, named after the three-wheeled rickshaws weaving through the clogged streets of Ho Chi Minh City.

    Rather than order her vegetables from a restaurant supply company and risk them not being up to snuff, Pham heads to the grocery store every day to load up on peppers, cucumbers and lettuce.

    “That way I know how fresh it is. If it’s in a shipment, I don’t know how long it has been sitting there,” Pham insists.

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