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2005 06 17
The search for the sublime Toronto hamburger
imageIs there a Toronto hamburger? There is a Toronto hot-dog, a street meat far juicier than its more famous New York counterpart. But is there a Toronto hamburger? I’ve spent my sixteen years in Canada seeking out this holy grail of the grill. Blame for these misspent hours could be laid at the feet of the publishers of Archie Comics which, read by this blossoming gourmand at an early age, bore into my imagination the impression of Jughead devouring a stack of hamburgers at Pop’s. So it was that when I immigrated to Toronto from Johannesburg, I was hell-bent on realizing my Jugheadian ideal.

My search began at the big, iconic chains: McDonalds; Burger King. While still in South Africa I was forewarned by a worldlier friend that McDonalds mixed sawdust into their patties, so I was predisposed to dislike them. Furthermore, this icon of the American sandwich disappointed in every respect – biting into my first one was akin to discovering the Statue of Liberty is in real life the same inch and half tall as it is on a keyring.

Thank you then to my hosts during my first Toronto summer of 1989 for taking me to Licks at Yonge and Eglinton. The visit changed my life. With a song on their lips, the pimply teens staffing the grill and counter of that friendly midtown burger joint showed me that a hamburger is indeed a special thing, and a special Toronto thing at that. Several stars align to make the Licks burger one of my favourites to this day: the “guck”, the array of fresh toppings (sadly though alfalfa sprouts have fallen victim to e-coli paranoia), and naturally, the all-beef, fresh, juicy, thick patty.

Torontonians love their hamburgers, and despite the plethora of awful, fatty, cooked-from-frozen patties offered up by the city's multitude of sports bars and crummy pubs, there exists for the seeker a solid school of artisanal hamburgers. Some purveyors of these delights have fallen victim to hard times, gentrification, and other exigencies of life in the big city – they exist only as hamburgers remembered. Others thrive, and I keep returning to make sure they’ve still got it.

One of the mythical burgers of yesteryear was sold at a joint on Yonge Street across, just south of Davenport. The owners were from North Africa, perhaps Morocco, and their hamburgers were sublime. I can’t remember the name of the place, but I used to go there when I worked as a student architect across the street. The patty was suffused with an aromatic blend of North African spices and was garnished with a peppered mayonnaise concoction that was surely piped straight from heaven. Does anybody else remember these miracle workers, or were they just a dream I had?

My Toronto today is a galaxy of solar systems, each with a stellar burger at its centre. College West orbits Utopia; Queen East, Dangerous Dan’s; Harbord, The Boulevard Café; Yonge and Dundas, The Senator; the Danforth, Allens. If I enter any of these neighbourhoods, these hamburger stars exert a strong gravitational pull, and I fly towards them ignoring as I go the dozens of fine restaurants streaking by – Ethiopian, Greek, Portuguese, Chinese, Italian. There are days in Toronto when only a burger will do. There are nights when as I drift off to sleep I imagine the Rogers Centre is a giant hamburger, cordoned off from throngs of thousands, as I devour it bite by bite.

[email this story] Posted by Lewis Poplak on 06/17 at 03:44 PM

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