In a city that prides itself on being one of the most multi-cultural in the world, it’s laughable to think that it’s difficult to find authentic Canadian foodstuffs in Toronto. From balut to yak milk, grape leaves to berebere spice, somewhere in the small ethnically-oriented neighbourhoods of our city, foreign food items can be found. Yet when it comes to classic Canadian dishes, it’s easier to book a flight to Halifax than it is to find an authentic version of an east coast favourite like the donair.
Those who are unfamiliar with the experience of stumbling drunkenly to the infamous “pizza corner” in the wee hours of a Halifax night to gorge on that city’s most beloved street food might not understand that a donair is not the same as a gyro. Same premise, yes, but many differences.
The meat is different (beef for donairs versus lamb for gyros); the donair sauce, made with evaporated milk, sugar, garlic powder and vinegar bears only visual resemblance to the traditional tzatziki-based gyro sauce, and I’ve seen people come to fisticuffs over the addition of toppings beyond the de rigeur diced raw onions and tomatoes.
Personally, my cravings are satisfied at home as I have the original recipe from the first donair shop in Halifax. But I’ve often felt bad for my fellow Torontonians; lined up at street meat carts at 2am, I know they’d enjoy a donair so much more.
Unfortunately, as far as I can tell, there just isn’t anyone offering a decent donair in downtown Toronto. In fact, I could find only two places offering the things at all, and I wouldn’t go back to either one of them again.
The first is actually a donut shop. Prime Time Donuts (100 Adelaide Street West) used to be a Greco Pizza location (an east coast pizza chain known for the creation of the donair pizza), and while they no longer offer pizza, they do have a sign out front boasting east coast style donairs. The shop is around the corner from a bike courier dispatch, and getting in requires climbing over the wheels of bikes left on the sidewalk, and passing through clouds of marijuana smoke. Which would be fine, if the donair was decent.
Technically, Prime Time makes the more authentic donair. The meat has been properly shaved off the upright rotisserie slab, the sauce is appropriately sweet and tangy, the raw onion and tomato are diced. The bread is wrong – it’s a puffy Greek-style pita instead of the flat Lebanese version, and it could use a lot more sauce, but if it was made fresh, it would be a decent contender.
Note those words – “if it was made fresh”. I enter Prime Time Donuts to find a pair of pre-made donairs in a glass display case on some kind of donair-go-round. I’m hoping they’re for display only, but when the gal behind the counter asks me if I want “regular or extra meat”, she pulls my selection from that same donair circus ride – and puts it in the microwave!!! Noooooooo!!!
See, beside the obvious contrast of earthy, spicy meat and sweet and tangy sauce, the other beautiful thing about the donair is the contrast between hot and cold. Warm bread and meat topped with cool fresh onions and tomatoes, and then huge dollops of cold, fluffy sauce (the evaporated milk is chilled to near-freezing and then whipped). All of these elements must be in balance to make the donair properly.
Now my tomatoes are hot and mushy, the bread is soggy because the donair has been sitting for who-knows-how-long already sauced, and the sauce has deflated and separated.
It would have been decent – if it had been fresh.
The other downtown donair option makes their sandwiches fresh, but plays fast and loose with technique and ingredients. I head to College Falafel (450 Ossington Avenue) on the recommendation that it’s the most authentic donair I’ll find in the city. There’s even a copy of a Toronto Star column by Jennifer Bain in the window when I arrive, praising the authenticity.
I order the “Halifax-style donair (gyro)” off the menu board, but already the “gyro” bit has me worried. Presumably at some point the meat was cooked on the traditional rotisserie but at College Falafel, the nice lady takes a pre-portioned amount and puts it on a flattop grill to heat it up. The authentic version of the donair is a decently healthy example of streetfood – the rotisserie allows most of the fat from the meat to drain off – so why on earth would you then take that meat and fry it? The result is hard, greasy strips of meat that are lacking in the spice department.
When putting the sandwich together, College Falafel uses a Lebanese-style pita. It’s whole wheat (it should be white) and gets split and opened, as if for falafels, instead of the normal “slap it and wrap it” method. I actually don’t mind this, as it helps to prevent sauce drippage. But what’s up with the sauce? She slips something on there that is whitish-beige in colour, which I suspect to be tahini-based. Then on top of the meat she adds sliced (not diced) tomatoes and onions, and then – sweet merciful crap – lettuce, tabouli salad and pickled cabbage.
“Sweet sauce?” I can only answer with an “uhh… sure,” because I’m playing dumb, but if this is the traditional sauce, what was that other stuff? It’s a miserly squirt, not a fluffy dollop, and when I get it outside to the sidewalk tables, it’s all sweet with no tang. What College Falafel actually makes is something more akin to a shwarma with sweet sauce.
I wish I had more downtown options to share, but sadly, that’s it. Even the magic Google machine brings up no other alternatives, unless I want to travel to Milton to Halifax Donair and Pizza – but even there, judging from the images on their website, the sliced (not diced) tomato and onion, as well as the offer to “add cheese” (wtf?) warn that they might be toying with tradition.
I’m alright for a donair fix. As mentioned, I’ve got the original recipe, and a visit home in August will allow me to get my fill of all the Halifax classics like donairs and fried clams (another thing you can never find in Toronto). But I really believe that Torontonians are missing out on the beauty of the authentic Halifax-style donair. Too bad there’s no one here serving it up and doing it justice.