WORDS BY DANI KUEPFER; PREAMBLE & PHOTOS BY CHRIS TIESSEN
OUR REGION IS VAST AND VARIED – AND INTERWOVEN WITH DIVERSE COMMUNITIES, CULTURES, AND FOODS. DELICIOUS, DELECTABLE, TANTALIZING FOODS. FOODS (AND FOOD INGREDIENTS) THAT, IN MANY CASES, CAN BE FOUND ONLY AT ONE OF OUR LOCAL INTERNATIONAL GROCERS. THESE DISTINCTIVE ENTERPRISES, WHICH ARE STREWN THROUGHOUT OUR REGION, ARE EASY TO SPOT – IF YOU’RE LOOKING. FOR THIS FEATURE, TOQUE WRITER DANI KUEPFER VISITS THREE OF THEM, AND REPORTS ON WHAT SHE FINDS.
‘Latin American food & the best tacos around.’
1120 Victoria St N, Kitchener
In my ongoing pursuit of the region’s best tacos, I find myself in a busy plaza along the bustling Victoria Street North corridor at the east side of Kitchener. America Latina, with its tidy storefront, is so much more than an independent food market. The shop stocks pantry staples and fresh foods from a variety of South and Central American origins – from Mexico to Colombia to Chile, and everywhere in between. But the real reason I’m here? Lunch.
If you’re not hungry already, you will be the moment you step inside America Latina. The smell of delicious food cooking and the inviting buzz of people eating and chatting fills the space. I am immediately transported to memories of warm evening wanders and late night street food.
What brings me here on this sunny afternoon is tacos, but, standing in front of the impressive menu, I’m willing to reconsider. The shop offers a variety of traditional latin street foods – each particular to their region of origin: Colombian empanadas, Mexican birria tacos, tamales in Salvadorian and Guatemalan varieties. I settle on pupusas, a stuffed tortilla that’s griddled and served with a pickled slaw and salsa roja. The national dish of El Salvador. The handheld flatbreads are generally filled with meats, cheese, or beans – although I suggest you indulge in all of the above and go for the America Latina Special – stuffed with jalapenos, beans, fried pork, and cheese. I also grab a version with loroco (a Central American wildflower with a bright, green flavour) plus an order of churros, and stroll the aisles while I wait for my food.
The rows are stocked with good stuff from across the continent. An endless variety of spices, coffees, quesos, and tortillas. Banana leaves and corn husks for tamales. Items I can never seem to get my hands on: ancho sauce, date syrups, tomatillos. A small army of hot sauces. And, of course, a sea of dried chiles – guajillos, morita, chipotle, pasilla.
While I explore the shelves, a steady stream of folks cycles through the food counter – apparently well versed in the secret I have only just discovered. On weekends, you’ll find the dining area packed with customers drawn in by rotating specials like seafood soup, for example, or regional favourites that offer a salute to national holidays. You can also order their dishes through delivery apps, but I suggest you stop in and explore the store (and maybe take home a bottle of hot sauce – or three).
I’m lost in front of a cooler full of house-made take-home meals, trying to decide how many empanadas will fit in my freezer, when I’m told my order is ready. It smells delicious. And it is. The pupusas are warm and crispy and super decadent, cut perfectly by the bright slaw. The churros are churros, which is to say they are crispy, fluffy, cinnamon-y parcels of joy. I crush the entire meal in minutes. Pleased, I begin scheming my return before I can even leave the parking lot.
‘Your source for authentic Portuguese products & fresh fish.’
223 Mill St, Kitchener
You’ll have no trouble finding Torreense thanks to the badass, two-storey mural (by regional muralist hero Steph Boutari) emblazoned on the side of this Portuguese market in south central Kitchener. The place has been a neighbourhood staple for Portuguese fare for half a century – a tradition carried on by current owner Paulo Neves and his family. Specializing in baked goods, deli sandwiches, and a unique selection of fresh fish, the shop is an ideal destination whether you’re planning to spend an afternoon cooking a celebratory feast or grabbing something delicious to eat on the run.
The shelves and coolers are stocked with a variety of imported staples and locally-produced delicacies, all of which cater to the shop’s majority Portuguese clientele. Bottles of piri piri and olive oils sidle next to tins of coffee and, of course, sardines. In the deli, you’ll find imported goat and ewe cheeses alongside mild, fresh cheeses made locally, prosciutto, blood sausage (and a similar variety made instead with wine). There’s a revolving selection of produce as well, including white-fleshed yams, Spanish garlic, etc. Wooden racks are restocked regularly with ring loaves, sweet breads, and pastries from a local Portuguese bakery. I would be remiss if I didn’t declare my love for pastel de nata, a heavenly custard tart and an absolute must try – that is, if you get there before they’re sold out. There’s also a humble selection of gifts sprinkled throughout the store, notably clay cookware and Galo de Barcelos (hand-painted roosters – a symbol of integrity and good luck).
The true gem of Torreense, though, is tucked away in the back of the pantry-like shop. An impressive selection of fresh fish is imported weekly from a variety of regions in Portugal and its islands, plus a few other areas of Europe. Silvery mackerel from the mainland and speckled grouper from Azores. Ruby-hued seabream and striking coral Atlantic salmon. Glittering salt cod caught in Norway and aged seven months before finding its way to Paulo’s shop. Like precious gems, sparkling in their glowing glass case, they’ll disappear if you take your eyes off them for too long. Every Thursday morning Torreense opens its doors (often, to a patiently waiting crowd) and offers some of the freshest fish you’ll find in the city – that is, until it’s sold out. Which, generally, is around mid-afternoon.
If you have a love for simple things done exceptionally well – like fresh seabass, stuffed with citrus and grilled whole – Torreense is the spot for you. I watch Paulo’s daughter skillfully clean a fish for an awaiting customer, though beautifully cut fillets are also available. From the deli, try their ‘serrana’ sandwich, with soft cheese, prosciutto, and not much else (Paulo likens the aged meat to a fine scotch, keeping the sandwich simple to let the ingredients shine). Perfect for an impromptu picnic, with Victoria Park just a quick stroll down the street.
Not that you need another reason to check out Torreense, but the grocer’s stunning mural is truly worth a visit. The towering piece blends Boutari’s signature high-contrast, multicoloured geometric patterns with traditional Portuguese imagery. A stunning welcome sign – and the perfect backdrop for your sandwich-in-hand Insta pic.
‘Helping the region go Dutch for over six decades.’
666 Woolwich St, Guelph
(second location at 760 Upper James St, Hamilton)
A few blocks north of downtown Guelph, in a plaza along Woolwich Street, an oranje sign with a distinctive windmill motif pops out amongst its neighbours. It’s a thawing Friday afternoon, and this is my first visit to Dutch Toko (previously a downtown staple) since it moved into its new suburban home – just in time to celebrate its sixtieth anniversary. This fourth and largest iteration of the family-owned European deli lives in a massive and bright space – with soaring ceilings and tidy, petite aisles. (A second location, in Hamilton, also flourishes.)
The shop is unabashedly filled to the brim with cheerful gifts and punchy-coloured pantry staples – most imported from The Netherlands. There’s an alphabetical display of chocolate letters, for example – always a popular gift around the holidays. There are rows and rows of teas and biscuits (plus a selection of tea cozies that speak to my picnic-loving tendencies). Also Dutch favourites like pea soup, tinned herring, and curry ketchup. And, of course, hagelslag – chocolate or fruit-flavoured sprinkles that top buttered toast, a 10/10 snack.
I find myself lingering in front of a jam-packed wall of dozens of varieties of stroopwafels and speculaas cookies, plus blue-and-white ceramics and wooden tulips. The combination of the distinctive cookies and adorable tchotchkes reminds me of layovers in Amsterdam. Shop clerk Hilke informs me that some long-time customers have been known to, on occasion, pick up souvenirs for loved ones at the shop when they have forgotten them on their visits home. (Don’t worry, she’s not naming names.) As someone who packs light, I don’t blame them. The back walls are filled with gifts for all ages – sports jerseys, puzzles, and, naturally, wooden clogs (plus an adorable plush slipper version that makes me squeal with delight).
The star of the show, taking up the entire length of the shop, is the deli. A wall of fridges is filled with imported cheeses (sharp goudas, tangy goat cheeses, and funky blues) and meats – including roast beef and blood sausage from local butchers employing traditional practices. You can also pick up Dutch favourites like pickled herring, rookworst (a traditional smoked sausage you’ll find hanging from hooks along the wall), and locally-baked raisin buns. But the shop’s most popular item? Classic deli sandwiches, with simple ingredients like ham, cheese, mustard, and mayo – a nod to the simple joys of Dutch cuisine. Next time you’re in the area, grab one to go. You certainly won’t be disappointed.
I wrap up my visit with a perusal of the salted licorice aisle, where dozens of varieties of bitter, chewy, and inky-black treats are arranged in order of saltiness. Naturally I fill a bag with a blend of them all, setting my friends up for a delightful surprise later on at the pub (once I’ve forgotten which one is the triple-salted brain melter).
While I wander the sprawling shop, I notice how cozy it feels and remark to Hilke that the place must remind many folks of home. She agrees and adds that ‘people sometimes get emotional when they step inside – the foods, the smells – it reminds them of their homes, or of their grandparents and their loved ones.’ I make a mental note to save some licorice for my own grandmother, who is sure to enjoy it with much less fuss than any of my pals.