Folks who live in big, cosmopolitan cities can become pretty blasé about popping out for some flavorful food. In the GTA, most people are no more than a walk or quick ride away from Ethiopian, Indian, Caribbean, Mexican, Sichuan, you name it — there are endless possibilities to explore.
In rural Ontario, not so much.
In small towns, even so much as fresh basil on a pizza can be hard to come by. But wait, before furiously tapping out that impassioned defense of country cuisine, let’s clarify: rural Ontario is rich in beautiful, productive farmland, and the farmers here grow and raise some of the best produce and livestock anywhere in the world. Ontario strawberries and cream? Yes, please. Steamed Ontario asparagus slathered in local grass-fed butter? Oh indeed. Grilled Ontario pasture-raised beef? You betcha. Still, sometimes one needs a hit of spice and a taste of something different, and for that it takes a bit of a closer look and a little driving. Bonus: along the roads are places to stop for honey, maple syrup, fresh eggs, antiques, handmade birdhouses, garden veggies and cut flowers.
Setting off from Port Hope, here are a few spots serving up a bit of spice in Northumberland County.
U92 Spice House and Take Away, 49 Mill St. S., Port Hope
Port Hope has a long and enduring connection to the nuclear industry; it goes all the way back to the early 1930s when mining company Eldorado built a radium and uranium refinery on the shore of Lake Ontario. It’s still in operation today, though now it’s Cameco, and that’s where this tiny takeout gets its name; U92 is the symbol for uranium. Cute, right? The menu is all over the map — from island flavors to Indian — and so is the stacked drinks cooler. Roti shells are soft, chewy, dhal-slathered perfection.
BesteaBoba, 55 Mill St., Port Hope
One of the more charming qualities of these rural gems are the sometimes odd, creative and surprising places they turn up. U92 is in what looks to be a converted shed and this place — with an LA food stand vibe of spray-paint graffiti, Astroturf and cinder block — is housed in a tiny matte black trailer, in the parking lot of Canada-famous Olympus Burger . What started as a pop-up by installation artist and designer Dian Carlo, this bubble tea and barbecue joint looks like it’s here to stay — at least for the summer. Cooked on a custom steampunk grill, Filipino adobo — pork and chicken — brisket and pulled pork, by Carlo’s alter-ego the Loco Smoker, is best washed down with a sweet jelly tea.
King Ray’s, 145 Rose Glen Rd. S., Port Hope
Since 2015, husband and wife Ray and Latara have been dishing up authentic, fresh and spicy family recipes passed down from Ray’s mamita or granny, from Cuernavaca, Mexico. It’s set back from the main road, but it’s hard to miss. Just look for the bright orange trailer with the big pink (and disturbingly happy) pig, pull in, claim a picnic table or spread a blanket on the grass, and tuck into amazing tacos, slaw, outrageously crispy and well-seasoned polenta fries and more.
Grafton Gas and Service, 10843 County Rd. 2, Grafton
Yup, it’s a gas station all right and it serves up samosas to rival any from Gerrard Street. They’re big — almost sandwich-sized — stuffed with potato and peas and toasted cumin seeds. The pastry is crisp and flaky, and the person behind the counter will pop them into a hot pizza oven until they’re golden and steamy.
Harwood Family Variety, 6117 Harwood Rd., Harwood
Catering to cottagers just passing through and loyal locals, this quirky, family-run spot is open seven days a week, from morning to night. It’s a classic example of a rural outpost with everything one could ever want under one roof: bait, LCBO, groceries, pizza, and (surprise!) a few variations on chicken curry as well as crispy, tasty samosas, made by the owner’s sister .
D’s Island Shack, 27 Front St. N., Campbellford
Campbellford is a busy little town on the Trent-Severn Waterway with a few things going for it: beautiful views, excellent antiquing, the Trans Canada Trail, and at least four foodie stops worth driving or cycling to. It’s home to award-winning Dooher’s Bakery, Friesen’s Smokehaus (Cajun goodness), the Dockside Bistro, for the views and its rogan josh, and D’s Island Shack. Recently graduating from food truck to a sweet little shop, Chef D dishes up Trinidadian-style roti, doubles, jerk, fritters, stews, curries and smoothies, along with Caribbean groceries and housewares.
Lakeview Bar and Grill, 5074 Rice Lake Dr. N., Bewdley
Ever wondered what hardcore bikers wear to the beach? Grab a table on the patio here and you’re bound to find out; this part of Rice Lake is blue collar, leather clad, and hopping night and day in the summer. The place is a typical family restaurant with a menu that’s way too big, suggesting freezer and deep-fryer dependence, however the butter chicken is homemade, creamy and mild. Just remember, what folks out here call “naan” is more often than not store-bought pita bread.
MommAmina’s, 18 King St., Cobourg
Brand new, offering a small, daily menu of Trinidadian specialties, owner Angelique Bellisario explains that much Trini food grew from East Indian influences; her family de ella came from India to Trinidad generations ago. Curries, roti, doubles and a few sweets just a couple of blocks from the beach. A couple of blocks over, at 255 Division St., Prep Food Co. has an extra-spicy jerk pork sandwich from their takeout lunch counter.
If the heat gets too much, Northumberland County is home to countless ice cream shops, most serving local, premium stuff from the two main dairies in the region, Kawartha Dairy or Central Smith, each with a dedicated following. Asking locals which one is best can lead to a spicy debate.
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