Is This Love?: A Jamaican Food Odyssey Part I

Oakwood and Vaughan has been a lot of different things over the years. It started out, according to a former neighbour in his nineties, as an Anglo-Scottish working class neighbourhood. After the War, it became more Italian, then more Portuguese, then finally more West Indian, predominantly Jamaican. By the time I came to live here about five years ago, the Italian heritage had largely disappeared with only a few vestigial original businesses. You would almost never know other cultures had been here when you look at the main commercial strip around Eglinton West and Oakwood today:

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The area is short on general services overall: no banks, no major grocery chains, no post office for miles, and a Starbucks, or even a better-quality independent place where you could sit down and have a coffee? You’ve got to be kidding me (although of course no one knows what will happen once the Crosstown Eglinton LRT finishes burrowing through in another 15 years). But maybe it’s only short on services, depending on what you’re looking for: need any hair product imaginable? Need a haircut? Want the most cutting edge reggae recordings or the latest Nigerian movies? And especially…want some well-priced, incredibly delicious food? Oakwood and Eglinton has more than got you covered.

“Hey mon,” a guy called out to his friend while I took the picture above, “it’s becoming a tourist traaap.” Not exactly, but there are at least two good reasons to come to this area: Randy’s Patties, and Spence’s Bakery. I parked my bike and hustled to Randy’s first, because on Saturdays it closes at 6:30pm, perhaps because if it stayed open later on Saturdays they’d need tear gas to keep order. Eglinton West gets pretty lively on Saturday nights, the barber and beauty shops all going full tilt to get everybody looking good for the evening’s entertainment.

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Randy’s was quiet today, but I’ve seen it get a bit fraught and unruly at times: heaving with customers all packed into the tight space, waiting for big orders, yelling into cell phones, picking over the huge selection of bootleg DVDs an entrepreneur sells inside during the winter, and outside during the warmer months (notice bootleg DVDs lined up outside exterior of Randy’s). The lady who runs front of house is a bit of a card, good at dialling down the tension and calming the restive crowd by yelling out things like “don’t worry….everybody will get a chance to see the doctor!” or “relax now, everybody is going to get on the flight.” Every two minutes or so, somebody comes from the back with a giant tray of golden patties:

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And as quickly as they arrive, they are whisked into cardboard boxes, usually taken away by the dozen. Randy’s makes chicken, beef and vegetarian patties and sells them freshly baked (or frozen). As the patties frequently never even make it into the warming box but instead are delivered straight into the eager hands of the customers, they are almost too hot to hold when you get them.

The handwritten blackboard menu also mentions some things like rice and peas and oxtail, but I’ve never seen anybody order anything but patties. Randy’s is sort of famous, with people reportedly coming from the States to get patties: they’ve been at the same location since 1979 and apparently have never been tempted to expand. When I first started coming here I noticed the management and assumed that perhaps the original Randy had sold up and gone back to Jamaica to soak his feet on the beach in a bucket of Red Stripe, but since then have learned the real story, which is that Randy’s has been run by Chinese-Jamaicans since day one.

Quarry in hand (one beef, one chicken), my next stop was Spence’s:

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Which does not have the most welcoming aspect. “Today special: Goat’s head soup” a small handwritten sign taped to the glass says. Chicken foot soup is also available: “try it…you’ll like it”, another sign says, without any real conviction. But come closer: the staff are friendly, polite, boogie-ing habitually to a reggae soundtrack, the barrel smoker smells wonderful, and inside it, they have some truly fine Jerk Chicken:

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They chop it up into medium sized pieces, ask you if you want sauce (say yes) and enclose a waxy envelope with two slices of some of the most god-awful white bread the world has ever seen. You can get fried plantains as well, which are okay, but pretty much fried starch and unless you’ve got a psychic hole that only greasy starch can fill, there’s no harm in skipping them.

I got back on my bike and headed first to Albert’s Real Jamaican Foods (chronicled in a companion post) and then home for a Jamaican take-out party the likes of none. The patties were the first to go:

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Lovely pastry on these: flaky, crisp, able to hold their shape, not a hint of greasiness although the melting tenderness in your mouth and the spots on the bag tell you this is not health food. The chicken filling is less spicy than the beef: it’s slightly chunky and not unlike a mild salsa verde with ground chicken mixed in. There may or may not be green tomatoes or tomatillos in it. The beef filling is runnier, hotter, but not simply a chile blast…there’s a good mixture of spice in here, the allspice notable. Very good washed down with the traditional Ting grapefruit soda.

Then the Jerk Chicken:

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This is sensationally good chicken. Marinated, then rubbed with jerk seasoning and smoked on the bone, it’s tender and moist and perfectly cooked. The jerk seasoning they use at Spence’s is slightly hotter than others I’ve had, but not so hot that it overwhelms the complex constellation of spices underneath: allspice, thyme, ginger, probably nutmeg and hard to say what else. The sauce is a thinnish dark red sauce, strongly based on vinegar and scotch bonnet with a bit of brown sugar to round it out. Even though scotch bonnets can be ferociously hot, the hand with the peppers has been judicious and there’s nothing unpleasant about this chicken. There’s a noticeable touch of heat, but it’s nowhere close to “I dare you to eat that” hot.

The bread that comes with the chicken is the horrible stuff that seems to have been raised without the benefit of yeast. It’s dense, dry, and haunted by the ghost of baking powder. I’m not sure why this bread exists, but you don’t have to eat it. The raccoons going through your green bin later on may come to the same conclusion.

So, while not everyone is looking for human hair extensions, everyone is looking for a good meal. The next time you’re driving along Eglinton West around Oakwood, cursing the traffic in either direction because of the back up to get on the Allen, or the back up because of the Crosstown LRT construction project, pull over. Look around. Get some chicken or some patties and you’ll be glad you did.

Randy’s Patties, 1569 Eglinton Avenue West http://www.randyspatties.com
About $1.50 for a patty, cheaper by the dozen
Spence’s Bakery, 1539 Eglinton Avenue West (no website)
$8.00 for a small order of jerk chicken (different combos available).

Randy's Take-Out on Urbanspoon

Spence's Bakery on Urbanspoon

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