In the heart of Toronto there is a place where people, art, and food get it on. If you’re craving it, chances are you’ll find “it” here. It’s a colorful collision of hipsters, cultures, and migrators all packed into a pedestrian-friendly, four-block radius. This multicultural gem in the city is called Kensington Market.
Bordered between College Street on the north, Spadina Avenue on the east, Dundas Street West to the south, and Bathurst Street to the west, this area was first settled in the 1880s by Irish and Scottish laborers coming to Toronto. Victorian houses—many of which still stand today—became homes for the immigrants starting new lives in the decades that followed. In 2006, Kensington Market was proclaimed a National Historic Site of Canada.
The heart of the action—along Augusta & Kensington Avenues and neighboring Baldwin Street—is a stomping ground for Toronto’s downtown denizens. Home to an eclectic assortment of cafés, shops, and eateries, visitors can satisfy their culinary urges with the vast array of produce, fish, meat, cheese, spices, and dry goods. It’s a wonderland of ingredients that leaves the mind swirling and searching for a number of recipes.
That’s where I find myself on this particular Sunday afternoon. Staring at oodles of gorgeous Ontario produce the province is blessed with every summer through early fall, I was enduring a mental tug-of-war. Savory or sweet? Side dish, main, or dessert? Or maybe just eat it raw, right now? My lack of patience makes it easy to opt for the latter. I eagerly grab some sweet, luscious Ontario plums and create an instant appetizer.
A glance across Baldwin Street diverts my attention as I read the words “Cheese Magic” on a storefront. Magical cheese? Yes please! I enter the shop and come face-to-face with gracious cheesemongers who are glad to be of service. Camemberts, Bries, and Blues stare at me through a glass case and I’m getting a giddy/anxious feeling in my stomach. I default to, “What do you recommend?” and thankfully so. I was presented with a raw milk white cheddar—aged six years—from Montréal. Crumbly, salty goodness coats my palate and I’m instantly delighted. Due to strict food laws, only pasteurized cheese can be produced in Ontario. The loophole is you can still sell the unpasteurized stuff (like this one made in Québec and others from France), which makes Toronto cheese connoisseurs pretty damn chirpy.
A handful of samplings later, I leave the shop licking remnants of cheese off my fingers. Reggae music begins to fill my ears as I turn onto Kensington Avenue. I inhale the aroma of grilled something, and a few steps later I see it: a smoker and succulent Jamaican jerk chicken. The billowing smoke beckons me to come closer and join the growing line. I watch as pieces of perfectly marinated chicken—complete with crispy, blackened bits—are briskly turned, removed, cut, boxed, and handed over to each customer. I sink my teeth into the spicy, fragrant chunks of meat. Between the plums, raw cheese, and this jerk chicken, I’m in a pretty great mood.
I backtrack towards Augusta Avenue, passing by happy people eating happy things. Toronto’s iconic CN Tower peaks out between buildings every so often, and I’m transported back to my childhood. My life started in this city. The basic mold of my identity was first created here, and no matter how far I’ve moved away, it will always be an integral part of who I am.
I stop myself in front of the Latin American Food Court. They have churros (this day just keeps getting better), and I decide it’s in my best interest to make friends with Pepe (he’s in charge of handing over the churros). He expertly drizzles chocolate over the freshly fried pastries; we swap money for dessert and I’m on my way. My years in Texas, Puerto Rico, and California have made me an honorary judge of Latin food. And I can officially say these churros are simply delicious.
I leisurely stroll down the street, taking in the abundance of street art around me. There’s a cool Bohemian vibe here, bringing forth memories of the Haight in San Francisco. Torontonians have had a long standing love affair with Kensington Market. It’s a place that embraces everyone, and gives gentle reminders to slow down and appreciate life’s bounty and beauty in its many different forms. As my Sunday reunion with Kensington Market comes to a close, it’s clear I’m still smitten with this charming neighborhood. And I wish I could linger a bit longer inside its world.
Kensington Ave, Toronto, ON M5T 2K2, Canada