Hamilton’s small business sector is a driving factor in its economy and one of the major players in the growing, versatile, culinary scene. Travelers (both international and domestic) have become very interested in the cuisines offered at their chosen destinations, and Hamilton is positioning itself to fill the bill with a very diverse range of culinary choices.
“With the rise of food entrepreneurs, more storefronts are displaying culinary signs in the downtown core. With this, we are seeing a change in our perceptions of Hamilton- from a mainly steel driven economy to now Canada’s most diversified economy” says Michael Marini, Coordinator, Marketing Economic Development Division “There’s a strong food truck culture in Hamilton and some of the notables, Jonny Blonde, Gorilla Cheese and Southern Smoke, are now opening brick and mortar locations”, he adds.
Food Tour Through Hamilton’s Culinary Scene
On a cool Saturday in March, I joined a busload of food writers and bloggers to experience some of Hamilton’s leading culinary establishments. In our midst was Hamilton Ti-cats player Peter Dyakowski, who like the rest of us, is absolutely devoted to good food.
Here’s what we discovered on our 10-hour eating marathon:
NaRoma Pizza Bar (215 Locke Street South)
Mario Spina, whose love for pizza took him to Rome and Naples to study with the masters, runs this pizza bar. Spina uses quality ingredients including a blend of imported flours and extra virgin olive oil as well as some uniquely creative combinations, to produce a simple, authentic taste of Italy.
Spina laid out a banquet of “Dolce” Quinoa salad with cranberries, pecans, spinach and goat cheese with a dressing of balsamic and olive oil. Tantalizing Pizzas that suited every taste bud from Rapini, Salsiccia e Rapini to the simple but flavourful Margarita.
Brown Dog Coffee Shoppe (211 Locke Street South)
The Brown Dog is in an old church, right next door to NaRoma. It’s run by Nicole Spina, Mario’s (NaRoma) cousin, and has house-roasted coffee, fresh apple fritters and a nice selection of hot beverages and sandwiches. This is not the spot for the ‘ordinary’. You can get a good Tuscany Salad, Green Eggs and Ham or Deep Fried Mars Bars, but the Apple Fritters are the really big draw; I think they’re the best I’ve ever had, and they’re made fresh, on an ongoing basis, all day. There’s lots of seating and free wi-fi.
Wild Orchid Restaurant and Café (286 James Street North).
This Portuguese restaurant is big with seafood lovers, but they also serve rabbit, lamb and steak dishes – and the entire menu is available for take-out. This becomes a great option for parties and social functions – they also cater. Our Hamilton Tiger Cats player Peter Dyakowski, couldn’t get enough seafood piled on his plate before we left for the next establishment.
Except for Kenneth (189 Ottawa Street North)
Named for the adventurous father of one of the owners, this great English Pub has satisfying comfort food. They are attached to the Black Sheep Snack Bar, which adds to the relaxed atmosphere, and have an ever-changing menu. We tasted the Sheppard’s Pie, albeit a small portion, but very tasty.
Hamilton Farmers Market (35 York Boulevard)
Hamilton’s Farmer Market is a year-round, downtown, market where you can get local fresh produce, flowers, baked goods, cheese and meats. It’s a clean and inviting space where you can also pick up (or sit and enjoy) a ready-made meal as they have a nice mix of ethnic cuisines. We stopped in to check out Pokeh and Eat Inc.’s Ramen stalls.
This popular spot has fabulous artwork, it’s the only place in Canada where you can get authentic Hawaiian Poke. While here we tried the “Spicy bowl”. The husband and wife team of Salar Madadi and Jeannie Crawford run this establishment. This is a must for anyone wanting to try Pokeh.
This has to be the best Ramen I’ve tasted. Everything is cooked from scratch here. I would go back to this place in a heartbeat.
While at the market the group ventured over to Brown’s Handmade Ice Cream – makers of all natural small batch ice creams. Simply delicious products and great quality with unique flavours. I particularly loved the popcorn flavoured ice cream.
It’s hard to tear ourselves away from the market, but there were other spots to discover.
As with most cities in North America, the craze for Mexican cuisine is also evident in Hamilton with two notable Taco establishments.
The Mule (41 King William Street)
This is a hip and colourful Mexican place with great atmosphere, where bartenders have crafted a bourbon-tequila focused cocktail menu to accompany the variety of beers on tap. On the menu you’ll find Baja Wings, Ceviche and a weird variety of Tacos – would you believe Beef-Tongue Tacos? May seem a little strange, but the Fish Tacos come highly recommended. They have vegetarian and vegan dishes and all the food is 100 percent gluten free. Here we tasted the ‘Taco Bell’ – an absolutely delicious taco.
Mezcal TNT (150 James Street South)
Mezcal is a small but very hip taco and tequila bar with an authentic cantina-inspired atmosphere and excellent margaritas. Chef Manny Ferreira, a recent winner of Food Network’s Chopped Canada, is doing some amazing stuff, like making his own pickles, salsa, smoked cheeses and great Tacos. Only a few tables available but there is seating at the bar as well. Oh, and by the way, TNT stands for Tacos and Tequila if you haven’t guessed this already. While here we sampled the “Panela” – beer battered queso blanco, pineapple salsa fresca, habanero, lime crema, and onion sprouts – along with sips of margaritas.
La Piazza Allegra (180 James Street South)
An upscale Italian restaurant, La Piazza Allegra has a warm ambiance and an award winning Chef, Mark Farrugia. They have some traditional dishes like Osso Bucco, and perfectly cooked pasta; the menu changes frequently to accommodate fresh and seasonal foods. The cocktails are inventive and we had the pleasure of tasting Chef’s Ravioli Vesuvius – delicious pasta topped with egg and ricotta – slice into the middle and the lava-like yolk flows beautifully.
Aberdeen Tavern (432 Aberdeen Avenue)
Don’t let the ‘Tavern’ label deter you – this is actually an upscale gastro-pub. It’s in an old bank building with leather banquettes and dark wood, which help create the warm atmosphere. I had heard dining at Aberdeen was truly a stellar experience, and that Executive Chef Matt Beasley does a brilliant job of creating his popular dishes.
We finished our evening at the Aberdeen with a desert course of mini lemon meringues, financiers and custard choux pastry. It was 9 pm when we arrived and glancing around there was barely a seat to be had.
By the end of our tour; holding our tummies we’re ready to head home to Toronto and get a reprieve from eating. The common consensus is that the tour was a huge success and Peter Dyakowski is now our favourite Ti-cat. Go Pete!!
Special thanks to Hamilton’s Economic Development Office and tripcentral.ca for organizing this Food Tour. All opinions expressed in this article are my own.