Blair and Kathy Bonivento’s Greek food cart at Nathan Phillips Square.
At long last, four of the eight food vendors who survived the City’s rigorous multi-stage selection process for the pilot “Toronto a la Cart” project took to the streets on Victoria Day. Torontoist had the pleasure of visiting with all four proprietors who graciously spoke with us about their new businesses—even while in the middle of frantically setting up their stations for the very first time.
Greek chicken souvlaki by Blair and Kathy Bonivento.
Two of the eight vendors have prime spots at the east and west extremities of Nathan Phillips Square, bookending the conga line of hotdog vendors and chip trucks (some of whom may be slightly miffed at their new neighbours). On the western end, Blair and Kathy Bonivento—veterans of food service who also own and run Off The Grill at Ontario Place—are drawing on Kathy’s Greek background and offering chicken souvlaki and Greek salad. Blair is Italian-Canadian, so they had the option of making authentic Italian cuisine, but they went with Greek because, as Kathy says, “Souvlaki has wide appeal and Mediterranean food tends to be healthy. It’s what we grew up with…my mom taught us how to cook Greek.” Sound nutritional value was one of the major criteria that had to be fulfilled to be even considered for the pilot.
Evidently, Kathy’s mom taught her well, because the Boniventos’ chicken souvlaki is sensational. The thick pita is first grilled to crispy, then filled with a full skewer of plump, charred chicken, tomatoes, onions, and creamy tzatziki. They were sold out by late afternoon.
Pakistani chicken biryani (top) and salsa wrap (bottom) by Seemab Ahmad.
At the other end, in the shadow of Old City Hall, Seemab Ahmad—who also owns Campus Biryani and Kabob in The Annex—is serving Pakistani fare, assisted by his four children: Awais, Uzma, Shabista, and Muneeb. At their restaurant, they serve a wide variety of cuisines, but for the cart they decided on making traditional biryani, a saffron-flecked rice dish containing chunks of chicken, veal, or vegetables (depending on the day) with an accompanying sauce of homemade yogurt, fresh mint, and cilantro; and wraps filled with salsa made from assorted vegetables and paneer (goat milk–based cheese). Of the two, we think the biryani is the winner. The light, fluffy rice is topped with savoury chunks of chicken, and the minty yogurt is a refreshing touch.
Injera wrap by Andnet Zere.
Across the street from the south end of the Rogers Centre, Andnet Zere got off to a bit of a slow start with a cart that wasn’t cooperating, but she recovered well before the afternoon’s Blue Jays game let out. Zere, whose background is Eritrean, is serving generous portions of injera—spongy, slightly sour flatbread—filled with either beef or stewed vegetables (potatoes, carrots, peppers) and lentils. Her first customer in line insisted he didn’t like lentils, but Zere said, “I have the secret. Just try it.”
Jerk chicken and mango salad fajita by Bridgette Pinder.
For Bridgette Pinder, whose cart is located at the southeast corner of Yonge and St. Clair, the Toronto a la Cart project is her first foray into the food service business as a sole proprietor. Bridgette, who was born in Guyana, worked for eighteen years as a mental health and addiction counsellor before beginning her career in food as a cook at Fred Victor Centre, an outreach mission at Queen and Jarvis. “I love people,” she beams, “I love that I’m doing this now, and I get to meet people in a different capacity.”
While at Fred Victor, the jerk chicken was her most requested dish. “They really enjoyed it and used to ask for it. It became like a ritual…I had to make it every week!” The very same chicken is happily available at her cart, combined with a fresh mango salad and wrapped in pita bread to make a vibrant Caribfusion “fajita.” Absolutely delicious.
Seemab Ahmad’s Pakistani food cart at Nathan Phillips Square (top). Andnet Zere’s Eritrean food cart at the south end of the Rogers Centre (bottom).
The Toronto a la Cart pilot project has attracted significant criticism, especially from fortunate palates who’ve travelled and tasted street food in places like Southeast Asia, South America, and India. All of the vendors we spoke with today look forward to a freer, less-regulated system, but are aware that now is only the beginning. Toronto Public Health is standing behind all the vendors and guaranteeing that eating from these carts is as safe as dining in any restaurant. With a successful track record, more daring food could be in our future, and hopefully, as Kathy Bonivento says, the vendors will be allowed to “kick it up a notch.”
All cart photos by Miles Storey/Torontoist. All food photos by Kaori Furue/Torontoist.