Spice City Toronto: Jerk Chicken Sidewalk Battle
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Spice City Toronto: Jerk Chicken Sidewalk Battle

Three restaurants on Eglinton West face off on a nightly basis, filling the air with fragrant smoke and offering customers a perfect post-clubbing nosh.

There’s been endless hand-wringing about Toronto’s lack of street food options, but if you know where to go, you’ll find some world-class street eats here. You’ve got to feel a blush of pride in our city when you watch jerk chicken being grilled over coal fires on the sidewalks of Eglinton West.

Three rival Jamaican restaurants, Spence’s Bakery, Rap’s, and Hot Pot Restaurant pull out oil drums that have been converted into barbecues nightly around 7 p.m. and start grilling jerk chicken. Spence’s started the tradition here in the 1990s, and the years of smoke have left the restaurant’s main awning completely charred. Rap’s has had the same man, Horace Francis, grilling its chicken for 20 years.

“When we first started doing this, I wasn’t sure if it would take off,” says Horace Rose, the owner of Rap’s. “For sure, I didn’t think it would work during the winter.”

Not only does the barbecuing take place year-round, it goes until 6 a.m. on the weekends and until 5 a.m. on other nights. “People go party at the clubs and everybody comes here to eat after,” says Roy, the jerk pork specialist at Hot Pot.

For all three restaurants, the chicken is marinated and partially cooked inside, then transported to the grill to be finished off. Grilling specialists douse the grill with water from plastic pop bottles. You purchase a $5, $7, or $10 container inside the restaurant and bring it out to be filled up at the grill.

The chicken has a delightfully smokey flavour. It’s a bit on the dry side, but this can be remedied by dousing the meat with the sweet, tangy hot sauce. Hot Pot’s jerk pork was even better: juicy and much spicier than the chicken.

For the Eglinton West’s sizable Jamaican community, the steel drums are the taste of home. “I started eating at drums back in the 1970s in Jamaica,” Horace Rose says. “In the evening, people put out drums on the street and you can go and buy a whole chicken. Ever since this time it’s been something special for me.”

Spice City Toronto explores Toronto’s great hole-in-the-wall restaurants and strip-mall joints serving food from all corners of the world. Find more photos and details about Spence’s (1530 Eglinton Avenue West), Rap’s (1541 Eglinton Avenue West), and Hot Pot (1545 Eglinton Avenue West) here. The restaurants start grilling most nights around 6:30 p.m. or 7 p.m. and go until 5 a.m. or 6 a.m.