From toasts to pinzas to pandan desserts, Toronto cafe serves a taste of Thai street food

·5 min read
Tom Yum fried rice, served alongside iced coffee with young coconut. (Suresh Doss/CBC - image credit)
Tom Yum fried rice, served alongside iced coffee with young coconut. (Suresh Doss/CBC - image credit)

Ismaila Alfa: What can you expect when you walk into a Thai-style cafe?

Suresh Doss: It's a little hard to properly encapsulate what a Thai cafe is. Thai food is incredibly regional but it's also a cuisine as a whole that is constantly undergoing changes, from street food to its cafe and drink culture.

And over the past decade or so, you've started to see small cafe style places that cater to a demographic. A demographic that wants something beyond just the classics. They're looking for something new and interesting. That can mean that classic dishes, or drinks, are interpreted with fresh perspectives.

A Thai style cafe is a place where you would go to see riffs on anything. You put away any image you may have of what a traditional dish is.

Suresh Doss/CBC
Suresh Doss/CBC

Ismaila: So, that brings us to Namwan.

Suresh: Yes, so this is a small spot just on the outskirts of Chinatown East on Gerrard street.

You're at the epicentre of one of the city's oldest Chinatowns, at Broadview and Gerrard. So you start walking east, and you pass the longstanding East Asian and Southeast Asian businesses, from grocery stories to bánh mi shops. As the strip starts to quiet down, you'll see Nam Wan. It's next to Eastdale Collegiate.

This is a Thai-style cafe with a range of items on the menu. It's run by an extended family that used to own a Thai restaurant in Newmarket and one in Markham.

Namwan opened a week before last Christmas. It's run by Joy, Paul and Manita. And over the past year, I will admit that I have tried to find every excuse when in the area to visit them.

Suresh Doss/CBC
Suresh Doss/CBC

Ismaila: Tell us more about the range of menu items you mentioned.

Suresh: In true form, I think what the family is trying to do here is bring in all their favourite dishes to try and reinterpret them to give you the full Thai experience.

From the idea of breakfast, to stir fries, to fun drinks to go. Let's start with coffee.

We have a tremendous amount of coffee shops in Toronto, but how often can you have a pandan flavoured coffee drink? Pandan being the fragrant plant found often in Southeast Asian cuisine, used as a flavouring agent. It has this herbaceous quality but I think the best way to describe it is that it gives you a perfume-y marriage between coconut and vanilla.

Suresh Doss/CBC
Suresh Doss/CBC

Ismaila: That sounds really interesting.

Suresh: I am a sucker for all things pandan, so if you say something has pandan in it, I will have to try it.

There are also other popular coffee drinks that are fairly common on the streets of Bangkok. There's one where they mix baby coconut water with coffee. So it's an iced coffee drink, and it's really nice.

Ismaila: How does that pairing work?

Suresh: I had it again for the first time recently and I have to say, it's quite good. Step away from your third-wave coffee, and just go on this tropical journey. The flavours work really well. It's not the way you would normally have coffee.

But can we talk about toast?

Suresh Doss/CBC
Suresh Doss/CBC

Ismaila: Oh, it would be my pleasure.

Suresh: There is a menu dedicated to toasts at Namwan. Soft brioche bread stuffed with an assortment of cheese and vegetables and such.

There is one that I think is an absolute must: there's two slices of bread and tucked in the middle is this really umami-rich, Thai-style marinated pork. And in between, there's mozzarella and a spicy mayo. It is an incredibly good sandwich. It ties down marinated meat you would normally find on rice into this sandwich.

But it's just a snack to take you to the next part of the menu: the pinzas.

Suresh Doss/CBC
Suresh Doss/CBC

Ismaila: What is a pinza?

Suresh: So this is the trio's take on pizzas. They are essentially rectangular flatbreads.

There are a few different combos. You can get one with minced pork and basil on top with chili pepper. This is a riff on the Thai classic, Pad Kra Prao stir fry, but instead of pork and basil on rice, here it's on flatbread.

There's a chicken satay flatbread, so you're picturing marinated chicken in peanut sauce on the flatbread with cheese.

There's one flatbread where instead of tomato sauce, there is green curry as a sauce. It is finished with eggplant and mushrooms and holy basil and peppers. It is outstanding.

Suresh Doss/CBC
Suresh Doss/CBC

Ismaila: So have some toast to start and a pinza to share. What is a main that we need to try at Namwan?

Suresh: I fell in love with Namwan because of their rice bowls. Here you will find classic Thai dishes like massaman curry and tom yum presented in these rice bowl forms.

With massaman curry, you have slow cooked braised beef, served with all the accoutrements in this wonderful tamarind curry sauce.

I would say my absolute favourite is this interpretation of tom yum soup that is served in fried rice form. So you have all the salty, spicy, sweet tom yum soup, with lots of perfume-y galangal and lime leaves and tamarind.

If you go to Namwan and only get one thing, well except for dessert, this is what you want to get.

Suresh Doss/CBC
Suresh Doss/CBC

Ismaila: Sounds like it's going to be difficult to try only one thing. And I already feel like I won't have enough room for it, but I need to hear about the desserts.

Suresh: Long story short, anything pandan. If you see anything on the menu that has pandan on it, try it.

So there is a pandan and cake with coconut cream — my mom's favorite.There are pandan cookies. Namwan has an assortment of cookies.

And also this being a Thai-style cafe, there is going to be a version of mango sticky rice, right? It's presented in a jar. It's a layered sort of sticky rice with coconut milk and mango. [It's] probably the perfect finisher to visiting this Thai-style cafe.

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