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

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

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

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

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

Two popular drinks served at Namwan: Thai tea with condensed milk and coffee with condensed milk. (Suresh Doss / CBC)

Ismaila: So that brings us to Namwan.

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

You’re in the epicenter of one of the city’s oldest Chinatowns, at Broadview and Gerrard. So you start going east and you pass the perennial East Asian and Southeast Asian businesses, from grocery stories to bánh mi stores. As the strip begins to set, you will see Nam Wan. It’s next to the Eastdale Collegiate.

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

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

Namwan is run by siblings Manita Teng and Paul Teng. (Suresh Doss / CBC)

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

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

From the idea of ​​breakfast, to stirred fritters, to fun drinks. Let’s start with coffee.

We have a huge amount of coffee bars in Toronto, but how often can you get a pandan-flavored coffee drink? Pandan is the fragrant plant commonly found in Southeast Asian cuisine, used as a flavoring. It has this herbal quality, but I think the best way to describe it is that it gives you a perfume-like marriage between coconut and vanilla.

Co-owner Manita Teng makes iced coffee with young coconut water. (Suresh Doss / CBC)

Ismaila: That sounds really interesting.

Suresh: I’m a sucker for everything pandan, so if you say there’s a pandan in something, I’ll have to give it a try.

There are also other popular coffee drinks which are quite common in the streets of Bangkok. There is 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 pretty good. Get away from your third wave of coffee, and just take on this tropical journey. The flavors work really well. This is not the way you would normally have coffee.

But can we talk about toast?

The Thai sandwich with pork and cheese is often shared by diners. (Suresh Doss / CBC)

Ismaila: Oh, that would be a pleasure for me.

Suresh: There is a menu dedicated to toasts at Namwan. Soft brioche bread filled with a selection of cheeses and vegetables and such.

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

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

Thai-style pork pinza and the green curry pinza, two popular dishes at Namwan. (Suresh Doss / CBC)

Ismaila: What is a pinza?

Suresh: So this is the trio’s bid for pizzas. They are essentially rectangular flatbread.

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

There’s a chicken satay flatbread, so imagine marinated chicken in peanut sauce on the flatbread with cheese.

There is a 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’s unique.

Cashew chicken with rice, one of many popular dishes served at Namwan. (Suresh Doss / CBC)

Ismaila: So have some toast to start and a pinza to share. What is a main that we should try in 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 bowls.

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

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

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

A selection of cookies made in the house, including the popular pandan cookies. (Suresh Doss / CBC)

Ismaila: It sounds like it’s going to be hard to try just one thing. And I already feel like I do not get enough space for it, but I need to hear about the desserts.

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

So there’s a pandan and cake with coconut cream – my mom’s favorite. There are pandan cookies. Namwan has a selection of cookies.

And also because it’s a Thai style cafe, there’s a version of mango sticky rice coming, right? It is presented in a jar. It is a layered kind of sticky rice with coconut milk and mango. [It’s] probably the perfect finisher to visit this Thai cafe.

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