Halifax: Faux Turks and Primordial Corned Beef Hash

Halifax, Nova Scotia

Cape Breton Island is shut tight for the season, so I’ll be hunkering down in Halifax for the next few days. If I’d arrived just a week or two earlier, there’d have been many more Maritime options, but the prospect of eating seal meat in the Magdalen Islands, et al., will have to wait for another trip.

But I’m not suffering. Halifax is a dynamite town, just large enough for urban culture and edge, but small enough to feel personal. And you’re still in Nova Scotia, so there’s a certain softness in the air.

I’ve never heard anyone describe the Canadian Maritimes as a culinary hotbed, so I was stunned by the chowhounding savvy of callers in to the Maritime Noon show, which had me on as a guest. By kind permission of the folks at the CBC (and the show’s host, Costas Halavrezos—who, as you’ll hear, really groks the ethos), here’s the entire program: MP3.

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I spent the day running around sampling quick bites. The following is an overview of the chowconnaisance:

The Ardmore Tea Room (6499 Quinpool, Halifax, Nova Scotia; 902-423-7523), a no-nonsense old-time diner, serves the primordial corned beef hash. A frequent theme of my trip has been discovering local traditions that inspired ubiquitous mass-market foods, and this is clearly the sort of hash that inspired canned corned beef hash.

I don’t mean Libby’s Libby’s Libby’s grabbed the recipe from this very kitchen. But the Ardmore opened in 1958, and their hash is an amazing trip back in time. Nobody in New York City (or anywhere else I’ve been) makes hash like this anymore. What does this legacy hash taste like? Like canned corned beef hash, only soulful. Just like Chattanooga fried chicken tastes like Banquet fried chicken, only soulful. And Memphis ribs taste like barbecue potato chips, only soulful. And so on …

These folks all surely ate lots and lots of hash in their day:

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Donair shops are everywhere, serving what I’m used to seeing spelled “Döner”: compressed meat on a spit. But despite the similar spelling, this is a whole different compressed meat on a spit. It’s Halifax Donair, made by guys as Turkish as Doug McKenzie. Brace yourself as I explain what they use for sauce on these babies: vinegar, sugar, and evaporated milk. The result at least visually resembles the yogurt sauce used on Turkish döner, though the taste is, er, quite distinctive. My theory is that a visiting Turk once accidentally dropped a photo of döner on the streets of Halifax, and the relic went viral (and oh so wrong).

My stomach went a little viral after just a few bites of this sandwich from one of the downtown branches of King of Donair:


The swarthy King of Donair proudly displays his royal accouterments.

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I was endlessly fascinated by Tom’s Little Havana Café (5428 Doyle Street, Halifax, Nova Scotia; 902-423-TOM’S). This is a super-popular gin mill/cigar bar, where the thick cigar smoke adds yet more cinematic ambiance to a scene already straight out of a European movie. Despite its dramatic high ceilings, the room is warm and intimate, comfortably hosting a clientele spanning oddball loners to coiffed scenesters.

There’s a wide selection of local beers, and a kitchen the size of a closet turns out an ambitiously long list of dishes cooked with equal parts irony and naiveté. The terse dish names do little to describe what’s actually served, so ordering here is like making a wish to one of those tricky genies who never conjure up quite what you’d expected. The pace is too bustling to engage much with servers, and there are no menus beyond the terse chalkboard, so your only hope is to seek the counsel of a regular with experience in this place’s wacky oeuvre:

Local beer and wine guru Jeff Pinney suggested Havana rolls, sort of deconstructed chickeny egg rolls refashioned as wraps … or chicken stir-fry wrapped in a flour tortilla and baked. Whatever they are, they’re defined by their utter non-Cuban-ness. This place is no more Havana than the donair joints are Turkish. But they’re not aiming for Cuban. The name’s just a point of departure for whatever twisted genius (I visualize a wise-ass 11-year-old with a toaster oven and hot plate) whips this stuff up in the nano-kitchen.

The rolls are served with herbacious dipping sauce and tequila salsa, and, speaking of departure, they taste like they were made on another planet—which is not to say they’re not tasty. They are, and I pretty much inhaled them:

Just as the Havana rolls are the antithesis of Cuba, beef-chipotle quesadillas here contain no cheese:

Jeff had never tried them before, but I insisted on ordering potato pancakes, which tasted like deconstructed Indian pakoras (complete with cardamom) refashioned as latkes, with a dipping sauce of chutney refashioned as ketchup:

The food is primitive, even amateurish, yet supremely confident and intriguing as can be. It’s like a distinct cuisine, with its own internal flavor logic. One yens to work through the entire menu, preferably with a guidebook to the cuisine in hand (The Lonely Planet Guide to Tom’s Little Havana Café?). It’s all very trippy, very Alice in Wonderland … with cigars! (Note: By the time you read this, anti-smoking legislation will have cut in. Let’s hope they’re still in business …)

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Charming, obscure Mrs. P’s Bakery (336 Herring Cove Road, Halifax, Nova Scotia; 902-479-1293) makes real good oat cakes and other everyday baked goods. They’re quietly witty, nice folks, too.

Oat cakes are a blurry, homely sort of treat. The camera resists all attempts at focus.

You can taste each of the 600 miles from New York City in those highly Canadian black-and-white cookies.

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Tarek’s Café (3045 Robie Street, Halifax, Nova Scotia; 902-454-8723) is a shopping-strip Lebanese restaurant with great potential. Their toom (garlic mayonnaise) is sharp, pungent, just right. Tzatziki is lush; kibbe is authentic, down to the pignoli. Buf falafel’s nuked—everything seems to be nuked, robbing the food of its soul. My guess is that the trick is to arrive early when the food’s warm and fresh, and get to know Mama, cooking in the back, so that she’ll make you special dishes (I get the feeling she’d take requests). This is a restaurant that requires effort and strategy.