People who live in large, cosmopolitan cities can get pretty blasé when they go out for good food. In the GTA, most people are no more than a walk or short drive from Ethiopian, Indian, Caribbean, Mexican, Sichuan, you name it – there are endless options to explore.
In rural Ontario, not so much.
In small towns, even fresh basil on a pizza can be hard to find. But before we furiously take advantage of that impassioned defense of rural cuisine, let’s clarify: rural Ontario is rich in beautiful, productive farmland, and the farmers here grow and raise some of the finest produce and livestock anywhere in the world. . Ontario strawberries and cream? Yes please. Steamed Ontario asparagus slathered with local grass-fed butter? Oh, indeed. Grilled Ontario pasture beef? Sure. Still, sometimes you need a touch of spice and something else, and that takes a little closer look and a little driving. Bonus: Along the roads are places to stop for honey, maple syrup, fresh eggs, antiques, handmade birdhouses, garden vegetables, and cut flowers.
Departing from Port Hope, here are a few spots that serve up a little spice in Northumberland County.
U92 Spice House and Take Away, 49 Mill St. S., Port Hope
Port Hope has a long and lasting relationship with the nuclear industry; it goes all the way back to the early 1930s when mining company Eldorado built a radium and uranium refinery on the shore of Lake Ontario. It’s still in business, although it’s now Cameco, which is where this little takeaway gets its name; U92 is the symbol for uranium. Cute right? The menu is all over the map — from island flavors to Indian — and so are the stacked drinks cooler. Roti shells are soft, chewy, dhal-infused perfection.
BestaBoba, 55 Mill St., Port Hope
One of the more charming features of these rural gems are the sometimes strange, creative and surprising places where they pop up. U92 is in what appears to be a barn conversion, and this place—with an LA food stand of spray paint graffiti, astroturf, and cinder block—is housed in a small matte black trailer, in the parking lot of Canada’s famed Olympus Burger. What started as a pop-up from installation artist and designer Dian Carlo, this bubble tea and barbecue joint looks like it’s a must-have – at least for summer. Cooked on a custom steampunk grill, Philippine adobo-pork and chicken breast and pulled pork, by Carlo’s alter-ego the Loco Smoker, is best washed down with a sweet jelly tea.
Rey Rays, 145 Rose Glen Rd. S., Port Hope
Since 2015, husband and wife Ray and Latara have been serving authentic, fresh and spicy family recipes handed down from Ray’s mamita or grandma, of Cuernavaca, Mexico. It’s away from the main road, but it’s hard to miss. Just look for the bright orange trailer with the big pink (and disturbingly happy) pig, pull it, claim a picnic table or spread a blanket on the grass, and enjoy great tacos, slaw, insanely crispy and well seasoned polenta fries and more .
Grafton Gas and Service, 10843 County Rd. 2, Grafton
Yes, it’s a gas station and it serves samosas to rival those on Gerrard Street. They are large – almost the size of a sandwich – filled with potato and peas and roasted cumin seeds. The dough is crispy and flaky, and the person behind the counter will put them in a hot pizza oven until golden brown and steamed.
Harwood family variety, 6117 Harwood Rd., Harwood
This quirky, family-run place caters to passing holidaymakers and loyal locals alike and is open seven days a week, from morning to night. It’s a classic example of a rural outpost with everything you could possibly want under one roof: bait, LCBO, groceries, pizza and (surprise!) a few variations of chicken curry and crispy, tasty samosas, made by the owner’s sister .
D’s Island Shack, 27 Front St. N., Campbellford
Campbellford is a busy town on the Trent-Severn Waterway with a few things to do: beautiful views, excellent antiques, the Trans Canada Trail, and at least four foodie stops worth driving or cycling. It is home to award-winning dooher’s Bakery, Friesen’s Smokehaus (Cajun goodness), tthe Dockside Bistro, for the views and his rogan Josh, and D’s Island Shack. Recently graduated from a food truck to a sweet little shop, Chef D serves up Trinidadian-style roti, doubles, jerk, fritters, stews, curries, and smoothies, along with Caribbean groceries and household items.
Bar and Grill overlooking the lake, 5074 Rice Lake Dr. N., Bewdley
Ever wondered what hardcore bikers wear to the beach? Grab a table here on the terrace and you’ll probably find out; this part of Rice Lake is a blue collar, leather lined and pops day and night in the summer. The place is a typical family restaurant with a menu that is way too large, suggesting reliance on freezer and deep fryer, but the butter chicken is homemade, creamy and mild. Remember that what people call “naan” here is more often than not store-bought pita bread.
Mama Aminas, 18 King St., Cobourg
Brand new, with a small, daily menu of Trinidadian specialties, owner Angelique Bellisario explains that much Trini food grew out of East Indian influences; her family came to Trinidad from India generations ago. Curries, roti, doubles and a few sweets just a few blocks from the beach. A few blocks away at 255 Division St., Prep Food Co. has an extra spicy marinated pork sandwich from their takeaway lunch counter.
When the heat gets too much, Northumberland County is home to countless ice cream parlors, most of which serve local, premium stuff from the region’s two main dairies, Kawartha Dairy or Central Smith, each with a devoted following. Asking the locals which one is best can lead to a heated debate.