The first time I ever ate churros was in Rio de Janeiro years ago, so of course I thought they were Brazilian. Dough freshly squeezed out long and thin, fried in front of you, then skewered onto a spout and filled with some gooey caramel stuff – I was an instant addict. I ate them every day of my visit there, assuming that would be my only chance. But now it’s mid-July in Toronto and once again Salsa on St. Clair satisfies all my cravings.
The first of which is the exhilaration that comes from large numbers of people claiming the street. For two days St. Clair West becomes public pedestrian space – a square, a piazza, a zocalo. It’s just a tantalizing taste, but one of the many at this festival that leaves me wanting more. There are many bands, spaced one or two to a block, each booming with brass horns and drums of every shape and size. As we move along the pavement, one rhythm recedes just as another takes over. Everybody is smiling and dancing right where there is usually traffic. Showboating couples strut and twirl and hesitant learners follow generous and sometimes unlikely teachers. Wandering with my fistful of churros, we see amazing moves all around us. It’s impossible to resist swaying to the beat or to suppress involuntary hip swivels – we will never be smooth, but it’s fun anyway.
I know now that churros can be had in any number of Latin American countries and in Canada, too. Here at Salsa on St. Clair, the churro makers are Peruvian and they often have the longest line-up on the street. Last year I actually got the last churro – the last one! Not risking it this year, we are here before sunset on day one. They are delicious simply sprinkled with cinnamon sugar and some people like them filled or drizzled with chocolate. But best by far is biting through the crispy ridges into creamy dulce de leche.
The patios at all the local restaurants are packed, but they all have their specialties set out in front – who says butter chicken doesn’t go with empanadas? They’re all authentic tastes that the cooks grew up on and learned to make in kitchens back home. And we can’t resist roasted sweet corn on the cob, the taste of Ontario summer.
I stare at the hands of the pupusa ladies while they pat the dough and flap it from palm to palm, shaping it by feel, but I never really catch the transition from lump to pancake shape, and never see how they keep the filling inside. All I know is, dump on that vinegary coleslaw for some crunchy contrast, and red sauce is good but green sauce is better.
We have run out of dance stamina and are not prepared to eat our street food actually sitting on the street, but we are lucky to have another option – we carry our pupusas, tandoori and butter chicken, and one last churro a few blocks home and eat sitting on our own back porch. We can still hear the music.
– Schuster Gindin
Photos by Schuster Gindin