Kitchener-Waterloo

Iconic dishes of Waterloo region: Andrew Coppolino

Though they may not be as famous as the Philly Cheesesteak, Buffalo's wings or the meaty Miami Cuban Sandwich, Waterloo region has its own iconic dishes that give us both an understanding of our past and a view of how we've evolved as a community.
The Olde Heidelberg Restaurant and Tavern's massive smoked pork hock with sauerkraut has become a tourist attraction for the Wellesley-based business. (Andrew Coppolino/CBC)

Consider the Philly Cheesesteak, Chicago's drippy Italian Beef Sandwich with giardiniera, Buffalo wings and the meaty Miami Cuban Sandwich: they're iconic dishes for their namesake cities.

Make no mistake, in Waterloo region, we have our own iconic dishes that give us both an understanding of our past and a view of how we have evolved as a community.

People identify with iconic dishes. They're foods that stand the test of time and possess a comforting quality. The dishes may be replicated by cooks and change over time — that's when you know an iconic food has caught on and continues to please. 

A long, delicious history 

Waterloo region's culinary past is Germanic and Pennsylvania Dutch. Even today we find schnitzels, kraut wickel (cabbage rolls), stuffed rolled ribs and sweet-braised pigtails on many menus. The Charcoal Steak House started serving serving pigtails — an example of "Waterloo County fare" — six decades ago and it continues to do so to this day. The Lancaster Smokehouse, recognizing the pigtail's historic place at the "Waterloo County" table, has it on the  barbecue menu, too.

Throughout the cities, and in the townships, you can find beef roulade with braised red cabbage and schnitzel with sauerkraut — and not just at German clubs during Oktoberfest. For decades, The Blue Moon Tavern in St. Petersburg, now closed, served a Limburger cheese sandwich, an iconic dish to say the least.

There is still "cook" cheese (koch kaese, made to preserve extra dairy) made at Oak Grove Cheese in New Hamburg. Also, the summer sausage Noah Martin started making in Hawkesville in the 1950s is still being made today: a fermented sausage, it was originally made to be preserved during the warm summer months.

The olde Heidelberg Restaurant and Tavern, an 1860s stage coach stop, is currently well-known for serving a massive smoked pork hock (schwein shaxe) with sauerkraut. It's a tourist attraction.

Maple syrup and apple butter are two iconic foods celebrated with their own festivals. The Elmira Maple Syrup Festival and the Wellesley Apple Butter & Cheese Festival have been running for 55 and 43 years, respectively.

At the St. Jacobs Market, people wait in long lines for piping hot and crisp-fried apple fritters, a tradition at the Market since the late 1980s.

Modern sandwiches

Nostra Cucina's veal sandwich is an up-and-coming icon. It was selected by Veal Farmers of Ontario as Ontario's best veal sandwich, 2018. (Andrew Coppolino/CBC)

Moving into the post-World War II and fast-food era, Sonny's is an original drive-in era burger joint dating from 1965 that continues to be popular today; on Good Friday, the hungry throngs line up for fish and chips. Another sandwich, The Munchie sub at Pepi's Pizza, became the go-to snack 50 years ago and remains a favourite for late-night foragers after the bars close. 

The pork slider from Harmony Lunch has a long history in Waterloo. After the restaurant was sold a few years ago to Fat Sparrow Group (named for little fried fritter bits known as "fetschpatze" in German) the new owners kept a variation of the slider on their menu. The original burger meat is sold at Stemmler's so you can make them at home.

A relatively new sandwich — an award-winner, Nostra Cucina's veal sandwich — was selected in a province-wide competition as Ontario's best veal sandwich, according to Veal Farmers of Ontario. It may become another edible symbol of the region.

Culture shift

Many foods chronicle our cultural evolution, immigration patterns and geopolitics.  

A noodle soup like pho appeared in all its slurpy goodness on our food horizon decades ago when Ben Thanh opened on what was is now the downtown Kitchener Market. Today, there are dozens of Thai-Vietnamese restaurants in the region, perhaps representative of refugees fleeing southeast Asia in the 1970s and following the fall of Saigon in 1975.

The pupusa of Central America and Middle Eastern shawarma also represent a delicious culture shift in our food. 

Whether classic or modern, locally-influenced dishes capture our culinary and cultural history in one way or another. They help define who we are and where we came from but, like the proverbial mirror held up to ourselves, they also reveal our current and future evolving multi-cultural identity.

Ben Thanh can be credited with starting the pho and noodle soup trend in Waterloo region decades ago. Today, there are dozens of Thai-Vietnamese restaurants in the region. (Andrew Coppolino/CBC)

Read more from CBC K-W food columnist Andrew Coppolino

About the Author

Andrew Coppolino

Food columnist, CBC Kitchener-Waterloo

Andrew Coppolino is a food columnist for CBC Radio in Waterloo Region. He was formerly restaurant reviewer with The Waterloo Region Record. He also contributes to Culinary Trends and Restaurant Report magazines in the U.S. and is the co-author of Cooking with Shakespeare. A couple of years of cooking as an apprentice chef in a restaurant kitchen helped him decide he wanted to work with food from the other side of the stove.

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