From Korean to Uzbek cuisine, this pop-up café has it all
Corner Espress is located at 20 St. Patrick St. in Toronto
I'm lucky that I receive a healthy amount of tips from listeners, readers and viewers of CBC Toronto programs. I consider it an invaluable bonus to hear about people's favourite places to eat throughout the GTA.
Last summer, I was tipped off about a café in the downtown core that had an unusual story and menu. What lured me to Corner Espress (formerly known as The Corner Espresso) was the coffee, at first. I paid the place a visit when I heard that owner Sammy Lee sources his beans from one of my favourite Toronto roasters, Hatch Coffee.
Corner Espress is not easy to spot. It's attached to a convenience store tucked away on St. Patrick Street, north of Queen West. Inside, you're presented with all the familiar aesthetics of a café.
For coffee, Lee always has a selection of single- and triple-origin blends. There's also a smoothie selection — just ask him to make something for you — and a rotating selection of baked goods. But if you look beyond the traditional café elements at Corner Espress, you'll notice a unique setup.
"The menu changes here," Lee said. "This is my vision — to create a pop-up café, a place of opportunities for people, for newcomers."
Lee was born in South Korea but moved to Canada at the age of four. He considers Toronto home.
And while he's spent most of his life here, he has a strong desire to share South Korean food with Torontonians. He started exploring the idea of hosting food pop-ups a few years ago, where he'd experiment with dishes like Korean fried chicken at various events.
During a pop-up at a church fundraiser, Lee met Hurshed Abdurahimov. Abdurahimov was born in Samarkand, Uzbekistan. He moved to the United Kingdom after learning English, and spent some time in the kitchens of fine dining restaurants.
"I learned how to cook from my father, but wanted expand my skills," he said. "So I decided to travel."
He met his future wife Nurzhan Dzhunusheva in the U.K., and after getting married, they decided to move to Canada. Abdurahimov and Lee hit it off at the church fundraiser over their mutual interest of food and hospitality.
Their friendship inspired Lee to open a café that would double as a food incubator for pop-ups and aspiring chefs like Abdurahimov.
After searching for a suitable space in the city, Lee came across The Corner Espresso space on St. Patrick Street.
"I took it over and briefly kept the same name to make things easier, but I changed the menu," he said. "I wanted to do Korean food but I also wanted a portion of the menu to evolve with the newcomers I was meeting."
I discovered the café soon after Lee had taken over. Initially he was slinging hot bulgogi beef and pork sandwiches — thinly-sliced marinated meat stacked with pickled radish, shiso leaves and hot sauce.
A few weeks later, I noticed non-Korean dishes popping up on the menu. Samosas, German apple cake, Syrian-style hummus and kibbeh (cutlets of chopped meat and bulghur, a form of cracked wheat, with spices).
It was a little confusing at first, but the daily rotating menu was also exciting. Here's this small café, tucked away from the buzzing Queen Street strip, where you can go in and have a plate of spiced pork with kimchi along with a bowl of Uzbek-style beet soup.
The soup was the first sign for me that there was more to Lee's menu than a mash-up of cultures.
"My vision is to unify us in some way, and food is a good excuse," he said. "There are many newcomers in this city, and I'm giving them a chance to have a pop-up here."
On his current menu, Lee serves his take on a popular Korean dish called tteokbokki. It's made up of tubular rice cakes that are tossed in a spicy sauce made up of gochujang (a red chili paste) and ganjang (Korean soy sauce), fish cakes and kimchi.
It's a heart-warming dish that punches you in the face with spice and umami, then lifts you with bites of freshness from the thinly-sliced pickled onions.
On the Uzbek side, Abdurahimov's traditional kavurma is a dish that's hard to find anywhere else in the city. He slow cooks beef with vegetables and spices to the point where the meat is tender enough to flake under a fork, then serves it with spiced potatoes and a salad.
"This is exactly how we would make it back at home," Abdurahimov said.
"A traditional Sunday meal perfect for the cold weather."