This couple recreates Colombia's café culture in their Markham restaurant
The Toston is located at 35 Karachi Drive in Markham
A few weeks after returning from a trip to Colombia last year, I scoured the city to find traditional Colombian dishes like bandeja paisa. The dish, which literally translates to "workman's platter," is an assortment of meats, sausages and chicharron served with rice and beans.
A friend of mine suggested I head to Karachi Drive plaza in Markham. There was a small place there serving what he claimed to be the best empanadas he'd ever eaten.
So I took him up on the challenge.
Karachi Drive is not a place I would expect to find a Colombian restaurant. It's a fairly new plaza — less than a decade old — and it's dominated by Indian, Sri Lankan and Hakka places.
But sure enough, there was The Toston: a small restaurant that immediately transports you from the moment you step through the door.
"We wanted to bring Colombia's rich café culture to Canada, so everything here is themed after coffee," said co-owner Cristina Arbelaez.
Arbelaez operates the café alongside her husband, Alexander Sandoval. It's just the two of them running the 18-seat restaurant.
Arbelaez is the sociable one, so she manages the front while Sandoval cooks up a menu of traditional Colombian paisa food.
For the first few visits, I only interacted with Arbelaez.
"Do you want some coffee?" She would ask every time I visited.
"No please, just the empanadas for now," I always answered.
She would serve them fresh with a small serving of house-made salsa. On their own, the empanadas were excellent.
They weren't at all greasy, with a creamy corn cake blanketed by a thin crisp shell, then a wonderfully-spiced beef mixture in the middle.
"You can't eat empanadas like that," Arbelaez said, spotting my mistake. "Colombian empanadas are meant to be enjoyed with the salsa!"
I'm glad she corrected me. The salsa enhances the empanada, bringing tang and heat to the equation.
It was addictive.
I couldn't resist dunking each piece of empanada to scoop up the onion, tomato, lime and chilli mix. If nothing else jumps out at you on the menu, grab a bag of empanadas to go — with extra salsa — and you will leave happy.
During a subsequent visit, I finally said yes to the coffee. Sandoval appeared out of the kitchen with a plate of pastry to go with the drink.
"Try this: it's traditional pandebono," he said.
Pandebono is a baked pastry made with cheese and yucca starch. They're lightly sweet and go surprisingly well with the bitter, chocolate notes in Colombian coffee.
Sandoval bakes them fresh every morning.
"When I miss my home city, Cali, I drink coffee and eat some pandebono," he said.
Sandoval was once a police officer during the height of the Colombian cartel wars. He fled Cali after his dad, a fellow officer, was murdered in front of him in his home.
He fled to Miami and entered the hospitality industry.
"I knew how to cook, and it was work I could easily get into in Miami," he said.
It was there Sandoval discovered a passion for cooking. He operated a food truck for nearly a decade, then decided to move again.
He claimed asylum in Canada in 2007 and met his future wife, a fellow Colombian, here.
"I cannot explain to you how incredible it feels to be welcome in Canada," Arbelaez said. "This is our home, and it has given us so much safety and opportunity."
"It has allowed us to bring our dream to life."
That dream is The Toston, a day-to-night café-cum-restaurant where the couple translates their nostalgia into traditional dishes. When I asked Sandoval what dish on the menu he's most closely connected to, he said the signature item: the toston.
It's a labour-intensive dish. Sandoval fries the whole plantain before he flattens it to create a base for either sautéed vegetables or meat.
My favourite is a version with both beef and vegetables.
Then there's the acclaimed bandeja paisa. I recommend Sandoval's take on the dish if you're dining with a partner. All the classic elements — sausage, steak, plantain, and pork skin — are stacked on a plate with rice and beans.
Sandoval is careful to avoid over-cooking the meat, so if you're a meat lover, this is heaven.
What stands out to me about The Toston is the couple's unique approach to recreate the all-day café culture of Colombia, whether it's a plate of pandebono and coffee for breakfast, or a hearty meat platter for dinner.