Toronto·Suresh Doss

Try the jerk chicken sandwich slathered in homemade pineapple hot sauce at this spot in East York

Tucked on the side of a small plaza, Tata Hot Sauce Emporium, located at 219 Rexleigh Dr., is known for its homemade hot sauces.

Tata Hot Sauce Emporium is located at 219 Rexleigh Dr. in Toronto

Though Tata Hot Sauce Emporium is known for its homemade hot sauces, it more recently started serving jerk chicken sandwiches. Pictured here is the super deluxe version, which comes with a Jamaican patty. (Suresh Doss/CBC)

Tata Hot Sauce Emporium was introduced to me as a "hot sauce shop with a lot of personality."

The tiny shop on St Clair East, famous for its pineapple hot sauce is also, as I discovered, a place where family matters.

Son and mother team Odaine and Sharna Davidson just reopened the shop a few weeks ago, and while it's a chance to do business it's also about healing.  

"Family members encouraged me to get back to work. My mom as well. So we're back with hot sauces and sandwiches," Odaine said.

"Not related to the pandemic, I lost my grandmother and my cousin during the shutdown. This was emotionally very tough. Not being able to grieve fully was very painful," Odaine said. 

Odaine and Sharna Davidson reopened the shop a few weeks ago after closing in mid-March due to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Suresh Doss/CBC)

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a devastating impact on Toronto's food and drink business, where margins are razor thin. Tata's, like many eateries, was forced to close in mid-March. 

"We wanted to follow the rules. We were scared," Odaine said. The following weeks have been stressful for the family. 

For Odaine, it's a bit like the time he was bouncing around the hospitality industry trying to find his calling. 

"I've worked in many of the top restaurants in the city, but never in the kitchen. I was learning the ropes. Trying to find my footing. That's around when I tasted my mom's hot sauce."

Tinkering in the kitchen and drawing from memories growing up in Kingston, Jamaica, Sharna started experimenting with sauce making a few years ago (in addition to her day job as a personal support worker). 

"These are just memories, fragments of memories. There was never really a recipe," she said.

Mixing the fire and subtle sweet notes from scotch bonnet peppers, she would experiment by adding tropical fruit; papaya, mango or pineapple.

One day she made Odaine try it. 

Chicken used for the sandwhiches is grilled in Odaine's tiny makeshift kitchen in the back, and layered on soft coco bread for sandwiches.  (Suresh Doss/CBC)

"When I tasted my mom's hot sauce, I knew immediately we had to do something with this. I had to share it with the world," he said.

Sharna would make hot sauces. Odaine would find a way to sell them.

"This was the birth of the sauce emporium," he said. 

Tucked on the side of a small plaza like an afterthought, nestled in a residential neighbourhood, you will easily miss it as you drive by on St Clair East. But while it's not easy to find, the flavours are worth it. 

The shop, which opened for the first time nearly four years ago, started off selling only hot sauces. (Suresh Doss/CBC)

Sharna makes her sauces in small batches, so the flavours are pronounced, and unlike big-box hot sauces, there's a wonderful texture to Sharna's. If I had to pick a favourite it would be the pineapple hot sauce.

There's also a "smoked" hot sauce Odaine makes. He gets his scotch bonnet peppers smoked at The Wren on the Danforth.

"It sells out fast," he warned.

When the shop originally opened nearly four years ago, Odaine had no plans to serve hot food.

"I just wanted to sell the hot sauce. But then I noticed the neighbourhood," he said.

While Sharna creates the hot sauces, Odaine sells them and makes the hot food dishes. (Suresh Doss/CBC)

The shop is in the middle of three neighbourhoods and the demographics have changed dramatically in the past decade. But few restaurants have opened to meet the changing palate.

Odaine also noticed that since he is situated across from a middle school, he would regularly be greeted with kids that were looking for lunch.

"So I started slinging sandwiches and patties," Odaine said.

Sharna and Odaine wanted to keep the menu simple so they came up with a jerk marinade, teeming with black pepper, thyme, garlic, which Odaine would use to marinate chicken. The chicken is grilled in his tiny makeshift kitchen in the back, and layered on soft coco bread for sandwiches. 

In a city filled with hot sauces and jerk chicken, Tata has become a regular place for me. There's something incredibly satisfying about each bite of sandwich, the soft coco bread, the deep earthy marinade, creamed together with a generous slathering of house mayo.

And, of course, the heat from the hot sauce.

"I usually use the pineapple hot for the sandwich."

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