The food at Charmaine’s Place may swing from Jamaican to German, but one thing remains constant: Charmaine Frado wants you to eat like you did growing up. And that means finishing your veggies.
On the dusty corner of Davenport and Laughton, where buses carry workers to their afternoon shifts and construction trucks are always rumbling by, the bright lilac exterior of Charmaine’s Place shines like a beacon. Inside, owner Charmaine Frado can usually be found hovering over a stove, whipping together something that draws on her multicultural makeup—her father’s Italian, her mother’s side has Mennonites living in Germany, her husband (and co-owner), Zephie James, is Jamaican. Frado is a one-woman food experience.
“If customers come here one day to eat jerk chicken, they could get meatballs the next,” she says. “I like making a Chinese-style curry with potatoes, and wait till I whip out my pierogies. I just call my food ‘home cooking.’”
After working with the homeless and people with mental-health issues for more than a decade at the Parkdale Activity-Recreation Centre, Frado moved on to the Toronto School of Art, then lost her job last November when the school declared bankruptcy. Looking for a change, she decided to snatch up the vacant corner restaurant near her house in a largely working-class neighbourhood.
“At night, we’d be packing up and getting ready to go home, and people would knock on our door asking if we still had food because their shift had just ended,” Frado recalls. “We actually sold them what was going to be our dinner. There’s no place to get food here at night.” She tweaked the restaurant hours, making Charmaine’s Place one of the few spots where you can get home-cooked takeout (not burgers, shawarma, or pizza) after 9 p.m.
The menu changes daily, focusing on one meat, veg, and starch ($6.50 for a small combo, $8.50 for a large). Thursdays are meatball days: A mixture of beef, pork, and chicken (she decided against veal, as some customers didn’t care for it), plus breadcrumbs, Parmesan, and parsley, is doused in a thick tomato sauce that Frado has been making for as long as she can remember. The meatballs are one of the dishes she’s proudest of, and when they’re offered, about 100 of them will fly out of the shop that day. Two months ago, just after opening, she sent a tray of meatballs to the local police station; that tray came back without a single crumb on it.
There’s also the moist roasted chicken leg rubbed with jerk spice (she brought back 100 kilos of the stuff from Montego Bay last spring), which is easily pulled apart with the flimsiest of plastic forks. But as important as the meat is, Frado pays equal attention to her vegetables and starches, rotating between garlicky rapini, spiced callaloo, creamy risotto, and herbed Jamaican rice. “At a lot of restaurants, if I wanted vegetables, I had to order them à la carte,” she says. “It irked me, and I thought if I were going to serve home cooking like you’d eat as a kid, there better be a vegetable on that plate.”
Sunday is Frado’s off day—in her place, her husband takes to the kitchen for brunch. James’s specialty: Jamaica’s national breakfast dish of salt fish and ackee with dumplings. Salted cod is soaked in water overnight, then boiled and cooked with ackee, a creamy fruit that resembles (and has a mild flavour similar to) scrambled eggs.
“To give it that West Indian taste, you have to have the seasonings, like scallion, thyme, black pepper, and scotch bonnet pepper. Once you get all of that, you let it simmer down real nice and then we have Jamaican dumplings,” says James, wiggling his fingers like he’s sprinkling fairy dust into an invisible pot, or maybe playing percussion—he’s also a musician. “It’s just plain water, flour, and salt that you knead, but it gives that little cushion with the ackee. It’s the magic touch.”
Frado recently added an extra half-dozen seats, but for now, she’s focused less on expansion and more on what she’s going to make for next week’s menu. “What you’d get here, you’d get at my house,” she says. “You come to my house today, you’re not going to get the same thing tomorrow.”
1930 Davenport Rd., 416-792-1930, charmainesplace.ca.