At Randy’s Take-Out, Caribbean customers can’t stop coming back.
Every city has its iconic handheld snack, wrapped in some sort of pastry. New Yorkers have knishes, the folks in Buenos Aires have empanadas, and Hong Kong’s residents can point to their fluffy steamed pork buns. With its buffet of edible cultures, Toronto has several great contenders to choose from, but I’d argue the Jamaican patty holds top billing in this town.
If you want to see why, head to Randy’s Take-Out, on Eglinton, east of Oakwood, at lunchtime. Inside the small, takeout-only space, at least a dozen people will be pressed up against the counter, from school kids with backpacks to crews of dusty construction workers to Rastafarians with towering dreadlock beehives. They’ll be waiting, ever so patiently, as co-owner Jennifer Lee and her staff hurriedly pack boxes and bags with patties that have just emerged from the ovens on trays, smelling divine. The turnover is so quick, the demand so fierce, that the bakers don’t even have a chance to set the hot trays down. They just stand there as the patties are packed up and sent off, returning to the back with another empty tray, ready to be filled and baked for the next round.
The Jamaican patty’s history is tied up in the colonial legacy of Jamaica, where the sweet British turnover was given a savoury edge, courtesy of the curried spices of Indian migrants and the fiery peppers of African slaves. Lee, as well as her brother-in-law, Raymond Fung, and his brother Randy, grew up in the small Chinese community of St. Andrew, a parish near Kingston, Jamaica, where the Fung family ran a restaurant.
Jamaicans had been moving to Toronto in significant numbers since the end of World War II, but their numbers grew greatly in the 1970s, as economic strife and political violence drove many out of the country to seek a better life. “At that time,” recalls Lee, who moved to Toronto in 1976, “there was a lot of turmoil in Jamaica.” The Lee family settled in North York and opened Randy’s Take-Out in 1978 on the stretch of Eglinton West known as Little Jamaica.
In many ways, Little Jamaica is as vibrant today as it was then. For two blocks, brightly painted beauty salons and barbershops, music stores, and clothing boutiques burst with activity late into the night. During the summer, the sweet smoke of jerk chicken grilling in steel drums perfumes the street. Anchoring the middle of the strip is Randy’s, which sees lineups out the door on weekends, when the barber chairs next door are filled, and reggae and dancehall music fills the air.
Despite its small size and complete lack of seating, Randy’s acts as a sort of de facto community centre, where everyone knows everyone’s name, and news passes by mouth faster than on Twitter. “Oh my goodness,” says Lee. “I think it’s Speaker’s Corner in here sometimes. They come in and they talk about politics, family…all things. They just congregate right here.”
“When you don’t see anyone for a long time, come here and you’ll see them,” says Norma King. A customer since day one, King is loyal to the patties, and eats at least one every day. “Randy’s has a special flavour, and everyone likes that flavour. Their patties taste different…the dough is so flaky and nice. I think it’s the best one in town. Honestly!”
The patties’ yellowish crust, coloured by turmeric and egg yolk, is light and flaky, but not greasy in the slightest. It’s equal parts crumbly and chewy, holding in the piping hot filling. The most popular flavour is beef, spicy enough to give a kick, but still able to stand up to a few shakes of Jamaican hot pepper sauce, and so juicy you need to eat it in a bag. The same seasoning transforms the vegetable mix of peas, carrots, callaloo, corn, and onion into something sublime, while the ackee fish and salt cod patty is more subtle on the spice, bringing out the flavours of a beach-shack lunch.
Randy’s offers a few other options, including stewed curried goat or oxtail, along with rice and beans; ginger beer, juices, and other Jamaican drinks (no alcohol, though); and coco bread, a baked sweetish bun that’s split open and filled with a patty to make a sort of double sandwich that’s a riot of soft, crunchy, sweet, and spicy contrasts.
Even though the Jamaican community in Toronto now numbers over 80,000, immigration has diminished in the past decade, and the community has increasingly moved out to suburbs like Brampton, spreading the love of patties across the GTA. Little Jamaica has been struggling, with several shops and stores closing this year alone. But Randy’s remains, and as long as Torontonians love patties, they’ll keep cranking them out.
“Business before pleasure,” Michelle, the cashier, says to a customer waiting for his order. “Unless pleasure is your business.”
Randy’s Take-Out, 1569 Eglinton Ave. W., 416-781-5313.