Toronto’s vibrant Kensington Market is well-known for its diverse mix of shops, restaurants and cultures. As you walk past the neighbourhood’s brightly painted storefronts and graffiti covered walls, a simple black-and-white sign—framed in natural timber—singles out the Pow Wow Cafe as does its popular Indian taco.
Added to Toronto’s dining scene in late-October 2016, the eatery is the creation of chef Shawn Adler—the force behind a number of restaurants located across Ontario—who wanted to introduce diners to the Indigenous dishes he grew up eating.
“I wanted to be in Kensington Market because it’s an awesome community,” says Adler, who has fond childhood memories of visiting the area with his parents. “You build [a sense of] community around restaurants,” he says. “People are drawn to them and become part of the restaurant.”
Of Anishinaabe and Jewish descent, Adler grew up in Orangeville, Ont., and followed the powwow trail every weekend during the summer. He and his younger brothers would keep a running tally of how many tacos they could devour over the course of a single weekend. It wasn’t until he enrolled in a high school cooking class—“I thought women would like [a man] who could cook,” says Adler—that his interest in cooking began. “I took a liking to it and never stopped.”
Adler opened his first restaurant, Aasmaabik’s Bakery and Bistro, in Peterborough, Ont., when he was 23 years old. Since then, the self-described “perpetual restaurateur” has opened four restaurants across Ontario—as well as the Pow Wow Cafe food truck, a regular feature at the Na-Me-Res Annual Traditional Pow Wow at Toronto’s Fort York.
It was while on the circuit of summer music festivals with his food truck that Adler gained a better understanding of the popularity of the Indian taco—fry bread topped with beef, grated cheddar cheese, iceberg lettuce, tomato and sour cream. “Fry bread is a fusion of non-Indigenous ingredients and Indigenous ingenuity and knowledge to come up with [something] delicious,” says Adler. “People would eat five or six [tacos] over the weekend.”
It was because of this success that he decided to open a brick-and-mortar version of the Pow Wow Cafe. When it comes to Adler’s signature dish, the chef starts with the classic components of the traditional Indian taco, but adds what he describes as “flavours reminiscent of a South American taco.”
There is the addition of cumin in the sour cream, jalapenos, cilantro, sprouts and flowers—including calendula and pansies—which helps the classic taco take a delicious twist. Other playful creations on his menu include a salmon and mussels taco, a red lentil coconut curry taco, and even a chicken shawarma taco.
Adler says he is proud to be a part of the burgeoning Indigenous dining scene in Toronto. “There’s a huge food community [and chefs such as] Joseph Shawana from Ku-Kum Kitchen and Joel [Whiteduck Ringuette] at NishDish [are on] a great crusade to bring Indigenous food to the forefront. It’s a really cool thing that’s going on.”
Shawn Adler’s Top 3 Toronto Restaurants
“My number one favourite eat in Toronto is Liberty Shawarma. The mix plate of shawarma is amazing.”
“I am a heavy supporter of Pho Pasteur on Dundas. It’s open 24 hours a day and the people are amazingly nice.”
“Rickshaw Bar is on Queen Street and specializes in Southeast Asian cuisine. The flavours are amazing.”
[This story appears in the February 2019 issue of WestJet Magazine]