Walk into Ali’s West Indian Roti shop. Glance to your left. Now, to your right. With two massive wall murals depicting Maracas Bay, this institution in Toronto’s multicultural Parkdale neighborhood brings you one step closer to Caribbean heat, even in the midst of a Toronto winter. But you haven’t acclimatized until you’ve tried the homemade pepper sauce and tamarind chutney that blesses Shiraz Aligour’s authentic Trinidadian dishes.
A former welder hailing from Princes Town, Trinidad, which is said to be the birthplace of Doubles, Ali moved to Toronto in 1972. After an injury on the job, he opened up his first shop four years later with his wife, in a smaller unit one block away. They’re the go-to for Caribbean eats at the Canadian National Exhibition, where Ali has operated two restaurants in the food building for the last 16 years.
“When we started, 90 percent of our customers were West Indian,” Aligour says of his now 38-year-old establishment. “The white customers didn’t know about our food, so they were introduced to it by their co-workers and would come and try. They would ask, ‘What is a roti?’ and I would have to explain it. There were no pictures [on the menu boards] at the time. Those who liked spice would get right into it. The others, it would take time.”
Now, Aligour says the clientele is “50/50” due to the various ethnic backgrounds within the community. Likely Toronto’s oldest Trini establishment – and the one that brought doubles to the city – Ali’s is the Mecca for piping hot roti. What Ali describes as a “boat,” can weigh up to two pounds, with fillings of boneless chicken, curry goat, veggies, and shrimp. The doubles, too, are massive. Two, tumeric-rich bara blanket the perfectly cooked channa, fragrant with garlic, thyme and cumin. Ali also serves a top notch POS sidewalk snack: Sahina, deep-fried dough balls blended with split peas and collard greens. To offset the spice, finish off with one of Ali’s home made ice creams: Coconut, mango and soursop are all made with fresh fruit.
Ali shuffles back and forth between the back kitchen, where staff are kneading dhalpuri dough, baking paratha skins and simmering curry beef—all Halal. “Yes, sir! How are you?” he asks a familiar face at the cash, grabbing an aloo pie, adding a dollop of chutney and wrapping it quick.
“When I started to work in Canada, my friends couldn’t say the full name Aligour, so they shortened my name to ‘Ali’,” he says over a glass of Mauby. “Last week, 10 new customers arrived and said, ‘oh, my friend told me to come,’ or ‘I was walking in Parkdale and wanted a roti and somebody told me to go to Ali’s.’ It makes me feel good. I can serve my people and introduce our culture to the Canadian culture.”