This Afghan lunch spot is a hidden gem tucked away in a meat store

Subway Morning‘s food guide, Suresh Doss, joins us every week to discuss one of the many great GTA eateries he’s discovered.

This week, he talked to host Ismaila Alfa about an Afghan spot in Thorncliffe, two days after the first ever Michelin guide was released in Toronto.

Suresh Doss: On the Michelin guide, I think the most important thing to note is that any recognition to the restaurant scene in Toronto is a positive. It helps with tourism, it helps restaurants get noticed. And it bolsters our overall image as a city. But I do have some feelings about the guide itself. Because I feel that while it covers some of the obvious spots, it falls short to really showcase how incredible our city is for food, especially when you zoom in on smaller shops doing specialty cuisine.

Ismaila Alpha: On that note, you’ve picked a special place for us.

suresh Doss: Thorncliffe Park is is a neighborhood that is dear to me. I’ve never lived in this part of East York, but I have always been adjacent, always nearby. Some of my very first memories of Afghan and Pakistani food in Toronto have been in this neighborhood. Even regular trips to Iqbal foods, this wonderful supermarket. Side note, Ismaila I highly recommend you visit Iqbal foods.

Ismaila Alpha: Why is that?

Suresh Doss: Because I am convinced they have the largest selection of rice in the country. In the pantheon of great cultural-forward supermarkets we have in the city, Iqbal is high at the top. And it’s an example of how this wonderful community has grown and evolved over the years, especially when it comes to food. Which brings us to this gem of a spot, tucked inside a butcher shop.

The hot counter at Madina Nan Kabob is inside a Pakistani meat store, Al Mina Halal Meat and Grocery. (Suresh Doss/CBC)

Ismaila Alpha: Madina Nan and Kabab?

Suresh Doss: Yes and it’s tucked inside a butcher shop called Al-Mina Halal Meat and Grocery. The story here is of two Afghan brothers who migrated to Canada from Kandahar in the early 2000s.

They are Habib Jan Hakim and his younger brother Najib Raufi. While neither worked in the restaurant space back home, Habib always wanted his own little spot for years. For a number of years, he would cater to families in the neighborhood for picnics and events. He was working as a mechanic when the pandemic struck and says that he basically saw it as an opportunity to switch fields and find a place to do takeout.

Najib makes fresh naan with a lot of sesame seeds for a nutty flavour. (Suresh Doss/CBC)

Ismaila Alpha: How does that bring him to the butcher shop?

Suresh Doss: A detail about Thorncliffe Park that is relevant here is that there is a lot of camaraderie in the entrepreneurial space here. There is always a collaboration between two parties. You’ll find that the supermarket will carry mango pickle made by nearby aunties. The roti at the hot counter in the food court at the mall is made by a family in one of the apartment buildings.

Ismaila Alpha: So there is a real sense of community here.

There is some incredible connective tissue that binds Thorncliffe Park. Habib was introduced to the store owner of the Pakistani butcher shop, Ashram by a business owner in the same plaza. The offer was simple, Habib wanted half the space and he promised to use ingredients from the butcher shop for his menu. And the rest is history.

Ismaila Alpha: So what is on the menu here at Madina?

The brothers infuse their kabob with detectable Pakistani flavors after years of catering for the Thorncliffe Park community. (Suresh Doss/CBC)

Suresh Doss: Habib and Najib have a very straight forward menu here, a tribute to three things; bread, meat and rice. There is an assortment of meat that Habib prepares in-house. He would be the first to point out that it is not classically Afghan-style, it is something he has adopted after years of cooking for Pakistani palates.

So there’s pronounced spicy, roasted spices in the marinades. Some meats are marinated for a few hours, the beef in some cases for a day or two. And then everything is skewered and cooked over charcoal.

You can have the plates here with freshly made naan, which Najib makes, dotting bread with an excessive amount of sesame seeds so each bite has that nutty pop, or you can have the kebabs over rice, which is cooked to the right tenderness in a blend of spices.

There’s also another option. So a few months ago Habib added Kabuli pulao to the menu. This is the iconic Afghan-style rice cooked with a little sugar. It’s jeweled with carrots and raisins. It is just a fantastic counterbalance to the kebabs. You can also request to add some house Chile sauce, and some yogurt sauce to the plate. That’s how I’ve been enjoying it the past several months.

Madina added Kabuli pulao to their menu. It’s best served with some house chili sauce and yogurt sauce. (Suresh Doss/CBC)

Ismaila Alpha: Is there anything you recommend to finish this great meal at Madina?

Suresh Doss: There’s a secret item one the menu, firni. It is a rice pudding, which is similar to Indian kheer made with ground rice instead.

I’m not sure why its a secret dish because when you ask for it, Habib will spend a few minutes to explain why he is so proud of how he makes the dish. He boils milk over a long period of time, doesn’t use any store bought powders, and dots it with pistachio crumbs.

It is a really luxurious, creamy finish to this meal.

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