When I arrived in Halifax in September of last year, still wet from the Bar Harbor - Yarmouth ferry, I reckoned that life in Canada wouldn't really be like living in another country. I mean, sure, the Canadians still swoon when the Queen visits, and their money is prettier, but we North Americans always seemed pretty similar to me. I'm not as emphatic about that notion now that I've had more experience as an American expatriate. Still, nothing about Canada has been more shocking than my first experience with the donair.
I first learned of this junk-food delicacy on my first night in town. The landlord of my new apartment, noting the late hour, suggested I get some dinner close by while she waited for the power company to show up. The restaurant down the street had the usual assortment of pizza and pasta, along with the fried seafood dishes I'd always assumed were for accommodating tourists in a cruise-ship burg like Halifax. (Maybe it started like that, but in Halifax you can get a lobster sandwich almost anywhere, even in January, FYI.) And then there was an entire section of the menu reserved for something I'd never heard of. I asked what a "DAWN-air" was, and the waitress awkwardly declined to explain, except that it was pronounced "DOUGH-nair." As I thought it foolish to be gastronomically adventurous when I didn't yet have my own bathroom, I sheepishly ordered the salad. Turns out I shouldn't have been embarrassed, because the donair isn't some kind of Canadian shibboleth; it's hardly known outside of mainland Nova Scotia. As proof, I cite the local beer commercial that uses the dish to make fun of ignorant Torontonians! (Not that that's hard.)
So what is a donair? It's a Mediterranean-style pita-bread sandwich of uncertain provenance. The donair is similar to a gyro, except that the meat is beef, not lamb, and the sauce more resembles honey mustard salad dressing than the cucumber dill of tzatziki. While it most likely came from Greece, Turkey, or Lebanon, the donair has achieved ubiquity in Halifax, starting in the 1970s. Any restaurant that sells pizza likely sells donair too, and some even advertise package deals, though I would advise against purchasing from any shop that promises to deliver "2 medium donairs" unless you wish to re-think your perception of "medium." You can even pick up donair meat and sauce at the supermarket. And if you're not lucky enough to live in the SuperCity, home of the world's most capricious weather, you can make it from scratch (see the link below).
I believe the donair to be the world's most perfect junk food, as it lacks even the patina of healthiness. Just look at it: A pound or more of spiced beef, slathered in a sauce that's mostly cream and sugar, sprinkled with "the works" -- usually diced onion and tomato -- and wrapped in a big piece of pan-fried pita bread that's also been drenched in sauce for good measure. If you order a large donair at some places, you might be handed a rolled-up aluminum cylinder that's over three inches in diameter. I can't finish that in one sitting, and I'm The Greatness!
The following are the key points for judging a donair:
Using these criteria, I give you my top five donair places in Halifax:
Velos Pizza Donairs & Subs
6100 Almon St
This place is rumored to be one of the very first restaurants to make donairs in Halifax. They make a very good donair in not too much time, but, frankly, I mostly like them because their location doesn't require too much change to my commute. Nothing really stands out.
King of Donair
pretty much everywhere
These guys are probably the only chain donair restaurant in the world and claim to have invented the dish. Perhaps because of that view, they have a decidedly different take how a donair should taste, especially with regards to the fixings. I happen to like their interpretation on occasion, but your mileage may vary. (Hmm, can I say that in a country that uses the metric system?)
Robert's Pizza & Donair
364 Windmill Rd
If you're in the mood for a donair that's gargantuan and unnecessarily spicy, this is the shop for you. Bring your wallet. Yeah, you gotta drive all-the-way-across-the-bridge into Dartmouth to get it. Yes, of course it's safe; we're in Canada.
Bash Toulanys Fine Foods
5553 Duffus St
This restaurant is generally considered the best donair restaurant in Halifax and is especially notable for its specially-spiced donair meat. Superlative in every way, their donair stands as a close second.
7001 Mumford Rd
My favorite donair shares many of the Toulany qualities, but the Venus sauce and homemade spices are more to my liking. Fact is, the biggest disappointment with most restaurant donairs is uneven distribution or outright deficiency of sauce. Venus produces an excellent product week after week that never has this problem. However, I'd say their portions tend on the skimpy side, so get a large if you're at all hungry. And really, if you're getting a donair, you should be -- anything else would be un-Haligonian!
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