Hodo Kwaja translates quite simply to “walnut cake,” the specialty of this humble little family-owned powerhouse that’s been a Toronto staple for over twenty-five years.
They only sell five items: the walnut cakes, Korean pancakes, madeleine sponge cakes, shaved ice, and seasonal Chun Byung nut cookies that are such a thin, specific texture they can’t stand up to summer’s humidity.
The star attraction of the shop is the walnut-cake-making machine in the front window that passers by press their faces against the glass to watch, imported from South Korea all in one piece.
Fully automated, the machine uses natural gas and cast-iron molds to make not only the famous nominal walnut cakes, but madeleine and Chun Byung as well.
It cranks out about fifteen hundred walnut cakes an hour.
It takes Suki Lee’s mother over a day and a half to make her red bean and mashed potato fillings for the walnut cakes from scratch using local ingredients and no added preservatives.
Her mom and dad make all the batter for the cakes by hand, cracking about 90 eggs per set of two batters.
The cast iron molds shape the cakes like walnuts on the outside, alluding to the crunchy chunk of walnut embedded in the soft filling wrapped in the fluffy dough (there are also some with almond chunks).
Korean pancakes are also made by hand, dough stretched around sweet filling and pressed flat on the griddle.
There are two filling options for pancakes, brown sugar ($2) and red bean ($2.25).
The brown sugar option is also filled with peanuts and sunflower seeds, a basic Korean combination that’s nutty and comforting. The red bean is almost chocolatey, and both are underscored by lots of butter.
They’re served on a paper plate with a cardboard tong that can be used to hold the burning hot pancake as it’s eaten. You can also rip the pancake apart or in half and tear off steaming chunks.
Madeleines ($1.50 for 3, $5.50 for 14, $10 for 28) are made simply with flour, eggs, milk, butter, sugar and almonds, and taste relatively plain, good for soaking up coffee. Crispy Chun Byung come in peanut, seaweed and almond flavours, $8 for 26.
Self-serve drip coffee that goes excellently with everything tops out at $1.65.
Alternately, refresh yourself with a rare traditional Korean starting at $1.25.
They come in flavours like rice punch and cinnamon.
Suki Lee has been working here since she was four years old, and has seen the signs on the wall go from Korean to English, and the approximate hundred customers that pass through the doors each day evolve into a spectrum of ages and races.