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Twenty years ago, downtown Toronto’s west side, known by locals as west Queen West, was a rough part of town with no shortage of seedy watering holes and drug dealers. Today rents have been hiked, a new crop of entrepreneurs are opening boutiques, restaurants and galleries – and the drug of choice is good old-fashioned sugar.

Soma Chocolate
An excellent starting point for a sugary neighbourhood tour is the light and airy Soma Chocolate on King Street, where addictions are couched in an environment of sophistication and elegance. One of a precious few “bean to bar” micro-chocolate makers in North America,  Soma’s chocolate is crafted in small batches from a world atlas of fair trade and organic cacao beans sourced from countries including Indonesia, Dominican Republic and Peru. 

Due to Soma’s popularity, this is the company’s second location in town, opened in 2011, although co-owner David Castellan said there are no plans for further expansion: “to us it was never about volume but creating a small batch of something fantastic, which is the essence of why we started Soma in the first place.”

Peer into the onsite lab for a Charlie in the Chocolate Factory experience or saddle up at the slate bar while sipping an espresso-sized cup of thick, chilli-laced hot chocolate.

A single bite from any bar or truffle is both memorable and educative. Consider the difference between a hotel room packet of instant coffee versus freshly ground fair-trade java and you will begin to get a sense of what many consider the best chocolate in Toronto. Each bar is a careful experiment of roasting, conching and aging, with different beans exhibiting unique perfumes and flavour notes.

The 32% Costa Rican milk chocolate is a prize, its slow melt evoking whispers of coffee and caramel; while the 64% Dark Peruvian satisfies with a single square, setting off a burst of endorphins  with its heady, vanilla-spiked aroma alone. And do not leave without trying the Old School: cookie-like fingers of crumbly goodness. This bar has not evolved far from the bean; unrefined, gritty and raw, it is a marriage of cocoa nibs and crystals of organic cane sugar ground together. 

Dlish Cupcakes
Hopping north a few blocks and west along Queen Street, watch out for the diminutive and minimalist Dlish, known to locals as cupcake heaven, just before Trinity Bellwoods park.

Through his extensive world travels, Dlish creator Verge Manuel made two keen observations: that people without deep pockets will still shell out for flavour indulgences, and that small baked items make people happy.

Pouring his heart and soul into Dlish, the energetic Manuel leads by example, and can often be found baking or frosting the cakes as well as serving customers.  A highly regarded entrepreneur on this stretch of Queen Street, he is known for donating any leftover cupcakes to local food banks, as well as a few lucky neighbours.

The former telecommunications store owner said he knew he made the right move when he ran out of cupcakes on his very first weekend in December 2010, and the queue extended out the door the second. Now baking some 8,000 to 10,000 oil- and preservative-free cupcakes each week (a second location has recently been added uptown), quality remains uncompromised by quantity as he sticks firm to his philosophy of same-day baked desserts with the sponge made strictly with real milk, sugar, cream and butter. Natural flavourings draw from top quality ingredients such as carefully sourced Belgian chocolate and Madagascar bourbon vanilla.

On a recent visit, regular customers already familiar with the printed “flavour schedule” had dropped in for their favourite Tuesday offerings, which include cinnamon, dulce de leche, vanilla on chocolate and the award-winning red velvet cupcakes. A middle-aged brunette gushed about the outstanding chocolate coconut (“the secret is cream cheese”, she said) and grinned widely after buying four.

Forget about anti-aging products. With a perfected ratio of frosting to moist, fluffy sponge, Dlish cupcakes transport you to single-digit birthday parties and grade-school Valentine’s days.

Boreal Gelato
Continue west along Queen Street. After stopping at a few independent art galleries along the way, you will be hankering for some comfort food – and Boreal Gelato, just past Dufferin Street, takes the biscuit. 

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