The Spadina strip has always been a self-contained universe, impervious to food trends. There isn’t much innovation in the cooking, but no one does it better. Now, a new crew of hotshot chefs is planning to invade the ’hood. Can they compete?
Talk to anyone who loves to eat in this town—chefs, eager home cooks, food writers, culinary tourists—and what unites them is Chinatown. Ask one of them to go to dim sum at Rol San or feast on chow mein at New Ho King and their eyes will light up like children on Halloween. “There’s a unique energy to Chinatown,” says Adrian Ravinsky, one of the co-owners of 416 Snack Bar, over a recent lunch at Noble Seafood with his business partner, Dave Stewart. Reaching to snag a rectangle of delicate tofu topped with minced shrimp, Ravinsky explains the neighbourhood’s magnetic pull. “It exudes a palpable feeling of cosmopolitanism,” he says. “It just feels bigger than anywhere else in the city.” Yes, you can eat well in Little India and Koreatown, on the Danforth, and at the immigrant-rich strip malls of our furthest-flung suburbs, but the culinary heart of the city beats the loudest along the arteries of Spadina and Dundas.
Consider the city’s hottest food trends: the no-reservation policy at Grand Electric, the snout-to-tail menu at Black Hoof, the communal tables at Momofuku, the whole roast pig’s head at Parts & Labour, and the after-hours dining at Bar Isabel. As clever as the chefs may be, they aren’t culinary conquistadors. All this stuff is old news in Chinatown. You want a pig’s head? They’re hanging in the window at King’s Noodle, where you can get one chopped up in any type of soup for less than $10. You want late-night action? You’ll find it at Swatow. You want culinary daring? Head to Taste of China on a Monday night, when it’s packed with Toronto’s best chefs, who remain intimidated by some of the items on, and off, the vast menu.
For a long time, Chinatown offered some of the only full-bodied, all-hours dining in the city’s otherwise blah culinary foodscape. Like many Torontonians, I remember going to Chinatown as a kid, where I ate with clients of my father’s law firm, wealthy immigrants from Hong Kong who taught me to wield chopsticks and suck meat from lobster claws coated in ginger and garlic sauce. Since the 1990s, the city has witnessed an exciting movement in dining, with bold flavours coming from all sorts of influences and a surge of brave new restaurants serving the food of nearly every culture and culinary style. We’ve since become vastly more adventurous, and our bland past is but a fleeting historical footnote.
But there’s something about Chinatown that’s puzzling: Even though it occupies a central place in our collective appetite, it exists as a parallel, self-contained universe of food. Few outsiders have moved in to compete on its territory, and the area’s chefs stick to traditional dishes. “There’s not much innovation in Chinese cooking,” says Hong Kong–born Jonathan Poon, the chef and co-owner of Parkdale’s Chantecler. “Everyone cooks the same thing… [The challenge may be] how well you can cook that dish. But it’s the same dish.”
In the city’s cross-pollinated food scene, Chinatown remains the final hold-out—remarkable given how central the community is to our city’s identity (about 11 per cent of Torontonians are of Chinese heritage). Over the past two decades, global flavours and culinary influences have mingled and migrated to the point where can get sashimi-style yellowtail with shoyu and lily bulb at the Bay Street high-roller restaurant The Chase, or Korean-spiked Philly cheesesteaks at Oddseoul on Ossington, or Indian-style butter chicken at any Jack Astor’s. Susur Lee was a pioneer when he arrived from Hong Kong in the late ’70s and dazzled diners with a kind of modern haute Chinese cuisine, first at Lotus, and later at Susur. But his cooking soon branched out into a pan-Asian fusion style that, while influential, spawned watered-down copycat dishes. Since then, with few exceptions, Chinese food has been captive to Chinatown—cheap but creatively stagnant.
Things may be about to change. An adventurous new movement in Chinese–North American cooking has taken off in San Francisco and New York. Restaurants like Mission Chinese Food, Red Farm, and Fung Tu pair the bold flavours of traditional Chinese kitchens (fresh silken tofu, XO fried rice, tea smoked eel) with trendy, westernized dishes (pastrami spring rolls, General Tso’s veal rib).
We’re now seeing similar inventiveness in Toronto. Ravinsky and Stewart just announced a new location of 416 Snack Bar on Spadina, which will serve food influenced by the area’s history (Chinese and Jewish, to my delight). The three Chau brothers, who own the hipster-approved Banh Mi Boys on Queen West and Yonge, are going to launch a new Chinese-bun concept next door to their parents’ traditional Vietnamese sandwich shop on Spadina. Meanwhile, Chinese-Canadian chefs have begun updating their own cuisine. Poon debuted a popular Sunday lunch at Chantecler that offers a spin on dim sum (featuring items like daikon cake with Chinese sausage, and a Big Mac riff on shrimp dumplings). Later this year, Lee, after chasing elusive success in the U.S., will open Luckee, a Cantonese-focused spot in the Entertainment District. After dodging change for so long, Chinatown is due for a culinary revolution. But are the newcomers up for the challenge?
Toronto’s first Chinatown was founded near Queen and York in the late 19th century by Chinese labourers moving from the U.S. in search of jobs, and blossomed over the following decades as railroad workers moved here from the west. Then, in the late ’60s, Canada lifted restrictive immigration quotas and the original Chinatown was bulldozed to build Nathan Phillips Square. New immigrants, mainly from Hong Kong (then a British territory), converted the Jewish district of delicatessens and fur shops along Spadina into a riotous Cantonese streetscape that soon became synonymous with neon lobsters and dragons, encyclopedic menus, and cheap prices.
Even as the ethos of Chinatown has seeped into the city’s kitchens, the neighbourhood’s approach is tough to replicate. While the Canadian-food focused Woodlot on Palmerston Avenue boasts of heirloom tomatoes sourced from Prince Edward County, a five-minute walk south of the restaurant reveals an elderly woman on the sidewalk selling squash blossoms that she harvested from her yard on Beverley Street. Those blossoms might end up in a braising pot at Lee Garden with tofu and the most interesting squeaky mushrooms that another local grandmother has dug up in High Park. The city’s finest seafood houses don’t pluck their fresh fish, still swimming, from dining-room tanks and then kill, gut, and steam them with ginger and soy sauce on your command, like they do at Xam Yu. And while the rest of Toronto battles to legalize food trucks, street vendors on Dundas hawk lamb meatballs and custard-filled waffles in blissful ignorance (or flagrant spite) of the city’s bylaws. Forget it, baby, it’s Chinatown.
That frontier edge is the source of the neighbourhood’s appeal. Our food culture today prizes experiences that are authentic and tinged with a hint of mystery and danger. We line up for restaurants that challenge us with intense ingredients (guts and all sorts of offal), and fiery spice; we love the rush of discovering obscure and delicious street food. Chinatown delivers this every day.
Despite these charms, there are good reasons why other restaurateurs haven’t adopted the Chinatown’s model. For one, the style of cooking and kitchen setup are unique. “[The cadence of that kitchen] is so specific to how that food is made,” says Lily Cho, a York University professor and author of the book Eating Chinese. Chinese kitchens aren’t run by chef-artistes. They’re assembly lines of nameless cooks prized for their speed and specific skills. “It is hard to transplant,” Cho says. Jonathan Poon adds that even though he grew up in a Chinese household, he is just as mystified by the kitchens of Chinatown as his non-Chinese peers. “I’m seriously considering taking a job at Swatow,” Poon says, “because I don’t know how they do it. How does everything in that kitchen come out in 60 seconds?”
Another obstacle is the economics. Chinatown restaurants survive on slim profit margins and huge volume. When Stone Yu, owner of Markham’s famed Chinese bakery Lucullus, decided to open a downtown location this year, he stuck close to Yonge Street and away from the fray. “[Restaurants in Chinatown] are engaged in such fierce competition that they have no choice but to sell cheaper products,” Yu says. “When they lower the prices to something like 50 cents a bun, it hurts the quality.”
Dim Sum King, on Dundas near Huron, reflects this situation. Co-owner Kelvin Chung employs a dozen cooks (half just for dim sum) who hand-make dumplings and dishes for hundreds of diners a day, and he struggles to keep his costs down. His customers expect the food to be cheap. “I do everything by myself,” Chung says. “We don’t hire managers. We try to get the lowest price we can. Sometimes I’ll drive my car to go buy ingredients directly from suppliers, so I don’t have to pay for delivery.”
The neighbourhood has its own pricing structure, suppliers, and pool of labour, chefs, and waiters who move about within the neighbourhood, but rarely leave it. Chung, who arrived from Cambodia three decades ago, worked his way up from busboy to waiter to manager, until he purchased Dim Sum King three years ago. When he dines at other types of restaurants, he’s envious of the simplicity of their operations. “They don’t do so many dishes,” he says. “You just have a steak and salad or French fries and lasagna. In Chinese food you have a lot of items. That’s the traditional way.”
All of this adds up to an almost insurmountable goal for restaurateurs who dream of tackling Chinatown on their own terms. Or, as Matt LaRochelle puts it to me: “What the fuck is the point?” LaRochelle owns Kensington Market’s Cold Tea, a cocktail-soaked tribute to late-night Chinatown that features a dim sum vendor. He says he wouldn’t attempt to open up a location in Chinatown proper. “You’re going to get beat out. It’s a food that you really can’t improve on. Am I really going to be better than King Noodle?” Matty Matheson, of Parts and Labour, P&L Burger, and The Dog and Bear, eats in Chinatown more than anywhere else, but he wouldn’t dream of touching a Chinese-restaurant concept. “It’s a different model,” he says. “High velocity. Quick service. Nobody can do it. No one can cook that fast. Those cooks are bred into that world, three generations. They are those cleavers and woks.”
Eventually someone, whether it’s the guys behind 416 Snack Bar, the Banh Mi Boys, Poon, Lee, or another enterprising chef, will brave those odds and succeed in reinventing Chinatown. Our tastes have become more sophisticated, the rest of downtown has been conquered, and other cultures’ cuisines have been redefined and refined. Chinese food, and its rightful place in Chinatown, is the great uncharted territory. The first to take it on will set the standard for a new era of cuisine that could finally deliver a style of eating that’s uniquely Torontonian.
As someone who loves Chinatown just the way it is, its potential transformation makes me nervous. Why screw with perfection? What I’d hate to see is Chinatown’s very essence wiped out, as is the case of Washington, D.C.’s Chinatown, where the original restaurants are gone and the Mandarin signs for the Verizon Center—the sports and entertainment venue, whose arrival brought with it coffee and fast food chains—are about the only Chinese thing in the area. Deep in my heart, I know our Chinatown will survive. New restaurants and new innovators might just push the neighbourhood’s kitchens forward, allowing them to preserve their essence for another generation of Chinese-food lovers like me.
“Spadina is on the cusp of change,” Ravinsky says, as we call for another pot of tea. “This is one of the biggest, most beautiful avenues in the city. It makes all around it rise up.”