Our tour guide is Leo Moncel, and as he looks over the English-Chinese menu, he calls out, “Does anyone have dietary restrictions?” In a restaurant like this after everything we’ve seen on the stands and in the windows of Toronto’s Kensington Market, it makes us wonder. What could he mean?
It turns out it’s the usual. Is anyone gluten-free, vegan or vegetarian? We all smile and tell him we’re good, and it’s not long before the waiter is back with the first dim sum item.
Moncel clearly knows the territory. He’s city manager at Culinary Adventure Co., which bills itself as Canada’s leading food tour company, with eight different tours here in Toronto, plus tours in Ottawa and Winnipeg too.
You get the sense from the name Culinary Adventure that this is a business that knows its target clientele and how to promote itself, including with the slogan “Every Bite Tells A Story,” a line that clearly works with this audience.
They also know that the tour-goers want to know about more than just the food, so Moncel explains that when he took over this culinary tour, he started by meeting the owners of the restaurants and food stores on the tour to find out more about their own histories. It makes this three-hour food tour — a tour of Spadina Avenue and Kensington Market in Toronto — more than a food tour: It’s an immersion course into the people, businesses and neighbourhoods.
The ticket is $69, which isn’t exactly expensive in this city, but it’s high enough that you want some value for it. And some tasty food would be nice too.
But we’re confident. Forbes Magazine rates this as one of the best nine food tours in the world.
From the East
Dim sum is a Cantonese-style brunch that consists of a succession of servings of mostly bite-sized food. Moncel tells us that while dim sum is the name used for this style of meal here in Toronto, in other parts of the world you might find it called “yum cha,” which means to drink tea. Whatever you call it, it’s a drawn out social meal with lots of sipping.
Several of us on the tour associate dim sum meals with carts of food wheeled around the restaurant for diners to choose from. There are none here. This restaurant has a focus on efficiency — and with no carts they can fit more tables. It’s just one of the many story bites that Moncel sprinkles throughout the tour.
As we wait for our next dish, Moncel and another guest, Norm, who is visiting from Western Canada, talk about the use of honorifics in the Japanese and Korean languages. It turns out Moncel, who loves cooking Asian food, trained as a chef. He spent time teaching in Korea — while Norm taught in Japan. They both have favourite recipes to share.
Dim Sum at Rol San
We’re in Rol San Restaurant. A banner hanging outside the restaurant advertises all-day dim sum. With a narrow storefront, it seems like a small restaurant from the street — but Moncel explains it can hold 240 people because of the large room we’re sitting in at the back.
As he refills our tea, Moncel says that the restaurant opened in 1994. “This is a real neighbourhood institution,” he says. The family that who it is from Guangdong Province in southern China.
Moncel has arranged for us to sit here in the back so he can point out some of the things that make this restaurant unique. For example, there are bins of numbered clothes pegs behind the counter across from us. We’re table 32, so the server will take clothes pegs that are marked 32 as he delivers our order to the kitchen. In the kitchen, in full view of the cooks, are signs for each of the dishes on the menu. The server affixes clips with our table number to the signs for the dishes we’ve ordered. It saves the server writing down instructions. Everything is efficient. It has to be.
The waiter arrives with a plate. “The whole idea here is to give you a contrast,” Moncel says as he talks about the crispy dough fritter wrapped with a soft rice-flour wrapper.
As we finish the wrapped fritter, a plate of dumplings arrives. “This is like the margherita pizza of the Cantonese kitchen,” he says, pointing to the shrimp wrapped in rice wrapper. “The mark of a really nice one is that you should see the pink of the shrimp shining through.”
We finish with barbeque pork buns. Moncel says these are leavened with yeast — like bread — but instead of being baked, they are steamed. He offers to pass the hot chili oil if anyone wants any. He says to dig for the crushed peppers from lower down. They’re hotter.
One last story bit is that there is a condo development slated for this site. Having heard the story of this restaurant, I’m interested to know what will happen to it. They don’t yet know.
Congee at Kings Noodle House
The next stop along Spadina Avenue, Kings Noodle House, has barbecued ducks hanging in the front window. Before we go in, Moncel points to the kitchen in the front window where someone with a cleaver chops barbecued meat. He asks us to think about all of the chopping that has made the board concave.
There is tea before the congee arrives. Congee, Moncel explains, is a savoury rice porridge. Ours has green onions and ginger. “Add the other dishes to your congee and treat it like a stew,” he advises.
As we await more food, he gives us a cultural tip. It’s customary to tap the index and middle fingers on the table as a way of expressing gratitude — it represents a bow.
An order of deep fried dough arrives. “This has the role of a muffin in western countries,” he says as he explains that, like muffins, it’s easy to eat on the run. Then he tells us the legend behind the name, which translates as oil-fried ghost.
“The principal characters in the yau ja gwai story are Yue Fei (the general) and Qin Hui (the scheming prime minister.) Qin Hui is still a very hated figure in Chinese lore — think of Guy Fawkes to the Brits or Benedict Arnold to the Americans.” It’s the scheming one who gets made into the oil-fried ghost, cut up, served and eaten.
As the barbecued pork arrives, Moncel points out that the five-spice rub used when cooking this pork often has more than five spices — but the name doesn’t change because five is a lucky number in Chinese culture. There is one piece of pork left that nobody takes. Most Canadians won’t take the last item from a plate, even when prodded, he says.
The same husband-and-wife team, Grady and Stanley Lee, have operated this restaurant since 1984. When they arrived, they found the city lacked authentic Hong Kong-style Chinese food. That’s their focus. They are now serving the grandchildren of their original clients.
As we leave and walk up Spadina Avenue, we peer into the window of a dumpling shop. Moncel points to the guy rolling dough into little round circles and asks if we know why they leave the dough thicker in the middle. Answer: It’s the load-bearing part of the dumpling.
We’ve finished the first leg of our tour, with tastes — and stories — of Chinatown under our belt. We turn onto a side street and are in Kensington Market.
We shelter under an awning as Moncel points to shops across the street and explains that the market area today has many recognizable elements from the early twentieth century.
Eastern European immigrants arriving in Toronto in the early 20th century found a city that was not welcoming. As a result, many came to this neighbourhood, then an inexpensive part of the city, where they sold wares in front of their homes, eventually adding an awning, and, over time, turning the main floor into a shop. Eventually, homes became shops — and the cluster of shops became Kensington Market.
He’s had people ask him where the market is, expecting a stand-alone market building. “You’re in it,” he tells them.
The synagogue across the street is another clue. The neighbourhood today is diverse. We walk past Rasta Pasta, run by a Jamaican-Italian husband-and-wife team. Nearby is a Portuguese bakery. There are fishmongers, cheese shops, greengrocers and a thriving vintage clothing scene.
Cactus Sandwich at Torterĺa San Cosme
As we grab stools in a Mexican torta shop, Moncel talks about the owners, and how they have sourced a lot of the ingredients for their Mexico City-style street food here in the market.
We will be tasting a Nopales torta — a cactus pad sandwich. He goes behind the counter to ask one of the staff for a tin of cactus packed in brine, which he brings to show us. He explains how the skin and spines are removed, describing the taste as being “like a green bean crossed with an aloe plant.”
Putting the sandwiches in front of us, he points out the refried pinto beans, avocado, caramelized onion, a firm Mexican-style cheese and green salsa.
The savoury part of the tour is done, and we finish off with stories of sweets. First to CXBO Chocolates, where we hear how chef Brandon Olsen got into chocolates, and how his wife, designer Sarah Keenlyside applied her talents to make the jewel-like chocolates. The Ziggy Stardust Disco Egg, a dark chocolate shell filled with aerated milk and white chocolate pieces, is mine.
Our tour finishes off at Wanda’s Pie in the Sky, a bakery-café. Wanda, who has had a life-long love of baking, grew up in the Niagara area, so it’s fitting that we have sour-cherry pie. Moncel says that Wanda started by delivering pies by streetcar, and eventually opened this café.
The tart cherry pie he orders has little cherry cut-outs on top of the crust. The unique thing about this pie, he says, is the almond extract, adding, “That nuttiness just rounds out the tartness of the pie.” The butter crust on the pie is explained by something written on a chalkboard on the wall: “We’re a vegetarian café, but we don’t beat you over the head with it!”
With that, our tour comes to an end. We’ve talked the entire time about food and about the people responsible for it.
And I haven’t seen or heard the name of a Canadian farmer the whole time, not even once.