Elephant & Castle (King Street)

Date 53: Pre-Megabus Pub Fare (closing up the Mom Series)

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Elephant & Castle at 212 King Street West, Toronto; Call (416) 598-4003

What do we always say is the most important thing?
Breakfast?

Arrested Development made a name for itself by being a groundbreaking comedy. It was absurd, called back pretty much every gag, and was extremely strategic about its black outs. We take a lot of these elements for granted now as they’ve permeated modern television comedy.

But I think a lot of what contributed to its cult following is that it had heart. Really weird heart, but heart nonetheless. There were times when Michael’s family demonstrated true caring for each other and even when they didn’t, you were touched by Michael’s sheer faith that they would come together.

I had to work on the last day of my mom’s trip to Toronto, so she spent most of the day on her own. She said this suited her just fine, but I still felt guilty. And I still do. Before her boarding the Megabus, there was time to meet near my work for dinner. The choices around there aren’t exactly plum, but we decided on Elephant and Castle. Frankly, this is not a place I even noticed before, blending in with the other somewhat cookie-cutter restaurants on this stretch of King. But once we got inside, Mom noted that this is just the kind of place she likes.

I knew what she meant. It reminded me a lot of the type of restaurants we got taken to as kids, in particular an old joint in San Leandro called Harry’s Hofbrau and a “family restaurant” called Elio’s. These kinds of places were clearly not pushing the envelope in any way, but offered a well-executed product at family-friendly prices.

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I have to say that Elephant and Castle doesn’t seem to meet my fuzzy rose-colored children’s glasses view. I was excited when I read the menu as it seemed to make an honest effort of doing English food, with a curry, pot pies, and fish and chips. But in reality, they tried to do too much. I got a meatloaf and it turned out to be small medallions of bacon-wrapped meatloaf with stodgy mashed potatoes.  I’d much rather just have an honest, well-prepared meat loaf. The green beans were nice, though. And Mom reported enjoying her fish and chips.

A restaurant can let you down. And Michael Bluth’s hope for his family was often misguided. But there’s a reason you keep going back.

Even when you fuck up, family is always there for you.

Genki Sushi (Admiralty, Hong Kong)

Eastern Promises 9: Conveyer Belt Sushi with New Friends at Genki

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Genki Sushi, at 16 Harcourt, Admiralty, Hong Kong; call them at 2865 2933.

One of the first pieces of marketing I was exposed to in Hong Kong (a place where marketing is paramount) was a series of posters displayed on the wall as one ascends the escalators from the subway stations. Each one simply portrays an attractive young East Asian woman on the verge of consuming a single piece of sushi. Unfortunately, the name of the restaurant wasn’t written in English, so there was little chance of me ever figuring out what this place was.

That all changed when I made some friends, PCLL students at the school here, who suggested we get sushi for lunch. It sounded like they said Gangy (aka Lucille Bluth), but it turns out was Genki, and indeed the mysterious sushi restaurant with the aggressive marketing campaign (although a Gangy-themed restaurant – just martinis and cigarettes, I guess – would have been cool too)

Turns out it’s also one of those sushi places that employs a conveyor belt to get the sushi from the chefs to the customers, with different color plates connoting different price levels. I’ve always seen this is a bit of gimmick, and indeed one that seems vulnerable to freshness issues.

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That wasn’t really a problem here as I found the sushi quite fresh. I had about five plates, ranging from tamago, to tuna to hamachi. It was nothing special, but for the price (about $10 CAD all in) it was well executed sushi with appropriately vinegared and packed rice.

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Outshining the conveyer belt in my eyes was the tea system.  There was a small container of powdered green tea at the table. Combined with a spigot of hot water, it gave access to unlimited self-serve green tea. The tea wasn’t of the highest quality (it was powdered, after all) but the process was fun.

And I suppose that’s what I would say about Genki. The sushi is good for the money, and it’s a just a fun place to eat.

Saigon Gourmet

Date 52: Generic Chinese with Mom, Sean and Anne (pt. 3 of the Mom Series)

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Saigon Gourmet at 641 Dupont Street, Toronto; Call (416) 533-3399

Way back when I was living in Vancouver, my first summer there actually, my dad came to visit. We wound up having dinner with Sean and his family at our favorite restaurant: Golden Szechuan.

It was great to have worlds collide in that way.  And what with Sean and Anne becoming such an important part of my life this year, it only felt right to have dinner with them and my mom when she was in town. With Anne quite pregnant, it made sense to eat somewhere close to their house, and hey, why not make it Chinese again?

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Sean and Anne are fans of Saigon Gourmet – I believe the confusing name stems from the fact that it used to be Vietnamese, then Vietnamese-Chinese, now just Chinese – because the staff is friendly, the quality is reasonably high and it’s extremely close to their house. It serves Americanized Chinese food in the vein of egg rolls, wonton soup, beef with broccoli and General Tso’s Chicken.

I tend to agree with them.

There was a day when I used to dislike this type of food, finding it unauthentic. I’ve come to understand, however, that Americanized Chinese is a kind of authentic fusion, like the Hong Cafes (cha chaan teng) I’m becoming familiar with during my current travels. It’s an interpretation, and a valid one. I think a more important question is, how well is it executed? And Saigon does a good job.

Nha Trang (Hong Kong)

Eastern Promises 8: A Phodown in Hong Kong (!)

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Nha Trang at 3 Tai Yue Avenue, Taikoo Shing; call (852) 907-8033

Nha Trangh Ext Hong Kong

Ratings:

Broth: 6.5 | Beef: 9 | Noodle: 8 | Condiment: 2 | Service/atmosphere: 8 | Overall: 6.7

Write-up from Jason:

It had to happen sooner or later. Truly the most portable concept of its time, The Phodown has gone from Vancouver, to Santa Barbara, to Toronto, and now Hong Kong.

Nha Trang is a popular and well-respected Vietnamese chain here in Hong Kong. Ever since I arrived about a month ago I’ve been hearing about it and anticipating what its pho would be like. My expectation was of something a bit more refined than the standard pho, but perhaps without the potency of a mom-and-pop brew (i.e., not as rich and deep, but with fresh condiments and al dente noodles).

I was mostly right.

I went to the location near the Taikoo Centre near my current abode in Quarry Baby during the tea set hours (many restaurants offer discounted prices from around 2-5pm on weekdays). Nha boasts a great deal – an entree plus app. or drinks for about $45 (or about $8-9 CAD). For some reason I got a drink – iced tea with lime – despite that fact that the appetizers looked interesting. I’ve been making lots of bad decisions lately.

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Regardless, I was here for the pho. And man, was it fucking weird. First I should say that I’m not sure this is pho. The flavor of the broth tasted nothing like the pho broth I’m familiar with, lacking any discernible clove, cinnamon or anise. Instead the predominant flavor was mirepoix, evoking strong memories of a beef stew our neighbor Edna used to make us as kids. The beef flavor was extremely pronounced as well, tasting almost hearty. It was a delicious broth. But was it pho?

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Condiments were a complete bust, consisting only of a lime slice and some thai bird peppers. A guy next to me asked for some fish sauce, which he pushed over to me when he saw my displeasure with the condiment situation. I considered asking for sriacha and hoisin, but I didn’t see any at other tables or at the server’s stations, so I thought the inevitable confusion would be fruitless. Other than the lime and peppers, the only other condiment was a sprig of Thai basil on top of the pho, which really takes all the customization out of the picture.

Other than the above oddities, everything else was standard to very good. The beef was some of the best I’ve had, fresh and tasting of pure beef. It’s a strange thing to say, but I’ve had phos where the beef tasted dried out and unbeeflike. As expected, the noodles were well executed.

The service was deadly efficient, like most Hong Kong joints, but impersonal.

I know what you postmodern jerks thinking – I’m importing a foreign pho standard and trying to impose it on the local pho here. But I just don’t think that’s true. I’ve seen photos of pho in Vietnam that feature huge plates of fresh herbs. I think Nha is simply missing the boat here, favoring style over substance when it comes to condiments. In terms of the broth, it’s harder to say. They are certainly doing something different and interesting. But if the pho flavor profile isn’t there, it’s hard to do a phodown.

Big Wave Bay (Hong Kong)

Eastern Promises 7: Big Wave Bay and Noodles with Ken

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A new friend and fellow student, Ken, organized a trip to the beach last weekend. He proposed we go to Big Wave Bay, which is just a quick subway and bus ride away from downtown. The rub is that he thought we should we get off the bus early and hike to the beach.

Trying to be open to new experiences, I agreed.

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In fact, the trip unfolded precisely as he suggested, but I didn’t realize how challenging a hike it would be. Largely uphill, we navigated the jungle stopping briefly at incredible vistas of the beach and mountains. Fortunately, we had loaded up on bottles of water and Chinese buns.

Although I was in good shape before I left for this trip, a month of eating noodles and not exercising has left me in poor form. The hike was a wake up call, not-so-gently telling me that I should shell out for a gym membership while I’m here.

A long conversation with Ken helped keep my mind off the pain. Ken is a terrific guy, but he recently has had second thoughts about his decision to practice law in SE Asia and is considering moving home. It’s a time of great transition for him, something I could certainly emphasize with. We had a great chat.

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The beach was beautiful, although full of kids. During my brief swim to wash off the jungle, I couldn’t help but notice a fair amount of trash in the water, which is disappointing. Afterwards, we stopped a little family run noodle shop and had a snack before heading home.

This End Up in Toronto

Date 51: Revisiting This End Up! with my mom (pt. 2 of the Mom Series)

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This End Up, at 1454 Dundas Street, Toronto; call (647) 347-8700

Every time I go to This End Up I like it a little more. As you may recall, my date here with Bryn was memorable, but I left with questions about the concept. I liked it more the second time with my brother Steve. And my mom and I had a blast here this time.

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After a long day navigating Toronto’s tortured public transit system, we wanted nothing more than to have Porchetta & Co. for dinner, a sandwich I loved earlier in the year and one that mom has been drooling over since she saw Bordain try in in the Layover.  After absolutely hoofing it over there, we were sad to find out that they closed 15 minutes early that day.  Perhaps they ran out of pork.  Seems amateur to me.

But I thought This End up, which is just west on Dundas, might sate my mom’s hunger for a good sandwich.  If not, she could drown her disappointment in a stiff drink.  Turns out that although the latter wasn’t necessary, we did enjoy some nice drinks.

Long story short, mom loved this place.  It’s just the kind of casual, affordable type of restaurant she loves.  Her margarita and po’ boy hit the spot.  They also let us substitute a cup of soup for fries at no extra charge.  That day it was a vichyssoise.  Chilled, yet filling, it was the perfect remedy for a long day of walking around in midsummer sun.

My mom’s main complaint when I moved out of Eric and Emily’s was that she wouldn’t get to go back to this restaurant.

At the end of they day, This End Up perfectly characterizes what Toronto’s food scene is doing now.  Casual, well-executed small restaurants who know what they are and don’t try to exceed that.  It reminds me a hell of a lot of Brooklyn, and that’s a very good thing.

West Villa Restaurant (Causeway Bay)

Eastern Promises 6: West Villa dim sum with Eric, Wes and Melanie

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West Villa Restaurant; 28 Yan Ping Road, Causeway Bay, Hong Kong

Not long after my experience at Lin Heung, I had lunch with some new friends at West Villa Restaurant in Causeway Bay. My new friend Eric chose the venue, having found it in the Lonely Planet.  I met Eric during orientation, and he introduced me to Mel – his friend from Calgary – and Wes, who is also an Albertan but one who recently relocated to Hong Kong.

Compared to Lin Heung, West Villa is incredibly ordered and upscale. In fact, it’s quite similar to most of the dim sum restaurants I’ve been to in Vancouver, Toronto and the DC area. The decor is reminiscent of a banquet hall with waiters in suits, but the clientele varying between those wearing their Sunday best, and those in jeans and a tee shirt.

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In terms of food, I was reasonably impressed. The standards, such as har gao and siu mai were extremely well executed, if somewhat forgettable. Straying somewhat from the beaten track, I enjoyed an elegant plate of  roast pig served with a spicy mustard sauce.  This was a Chinese BBQ standard taken to a new level. There was also sticky rice served in some sort of omelet – different than anything I’ve had, but supremely enjoyable.

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I greatly enjoyed this meal out with new friends. I would say, however, that it was not a particularly good value in my eyes. At about $35 CAD a head, I’ve experienced better value at several Vancouver area dim sum restaurants during the great Dim Sum Smackdown of 2006-2008, where the Smackdown Gang rarely paid more than $25 each. Then again, Hong Kong is an expensive city, and West Villa is located in a posh mall in one of the most commercial areas.

Shopsy’s Express on Centre Island

Date 50: Resting on Centre Island with my mom (pt. 1 of the Mom Series)

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Shopsy’s Express, on Centre Island

While I did kinda-sorta blow my mom off for Medieval Times, I’m not a terrible son. And as I get older I’ve started to realize how important family really is.  Or at least I’m trying to not to take it for granted. That’s why I strongly encouraged my Mom to come visit this summer.  She always puts up quite a fight.  And it’s always hard to tell if she’s just worried about being an imposition, or if she just doesn’t want to come.

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Long story short (too late): I got her to come up North.

I like to think I showed her a pretty good time despite being busy at work. Sure, the first night was an absolute disaster (Medieval Times, lost address, etc), but I did manage to make her a nice low carb meal of wild salmon and salad. The next day she visited me at work and we went to see the Way, Way back at the Eaton Centre afterwards.

The following day is when the action happened.  She was insistent she see the lake and take a ferry. To be honest, the trip over to the ferry terminal was a challenge as my mom doesn’t get around like she used to, and there was a gap in the bus service, presenting us with quite the walk. It took an hour and we almost killed each other, but we made it to the ferry eventually.

Now once we got to Centre Island we realized my mom couldn’t walk anymore, so we just posted up at the little Shopsy’s cafe they have there by the waterfront and admired the city views. Mom had a coffee and I had a Cesar and a hotdog with fries.  Both were overpriced, and both did the trick.

This day wasn’t quite what I expected, but it was great to spend some time with a rather important lady.

Eggsmart (Bloor)

Date 49: Brunch at an egg-centric diner with the improv crew (Atakan and Kimbo)

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Eggsmart (Bloor Location), at 864 Bloor Street, Toronto; call (647) 345-5578

Towards the end of July when I started to feel summer was slipping away, I started making more serious attempts at bonding with my improv friends. Throughout the late spring and summer we had a blast in class, but for some reason we didn’t hang out much outside of class.

This was eventually rectified by one of my classic blow-out nights at WVRST just a few weeks ago, but I think a brunch at Eggsmart marked the beginning of this out-of-class bonding trend.

Eggsmart Toronto

I don’t really know what to make of Eggsmart. It confounded me when I first moved here and I thought it was some kind of Ethiopian restaurant based on the Saharan-seeming art it had up (the Koreatown location at least). Turns out it’s just an egg-centric diner with higher prices than you might expect.

I had a mushroom omelet with home fries and the price was about $10. While the home fries were good – well crisped and generously portioned – you expect a little more than two eggs, mushrooms and some potatoes for $10 when you are eating in a diner.

Service was good despite the fact that Kimbo demanded a very specific amount of coffee.

McDonalds in Hong Kong

Eastern Promises 5: Worshiping at the Altar of the Master in Hong Kong

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McDonalds in Hong Kong, multiple Locations

My brother and I are great fans of whimsical overstatements when it comes to food items. The hallmark example of this is Iron Chef’s absurd exaltation of the most mundane food item. For instance, I am a lifetime fan of Hiroyuki Sakai, the “Delacroix of French cuisine.”

So when I ran across McDonald’s Shogun Burger, with its ad campaign “The Master Returns,” you know damn well I had to give it a whirl.

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“What did you miss most? The tender pork patty, dripping with Teriyaki sauce? Or the American Grade-A egg, crunchy lettuce, and creamy lemon mayo? We missed it all, so we brought it back. Enjoy.”

Simply put, it’s better in description than execution. All of the individual elements were relatively well conceived. I enjoyed the pork patty and its sweet teriyaki sauce. The idea of playing this sweet sauce against a lemon-mayo is a good idea, but in effect it was really just sauce on sauce with no separation. Moreover, the whole thing was really just one texture – soft bun, soft egg, soft patty, two sauces. The lettuce was well beyond its prime and didn’t provide the covenanted-for crunch. I was disappointed.

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I should also note at this point that I’ve been very impressed with the eggs so far here in Hong Kong. They’ve tasted very fresh and have sported the deep orange yolks I equate with healthy chickens. This has been the case even at the diviest diners. This American grade-A egg however was bland and pale-yolked. The whole American thing is also confusing. Do they import the eggs from the US? That would seem way too far when China is right here. Or do they use the American grading system to grade Asian eggs? I suppose that makes more sense.

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Finally, I must note that I paid an extra $5 HKD to make my fries into shake fries, which means I got a bag and a seasoning packet full of seaweed bits and other seasonings to flavor the fries. This was a lot of fun (I felt a bit like a tool being the only visibly white dude in the place, and shaking my fries to boot) and I liked the salty seaweed flavor it resulted in. The hitch is that the packet was quite clumpy and thus the seasoning was uneven.

Overall the meal came to $35 HKD which is about $5 US, and so it’s hard to complain that much. That said, the Big Mac and Filet-o-Fish meals here are both $21 HK, which is about $3 US, so if I do find myself and the Ds again, it’ll probably be for that.