Sky Dragon

Sky Dragon @ 280 Spadina Avenue in Toronto Ontario, call them @ (416) 408-4999

Sky dragon sushi

Background

There are few things more frustrating than missed opportunities.

Working indoors on a fine spring day is one. And then there’s a year’s lost development for the great Marcus Stroman currently plagues both Stroman and the city of Toronto. Shitty push-cart dim sum at the heart of Toronto’s downtown chinatown is just the icing on the cake.

From my experience in Hong Kong, push-cart dim sum is something of a dying art. And it makes sense: unlike revenge, most dishes are best served immediately after they are prepared. Delicate dumplings, several of which contain easily-overcooked seafood, fall into this non-revenge category. So imagine how annoying it would be for a chef to prepare such a dish and then watch it paraded around in a steam cart for the next couple of hours.

I only went to one push-cart dim sum in Hong Kong and it was clear why the concept worked there – it was busy as hell. And while it was excellent dim sum, it was dim sum of the people – the standards executed well and at a great value. It was not the elevated fare you’d get at an a la minute joint. Hell, even Tim Ho Wan, the standard-bearer for affordable quality dim sum operates on a made-to-order basis.

A Proposition

Push-cart dim, despite its inherent limitations, is just fun. You get the excitement of not knowing what’s coming around the corner, harrowing interactions with the push-cart ladies, and the retro HK tea house vibe. But it requires volume. Ever been in a push cart dim sum place that’s not doing so well? It’s just depressing. The same sad items being paraded around and eventually microwaved when some unfortunate soul orders them is neither fun nor tasty. It stands to reason, therefore, that a city can only support an extremely number of push-cart dim sums and the popular ones – whose very asset is their crowd – will push-cart out the competition.

Sky Dragon

Sky Dragon has no problems with crowds as it’s one of the few push-cart dim sums in downtown Toronto. So really, with turnover what it is, there’s really no excuse for it to be so bad. Indeed, I’ve been there on days when diners leave their tables to swarm the carts when they exit the kitchen. The problem here is not freshness, but a kitchen that just doesn’t really care anymore.

Sky Dragon is dim sum that you could easily make at home: go to a Chinese grocery, buy a bunch of frozen dumplings, (over)steam them up, and you’ve got the Sky Dragon experience. Har gao and siu mai are dense and chewy. Spare ribs are slate, gristly and boring. Rice noodle rolls (cheung fun) are gummy.

That said, Sky Dragon does have some nice features. Dragon-perched high above the center of chinatown you really feel like this should be kind of place that houses a dim sum joint. And the push cart ladies are precisely as surly as they should be – a difficult balance to maintain indeed.

Still, until the food catches up you might as well call Sky Dragon “Rhaegal” or “Viserion” – two dragons of immense potential sadly shackled and humbled by a misguided young Khaleesi. Except the Khaleesi in the present scenario is clumsy and overcooked Chinese dumplings. And terrible analogies.

Tim Ho Wan

Eastern Promises 12: World Class Dim Sum at Tim Ho Wan with Various Parties

easternpromises

Tim Ho Wan, @ 9-11 Fuk Wing Street, Sham Shui Po, Hong Kong; call them at 2788 1226

Tim Ho Wan Ext

Outside of the canteen my Chinese family took me to every morning, Tim Ho Wan is the restaurant I returned to the most in Hong Kong. Generally, I try to not repeat myself too much when it comes to food, but Tim Ho Wan is worth the exception. Tim Ho Wan’s renown comes from allegedly being the lowest priced Michelin-starred restaurant in the world. There are multiple locations around town, but my first roommate – a legitimate foodie – told me the Michelin-starred chef actually worked out of the Sham Shui Po outpost.

Tim Ho Wan spread

My first experience at Tim Ho Wan was rather early in my journey. I met Mel and her friends from Calgary down Kowloon side back when the weather was still incredibly hot and Hong Kong was still quite new to me. Right off the bat it was clear that this was no ordinary dim sum shop. All the classics were present, but executed with a degree of skill and elegance that you really see don’t outside of super expensive joints. I was most impressed by the rice noodle rolls, which were extraordinarily delicate, verging on fragile. They specialize in char siu bao and indeed, it was done to the nines with a slightly sweet exterior that quickly gave way to rich barbeque pork.

My second experience was at the North Point location and it really wasn’t as good. I got most of the same dishes but everything was a little clumsier. For example, the wrappers on the har gao were thicker. I suppose this highlights the importance of a good chef.

Finally, Mikey and I went to Tim Ho Wan before our trip to Vietnam (detailed in Chin to Chin). This was a return to the Sham Shui Po location and a good idea it was. Once again, everything was excellent. With a more adventurous eater, I got to try Tim Ho Wan’s special pork liver rice rolls. It’s clear why these are a specialty with velvety pork liver lifting up a dish that is fine with shrimp, but spectacular with pork liver.

Tim Ho Wan har gao

Overall, I struggled to think of something wrong with this place. I suppose there are some dishes that are a bit pedestrian, like the har gao and the fried half moon pork dumplings. But at the end of the day, this is excellent dim sum at about $10 a head. It’s hard to beat.

Chin to Chin Recap

Toronto Phodown Presents, Eastern Promises Presents: Chin to Chin
“I Have Always Felt Reinforced and Stimulated by the Temperate Climate”

Chin to Chin chronicles my explorations of Vietnam and Hong Kong with Mikey (from @ZeroWritingCredits). This is the eleventh and final part of the story.

I Have Always Felt Reinforced and Stimulated by the Temperate Climate

The above is a quote from a quote from David Landes’ The Wealth and Poverty of Nations. It always stuck with me – maybe because of the diction. Probably not for the meaning. I never really gave the latter a whole lot of thought.

Goodnight vietnam 007

But having both lived in Hong Kong during the tail end of the summer, and experiencing several different climates as Mikey and I traveled from Hanoi’s downright chilly winter to sweaty, steamy Saigon, I think I finally got that quote’s full meaning. For those not familiar with Landes’ thesis, he uses a variety of cultural and anthropological measures to explain Western exceptionalism. My friend and erstwhile colleague Azim gave it to me, describing it as a companion piece to Guns, Germs and Steel which takes a more biological position. The quote is from one colonialist’s experience in the tropics, in particular how sapping he found the hot weather.

good morning vietnam 075

I’ve always been more of a summer guy, and it gets damned hot in DC in the Summer. I’ve also been to China in the Summer and experienced some steamy weather there. But I don’t think I ever noticed just how draining continued exposure to hot and humid weather can be before living in Hong Kong. Maybe people get used to it. I never did.

It’s also a good organizational mechanism for this recap, where Mikey and I started with boundless energy in Hanoi and eventually found ourselves taking long, long air-con breaks in HCMC.

I never really described it in earnest, but the trip started in Hong Kong, where Mikey and I luxuriated for about a day and half. Most of the ground has been covered elsewhere in the blog as we dined mostly on dim sum and cha chaan teng.

From there we spent a few days in Hanoi, where we tried desperately to make the most of every moment. It’s where I have the fondest memories and a place I would truly like to return. The old town is a very walkable area, a place where it’s easy to get lost but not entirely unpleasant when that occurs. It’s also where I had the most memorable pho experience of my life. Ha Long bay was breathtaking at times, but it’s hard to not wish we had been there in the summer, when chilly moments in the boat would likely be replaced with splashing in the sea.

From the North, we took a train down to De Nang. Mikey would probably want a redo on this one (he got sick on the train), but I loved it. Rushing through narrow passages in cities and innumerable rice paddies, the train trip made me feel more connected to the people and places of Vietnam than any other mode of travel.

I think we’d both count our first night in De Nang as the most memorable, mainly for the adorable little girl who brought us beer she bought at a local convenience store. We’d also both count touristy De Nang as a low point, both for narrowly making it out of there and for the lack of authentic food.

Finally, Saigon was as fast-paced, gritty and sweaty as we imagined. Still it was home to one of the best phos of my life, and for that I will always have fond memories.

As with any good trip, it wasn’t just the places we saw and foods we ate, but the people we met. Jonnie was an excellent tour guide in Ha Long Bay and I still think about him frequently. There was something his story about going to university, finishing early and his very strong pride in his work that makes him a memorable character. I’ll also never forget him breaking into song several times during the tour. Mr. Henry and Mr. David, two other travelers in Ha Long Bay also made a strong impression both for their long history of traveling and strong sense of camaraderie.

Goodnight vietnam 053

Annie, the (male) owner of the Pink Tulip, was also quite a character. We had read quite a bit about him as he replies to EVERY Trip Advisor review. This actually attracted us a great deal to the hotel as it was clear he cared a great deal about his business. It was also hard not to chuckle at the testy back-and-forths between him and guests with very innocuous complaints. A theme was guests’ discomfort with pushy massage salesmen working out of the hotel. Annie was adamant that the two businesses were separate but just shared space in the lobby. But in our experience this was a tenuous distinction as the night worker at the hotel also worked at the massage parlor during the day. Oh well.

Finally, there was Mr. Tong at the Royal Palace Hotel in Hanoi. While a smidge pushier than the staffers at the Pink Tulip, Mr. Tong was incredibly helpful and seemingly quite concerned that we left with a good impression of Hanoi.

Despite being exhausted by the end of the trip, Chin to Chin in Vietnam proved a transformative experience and one I hope to repeat one day.

Dim Sum Cafe (Quarry Bay)

Eastern Promises 11: Awful Dim Sum at Dim Sum Cafe

easternpromises

King’s Dumplings, at 955 King’s Street, Quarry Bay, Hong Kong; call them at 2127 7068.

There are a lot of reasons to write about food.

Food often involves sharing an experience with others, be it at a turkey dinner at a family gathering, partaking in “stoner bowls” at the Gathering of the Juggalos, or nibbling on hot-pockets while playing Magic: The Gathering.

Wordplay aside, for me Eastern Promises is as much about sharing the experience of living abroad is it is about the food itself. And in some cases, all I want to share is a cautionary tale. And that’s really the purpose of this report: Dim Sum Cafe sucks; stay away.

Dim Sum Cafe

A few weeks ago I was out in Quarry Bay, searching for dinner. By the time I had moved out of Q-Bay, I had eaten at most of the interesting places. This night was feeling a little down and wasn’t in the mood to be alone in a busy restaurant. There was a congee place I’d been meaning to try – and eventually did – but it was absolutely slammed that night.

A little joint called Dim Sum Cafe seemed like a nice compromise. I like dim sum food and it had it seemed fairly accessible to Westerners. I guess maybe that’s a bad sign.

It was very easy to order here with a clear English menu I could mark with my choices. I got steamed char-siu baos, har gao and fried radish cakes, the last of which has been a favorite of mine since my friend Des, nearly ten years ago, spent all day making them for our friends in Vancouver. His were good. These were miserable. Dripping with old oil, someone fell asleep at the fryer. The baos were hard and stale and the har gao unremarkable.

Sometimes you put a lot of thought into what you want and it blows up in your face.

West Villa Restaurant (Causeway Bay)

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

easternpromises

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.

HK dreams 005

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.

HK dreams 004

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.

Lin Heung Tea House

Eastern Promises 4: Lin Heung dim sum with Max and AFW

easternpromises

Lin Heung Tea House, 160-164 Wellington Street, Central, Hong Kong (Openrice link)

Lin Heung Ext

Catching up on my academic writing, finishing up 100 Dates of Summer ™ and settling in, there hasn’t been much time for what should be my #1 priority: writing this blog called Eastern Promises. And indeed, there have been promises fulfilled and promises made, both unreported.

Continuing the 100 Dates tradition, I got in touch with fellow travelers Max and AFW to have lunch last week. AFW picked Lin Heung, a joint known for its old school, rough around the edges vibe, tea program, and dim sum (probably in that order). It was written up as the number two thing to do in Hong Kong by Time’s travel division.

First, I should say that, due to ambiguity in the Cantonese name, there are some incorrect addresses for this place floating around the internet. Go to the one at 160 Wellington Street. We went to one of the wrong addresses, but luckily ran into a kindly man who broke down the meaning of the name and all but escorted us to the restaurant. It was my third encounter with extreme HK hospitality and I liked it.

Lin Heung Har Gow

Lin Heung was as advertised. A grumpy waiter showed us to a table we would share with a local family. There was middle-aged woman, a middle-aged man, a much older man and a woman in her 20s. I tried to determine what the exact relationship was, but they said nary a word, only sharing knowing looks when we made some gaffe in etiquette (which we did frequently).

Lin Heung Siu Mai

The waiter slammed some bowls and tea cups down, showing us how wash them in a bowl of hot water. We eventually figured out that the carts would not come to us – we’d have to go to them, which were positioned like stations around the restaurant. With no discernible prices as guides we just grabbed what we could with little rhyme or reason.

Lin Heung Cheung Fun

In addition to a few things I could not discern (something resembling meatballs and beef wrapped in bean curd), we got the usual har gao, siu mai and cheung fun with beef. Given my lack of familiarity with the other items – which I did enjoy on an absolute level – the standard dim sum offers the only real point of comparison.  And it’s been a long time since the Dim Sum Smackdown.

In terms of those standards, you really could do better elsewhere. While the siu mai were good, the har gao was not fresh and not at all the tender morsels of fresh shrimp you hope for. The cheung fun was overcooked and greasy.

Still, I really don’t think you come to a place like this for the quality of the dim sum, but to gather with friends and soak up an ambiance that hasn’t changed in 40 years. A lot of the locals seemed more interested in special teas than food.

We ended up paying only about $60HKD a head, which is about a quarter what you would pay at a fancy dim sum in Hong Kong.

I don’t know if I’d say this is the number two thing to do in Hong Kong, but if you come, give it a shot.  And if you see me, say hi.