It’s a bit surreal to go to Yonge and Dundas and stroll by the doorways of the not too long ago opened Congee Queen. This GTA restaurant franchise has 9 places together with Markham, North York and Scarborough and has, for nearly twenty years, been synonymous with the suburbs for my household. Now it’s within the coronary heart of the downtown core.
For these unfamiliar with Congee Queen, it really has an enormous following. When I asked on Twitter what everybody’s go-to order was, 100 individuals responded. Cantonese chow mein, salt-and-pepper fried squid and fried bean curd chosen by a former coworker. Turnip truffles with preserved egg and pork congee from a recipe developer. Seafood congee with barbecued pork rice noodle roll from one other. No two orders are the identical as Congee Queen serves “jook, enjoyable, mein, fan,” a catch-all time period in Cantonese for 4 kinds of dishes: congee, rice-based noodles, flour-based noodles and rice. Every class has dozens of iterations, leading to a menu with greater than 300 gadgets to select from. It may really feel overwhelming at first, however upon getting your ideally suited order, inserting your Congee Queen order can really feel like belonging to an unstated membership.
Whereas many individuals could also be acquainted with the menu, few find out about Peter Cheung, the person behind Congee Queen and is at the moment the president of the corporate. I used to be lastly capable of meet him not too long ago, and after we sat down on the new location Cheung requested a server to get me not simply sizzling tea, but additionally iced inexperienced tea with honey and a sizzling cup of Hong Kong milk tea, simply in case. I noticed that for a restaurant I’ve eaten at dozens of occasions, I don’t know something about the way it all started.
“How a lot time do you might have?” Cheung says with amusing whereas we converse in Cantonese.
Cheung moved from Hong Kong to Toronto in 1994 and obtained a kitchen job at a congee restaurant in Richmond Hill’s Golden Courtroom Plaza, because it was a pure match since he helped at his dad’s diner rising up. He and his pals then determined to open their very own restaurant collectively, ensuing within the first location of Congee Wong on the Peachtree Plaza in Markham (the restaurant’s Chinese language identify is definitely “Emperor,” as “wong” interprets to “king”).
“We labored from morning to nighttime, from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m., generally staying until 1 a.m.,” he remembers. “You had quarter-hour to eat and that was it. We couldn’t afford to be away from the kitchen that lengthy as a result of there have been so few of us.”
Further Congee Wong places opened across the GTA. In 2002 the companions determined to separate up, every managing a separate location independently.
Cheung himself took over the North York location of Congee Wong at Finch Ave. E. and Leslie St. In 2004, he opened a second congee spot at Don Mills Rd. and Lawrence Ave. E. To go with the Congee Wong’s royal identify, he named the brand new place Congee Queen (or “Empress” in Chinese language).
Alongside the way in which Cheung ventured into different restaurant ideas within the north finish of the GTA: Petit Potato, a Taiwanese-Japanese fusion restaurant; Japanese restaurant Sushi Legend; and Good Catch Boil House, a Louisiana-inspired restaurant and bar that’s adjoining to its sister restaurant, Hong Kong diner Good Catch Cafe in downtown Markham.
Seven extra Congee Queens additionally opened in Thornhill, Markham, Scarborough and Mississauga, every helmed by a distinct chef that apprenticed for a 12 months or two at a Congee Queen earlier than going off on their very own. In these early years, Congee Queen hadn’t captured the eye of the downtown-centric native meals media, but it surely did achieve a big loyal following within the suburbs and with some downtowners keen to make the journey north.
The latest location at 363 Yonge St. is a glossy, two-level earth-toned area the place Swiss Chalet was for many years. As a long-time Congee Queen buyer to the Scarborough and North York places I knew precisely which of my favorite dishes I needed photographed: home seafood and blended vegetable fried Taiwanese vermicelli (E4 on the menu), fried turnip patties (K53 on the menu, in any other case referred to as daikon truffles), and a tureen of the namesake rice porridge, the home tremendous bowl congee (A7, plain congee with shrimp, scallops, arctic clam and sliced grouper and salmon).
The vermicelli is among the uncommon dishes my father, the hardest critic of Chinese language cooking within the metropolis, approves of. He says they don’t skimp on the seafood and it has the correct quantity of wok hay, the fragrant smoky aroma achieved by cooking over a fiery wok. As for the congee, I discover that the rice porridge right here is thicker than the water-downed variations provided elsewhere, and what I crave after I’m beneath the climate or jet-lagged. The daikon truffles, by far the most well-liked dish from my Twitter survey, are a labour-intensive dish of grated daikon fashioned right into a patty after which steamed and pan-fried to make it crispy on the skin, pillowy comfortable on the within.
And now, diners downtown will get to expertise the identical factor. Although this location is just not in a primarily Asian neighbourhood, Cheung says palates modified rather a lot because the first Congee Queen opened. “The present era (of younger individuals) know much more about Chinese language meals and have greater requirements,” he says, pointing to Toronto Metropolitan College throughout the road, the place two of his youngsters are college students. “Toronto is much more numerous now, and meals is such an essential approach to showcase our tradition.”
Although it’s not that Cheung was ready for a receptive city clientele earlier than opening downtown, it was the logistics of discovering an area sufficiently big.
“We really spent greater than 5 years trying,” he says. “To seek out a big area is basically exhausting, particularly with lease being greater. You will discover a 2,000-square-foot area, however we wanted a minimum of 4,000 sq. toes as a result of have greater than 300 gadgets on the menu.”
So when the Swiss Chalet closed, Cheung was capable of safe the area at a time when it appeared like extra eating places had been closing than opening.
“The humorous factor is that earlier than I opened Congee Queen, I additionally had slightly Thai and bubble tea takeout store throughout the road,” he says. “I’d take a look at the Swiss Chalet and assume how good it could be if I may open a restaurant there, however I by no means thought it could occur.”
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