It’s a bit surreal to go to Yonge and Dundas and stroll by way of the doorways of the not too long ago opened Congee Queen. This GTA restaurant franchise has 9 places together with Markham, North York and Scarboroughand 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 truly has an enormous following. When I requested 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 forms 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 objects to select from. It may well really feel overwhelming at first, however after you have your ideally suited order, inserting your Congee Queen order can really feel like belonging to an unstated membership.
Whereas many individuals could also be accustomed to the menu, few learn about Peter Cheung, the person behind Congee Queen and is presently 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 scorching tea, but in addition iced inexperienced tea with honey and a scorching 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 bought a kitchen job at a congee restaurant in Richmond Hill’s Golden Court docket Plaza, because it was a pure match since he helped at his dad’s diner rising up. He and his buddies 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., typically 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 best way 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 Home, 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 special 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 most recent 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 wished photographed: home seafood and blended vegetable fried Taiwanese vermicelli (E4 on the menu), fried turnip patties (K53 on the menu, in any other case generally known 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 below the climate or jet-lagged. The daikon truffles, by far the preferred 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 surface, pillowy smooth 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 quite a bit for the reason that first Congee Queen opened. “The present technology (of younger individuals) know much more about Chinese language meals and have larger requirements,” he says, pointing to Toronto Metropolitan College throughout the road, the place two of his children are college students. “Toronto is much more various now, and meals is such an essential strategy to exhibit 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 large enough.
“We truly spent greater than 5 years wanting,” he says. “To seek out a big area is actually arduous, particularly with lease being larger. You’ll find a 2,000-square-foot area, however we wanted no less than 4,000 sq. ft as a result of have greater than 300 objects 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 have been closing than opening.
“The humorous factor is that earlier than I opened Congee Queen, I additionally had a little bit 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 will be if I might open a restaurant there, however I by no means thought it will occur.”