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The Great Torontoist Challenge: Dim Sum Edition

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Photo by DimsumDarren from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.
Famished one bright, sunny, morning, Torontoist was in no mood for the greasy spoon fare most oft served for weekend breakfast. We felt the need for something with a little heart, and so turned our gourmand gaze towards Spadina and Dundas, and the delightful dim sum options on offer in that colourful and cacophonous square block radius.
One of the more adventurous ways to fill your tum before noon, dim sum inspires strong, sometimes even fanatical, opinions in people, and we’re sure our dear Torontoist readers will be no different. In the meantime, dim sumons nous!

The Contestants

  • Forestview. Hidden away on a second level on Dundas, this traditional dim sum locale boasts ample cart-lady traffic, servers in silky vests, and, from what we could see, absolutely no forest in view at all.
  • Rol San. A jaunty neon lobster and fast-paced plastic tablecloth cleaning system attract lines of patrons to this cart-free Spadina dim sum station.
  • Bright Pearl. With its high ceilings, disco ball and flight attendant styled cart ladies, Bright Pearl appeals to a diverse crowd, including, at least during our visit, an entire table of ladies sporting bouffants.
  • Asian Legend. Though not specialized in dim sum, this comely Mandarin-speaking eatery made a go with their Shu Mai and, according to lore, serves up some of the best damn soup in Toronto.

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Asian Legend’s Shu Mai and Pork Dumpling.

The Criteria We decided to rate our dim summing experience based on how well the contestants made the following three items.

  • Shu Mai. Spellings and exact presentations may vary, but the essentials of this Cantonese dumpling include pork, shrimp, and wee bits of mushroom, all lovingly wrapped up and decoratively topped with roe.
  • Har Gow. A dim sum staple, the shell of this shrimp dumpling is sometimes called a “bonnet”, which may, for some, evoke inaccurate images of wagon trains and frontier times.
  • Steamed BBQ Pork Bun. Super steamy white buns of joy, filled to bursting with red char siu, are a must of any dim summery.

Additional Criteria

We sort of muddled our numbers with the cost analysis of this challenge, mostly due to our not being able to resist ordering extras and the prevalence of a “mystery cost system” in use by more than one location.
Rol San ($11.68 for Shu Mai, Har Gow and BBQ Pork Buns); Asian Legend ($12.94 for Shu Mai and Pork Dumplings); Bright Pearl ($14.01 for Shu Mai, Har Gow and BBQ Pork Buns); Forestview ($14.85 for Shu Mai, Har Gow, Pork & Corn Dumpling, and BBQ Pork Buns).

Results

  • Shu Mai. Rol San—7/10. In the words of one, most discerning, judge, “the well-appointed roe and accoutrement suggest a care and attention to detail” that was matched in the flavour.
  • Har Gow. Rol San—8/10. The translucent skin of Rol San’s Har Gow was like a window into its delectable, shrimpy, soul.
  • Steamed BBQ Pork Bun. Rol San—8.5/10. Described as both “perky” and “fluffy,” this bun was the absolute shizznit.

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Forestview’s Shu Mai, Har Gow, and BBQ Pork Bun.

Conclusions

Asian Legend did not lose this challenge. Unfortunately, with our criteria of Har Gow, Shu Mai and BBQ Pork Bun all set, and our other contestants already judged, we were left in the unpleasant predicament of wanting to include a challenger who could not compete in two of three categories. Still, with Shu Mai and other dim sum delights on offer, we decided to give them a mention—one that is quite worthy. Blossoming from their steam basket with an air of royalty, Asian Legend’s Shu Mai impressed visually. The quality of the meat was evidently high, but unfortunately the flavour was unable to compare to its looks—the taste was lacking sparkle, making this Shu Mai all style and not enough substance. What redeems Asian Legend, in our epicurean opinion, is the rest of their fare. Number seven on the menu, their pork dumplings were one of the best things we’d consumed all day—shaped like mini Apollo mission re-entry capsules, full of juicy pork, hints of green onion, and served with a wonderful soy, vinegar and ginger dipping sauce, consumption of these evoked both nodding and many an “mmm.” Stuffed to the brim from a full day of dim summing, Torontoist stopped there, but not without noting—both by sight and scent—the other ambrosial goods available. Though perhaps not the most traditional or “authentic” of dim sum restaurants in Toronto’s Chinatown, Asian Legend is still worthy of exploration.
Oh, Forestview, what you lack for in woods you make up for in wild and noisy cart traffic. The most authentic place that we visited in our dim sum pilgrimage, Forestview is not for the faint of heart. One of the greatest challenges of being a patron of Forestview is getting exactly what you want to eat—the cart ladies, though numerous and attentive, are not all fluent in English, and while many different dishes are on offer, if you are in the market for specifics, you’re best off flagging down a be-vested waiter. But beware the false wave! As Torontoist quickly learned, ware peddling can present hazardous situations, involving enthusiastic cart ladies and unwanted chicken feet. The first dish to be tested at Forestview, what we were repeatedly assured was Shu Mai and we later confirmed was not—after spying the true blue version on another table—can be best characterized as a ball of balls. That’s right. Remarkably unappetizing, with a flavour to match, they had the distinct appearance of coagulated testicles. Thank goodness for hot sauce. Forestview’s Har Gow and BBQ Pork buns were certainly an improvement, but neither passed with flying colours. The zombie-like Har Gow’s skin was too thick, slightly soggy, with a taste that lacked soul and the BBQ Pork Bun, though piping hot with a pleasant sweetness, had dry innards that would have benefitted from an increase in sauciness. Funnery of the experience aside, Forestview was the clear loser of this challenge.
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Bright Pearl’s Shu Mai, Har Gow, and BBQ Pork Bun.
With their white Air Canada-inspired chapeaus perched aloft their heads, the cart ladies of Bright Pearl run a tight and efficient ship, with Har Gow and Shu Mai available, conveniently, on the same cart. We started off with the Shu Mai, which, though more traditional in appearance than Forestview’s ball o’ meat and Asian Legend’s Shu Mai-style dumpling-blossom, was disconcerting in that where we expected to find tiny orange roe, we instead found what can only be described as orange cupcake sprinkles. To add insult to sprinkly injury, these Shu Mai were stuck together, had an odd, gamey flavour, and a texture our judges declared to be “chunky,” “squishy” and “oddly moist.” The BBQ Pork Buns, which it has become evident to us are pretty hard to totally mess up, were bursting at the seams with the promise of charred meaty filling. Though there was a discernible yeast scent, the bun itself was the right amount of sweet, and the innards, which unfortunately included some pretty bad cuts of meat, also had a nice flavour. Where Bright Pearl failed was, without question, in the realm of Har Gow. Their offering was dry, with unchewable skin that indicated that it was not properly steamed and shrimp that could have easily been rehydrated. As one judge put it, it was like eating “bubblewrap,” and not in the fun way.
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Rol San’s Har Gow, BBQ Pork Bun, and Shu Mai.
If you don’t arrive at just the right time, you may be waiting a while for a table at Rol San. The wait, in our opinion, is worth it. Our first reward for standing in line was a free jiggly, yellow substance. Shaped like a heart and covered in a liquid that resembled milk, it was, while we waited for our other courses, a source of endless amusement—we even have the video to prove it. We then moved on to the best dim sum, cart-free, we’d had all day. The Shu Mai was well presented, with real roe, and had an immediate flavour, meaty, with a good consistency that made it easy to manipulate with chopsticks. The delicate skin of the Har Gow means that in certain instances you could, depending on abilities, encounter some level of decasement, leaving a sad jellyfish-like skin behind on your plate. However, with at least a passing level of gentle dexterity you will be rewarded when the shrimpy soul of this dumpling pops in your mouth. The star of our meal at Rol San was unquestionably their steamed BBQ Pork Bun. The bright, pure, white exterior gave way to a deep red, saucy interior, exploding with flavour. A slightly sticky bun was a bonus, with one judge proclaiming, most alliterately, that it made for a “longer linger of flavour.” With free “play-jello,” neon sea creatures in the window, accoutrements like soy and sesame oil with chili already on your table, super low prices, and fast efficient service—once you actually are seated—Rol San will be Torontoist’s definite first pick for future dim sum excursions.
Photos of our contestants by Mike Armitage.

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