Bamboo Buddha 752 King West, at Tecumseth, 416-504-9311. Complete meals for $20 per person ($12 at lunch), including all taxes, tip and a domestic lager. Average main $9. Open Monday to Thursday 11 am to 10:30 pm, Friday 11 am to 11 pm, Saturday 4 to 11 pm, Sunday 4 to 10:30 pm. Weekday lunch buffet noon to 2 pm. Closed holidays. Licensed. Delivery. Access: barrier-free though small room, washrooms in basement. Rating: NNN Rating: NNN
In the resto critic racket, as in life, sometimes you have to be cruel to be kind. Report that some beanery du jour is the best thing to hit Toronto since Tim Hortons and its owners think you're a genius. Say it sucks and you're an asshole.
Bamboo Buddha's husband-andwife team Karyn Chen and Joe Zhou are far too nice to ever consider calling anyone names. Their modest Chinese take-away has been open exactly a year now, and they've managed to build a considerable following for their dirt-cheap lunchtime buffet.
Sadly, their all-too-familiar but MSG-free lineup includes some truly appalling stuff.
But dig deep on the 170-item card and you'll discover a few gems that make Bamboo a veritable foodie find.
Buddha had me from the get-go with Coca-Cola Chicken ($8.75), a deliriously delicious dish that's so wrong it's right. A cousin of General Tso, pounded paillards of boneless chicken thigh are first marinated in sugary soda to tenderize the cheap bird before it's lightly breaded and quickly deep-fried to a purple-tinted crisp and stir-fried with chewy Chinese 'shrooms, scallion and sweet pepper julienne.
"We tried all sorts of pop," Zhou says, "Pepsi, 7-Up. But Coke worked best."
And where else can you find Beer Beef ($10.50) - tasty scaloppine-style steak sautéed with caramelized onion and peppers in a garlicky gravy decidedly redolent of lager - outside of an Edmonton steak house?
Though they're not available for takeout and require 30 minutes to prepare, Bamboo Rice and Lotus Leaves Rice (both $7.95) are reasons enough to check out this not-so-Cantonese cantina. A meal in themselves, bundles of sticky rice come wrapped in aromatic lotus leaf with either chicken, beef or a combo of preserved pork belly, sweet Asian sausage and preserved duck skin, as well as strands of emerald-green Chinese broccoli.
We adore stir-fried stalks of spring asparagus mixed with Chinese mushroom and sculpted carrot ($9.50) and could gladly down garlic-sautéed watercress ($7.50) - two of the few remotely health-conscious dishes here - by the bucketful. But we advise you to pass on Szechuan Mixed Vegetables ($7.95) unless you're a fan of limp bok choy, charred green beans and canned baby corn cobs in ketchup.
Oysters with ginger and onion ($10.95) are another miss, hacked-up, breaded and very deep-fried mollusks in a mild black bean sauce loaded with great whacks of knobby root. We're expecting the same sorry fate with Buddha's mussels but are relieved to find more than a dozen green New Zealand bivalves steamed on the shell along with spicy diced red pepper and shallot.
Like most Chinese restaurants, Buddha features a number of specialties. At first glance, house special fried rice ($7.95) seems nothing of the sort, merely a standard stir-fry of carrot threads, scrambled egg, diced barbecue pork and a handful of cocktail shrimp. But look closer and note the complete absence of frozen veggies other than peas. Now, that really is something special! If only we could say the same about house special braised stuffed bean curd ($9.50) - deep-fried, more like - outsourced house special duck ($25.95 whole/$13.95 half) and house special pork chops ($9.95) dusted with salty cayenne and deep-fried on the bone. Singapore Vermicelli ($8.75) might be a bit greasy and lacking in ginger or garlic, but at least the curry powder that gives the skinny rice noodles their signature flavour has properly combined with the oil in which it's fried.
Given the kitchen crew's propensity to over-batter and deep-fry nearly everything (I'm surprised not to see fish and chips on the card), Buddha's Cantonese Chow Mein ($8.95) rides on a bed of boring boiled noodles instead of the usual fried. Another abomination: cheap, salty hot sauce in packets instead of bottled Sriracha.
Deep-fried egg rolls come still frozen at the core ($1). A lacklustre take on poor ol' pad thai ($8.75) has to be one of the most ineptly prepared around (some feat!), while sweet 'n' sour chicken balls swimming in alarmingly red gloop ($7.95) recall the vile Canadian version of Chinese food served in these parts back in the 70s.
But, ever the contrarian, I'm a big fan of the banana and apple desserts ($4.95 small/$6.95 large, free Friday and Saturday with orders over $30), lightly battered fruit fritters scented with cinnamon. They'd be even more delish if they were paired with a scoop of vanilla ice cream or dollop of crème fraîche instead of a thimbleful of watery sugar syrup. Well, I can dream.
Despite my carping, Bamboo Buddha has plenty going for it. Tables are covered not in plastic sheets, but in glass over fabric.
Service is attentive. And a simple thing like the complimentary green tea served with meals proves to be pricey leaves imported from the mainland.
My concluding tough-love words of wisdom for Buddha: stick with the steamers and ditch the damned deep fryer.