CHINESE TRADITIONAL BUNS (536 Dundas West, at Kensington, 416-299-9011) Featuring the street snacks of northeastern China, this subterranean spot offers explosive all-day eats that provide more than a quick pick-me-up. Bare-bones decor, spectacular grub. Complete meals for $5 per person, including all taxes and tip. Open daily 9:30 am to 10:30 pm. Unlicensed. Cash only. 12 steps at door, washrooms on same floor. Rating: NNNN
forget about the nattily dressed servers carry-ing trays of Cantonese chow mein. Chinatown's new wave of Spadina spots are more casual, dead cheap and sometimes alarmingly good.This is a neighbourhood that changes constantly.
Since C-Town moved to Dundas and Spadina after the original was demolished in the 70s to build City Hall, it's been a centre of Toronto's multiculti cuisines. As immigrants arrived from Hong Kong, then southern China and now Vietnam, the food shops and noodle houses of downtown Chinatown have evolved to reflect these shifts.
Downstairs from popular seafood joint Sang Ho and behind a beaded curtain, Jin Linda Liu and partner Gao Liang Ma have relocated Chinese Traditional Buns, their northeastern Chinese snack shack, from its original home on the third floor of a now-gutted nearby office building. Business is brisk.
Since eating several smaller meals spread over the day and night is the norm in the East, the couple's unusual menu features dim sum-style dishes like steamed bao dumplings ($3 for 5) stuffed with minced pork, raw ginger, green onion, soy and chili oil. Their name -- Gou Bu Li -- translates as "dogs don't care." They should. With their airy rice-flour wraps, these babies are just right for sopping up a fiery blend of sweet raw garlic, syrupy black rice vinegar and more chili oil.
Although it's listed as a drink, think of jellied bean curd ($1.49 -- that's no typo) as a steaming-hot silken tofu soup swimming with sunken seaweed and crunchy sour pickle, all garnished with salty crushed dried shrimp, slivered scallion, chopped raw garlic and fresh coriander leaf. Add a jolt of fiery chili oil and this pick-me-up turns into a throw-me-across-the-room. Spectacular stuff.
Traditionally, Xian cured pork ($1.99) comes sandwiched in a dense, grilled flatbread like a condiment-free Mongolian hamburger. The bland pork looks and tastes uncannily like tuna salad -- a wimpy version, at that -- but greatly improves with dashes of garlic, onions and chilies.
Qinchuan cold steamed noodles ($2.49), named for its hometown, are the quintessential fast food -- wide ribbons of steamed rice noodle bathed in tasty tahini-like sesame seed paste, black vinegar, scallions, garlic, dried shrimp and even more chili oil. Raw bean sprouts garnish.
Listed on the menu under the category "cold dish," assorted vegetable with mustard oil ($1.99 small/$3.49 large) couldn't be more incendiary. One bite of this innocuous slaw and the Troubled Balkan -- my barometer for all things thermonuclear -- melts down. Other sides -- tripe in chili sauce that recalls rubbery sauerkraut and sliced boar ear (both $1.99 small/$3.99 large) -- could be food challenges on Fear Factor.
Everything's served in flimsy styrofoam plates and soup bowls. Cutlery plastic, chopsticks disposable, linen polyethylene, lighting fluorescent. But Liu and crew -- they introduce dumplings in soup to their super lineup today -- prove that Spadina can still surprise.