NEW HO KING (416 Spadina, at Nassau, 416-595-1881) Complete meals for $20 per person ($15 at lunch), including all taxes, tip and a Tsingtao. Average main $8. Open Sunday to Thursday 11:30 am to 4 am, Friday and Saturday 11:30 am to 5 am. Licensed. Access: one step at door, washrooms in basement. Rating: NNN Rating: NNN
Long a U of T favourite, this friendly and affordable Cantonese cantina is notably different from the other late-night dives lining the avenue. Besides the warm welcome, the archetypal Spadina space - large circular communal tables, some topped with celadon linen, others tiered with disposable white polyethylene - borders on elegance. If you squint. Yes, the carpet's a bit grungy, a testament to the traffic, but the walls have a fresh coat of pale olive paint and the multi-coloured signs advertising specials have the feel of some chic art gallery. If you squint.
By the door, one sign plugs Ho King Special Sizzling Chicken (#401, $8.50). Don't be swayed unless you're a fan of breaded General Tso-style bone-in chicken McNuggets. Instead, try Ho King's Special Fried Rice ($6.95), a humongous kitchen sink of a dish containing baby shrimp, tiny bits of barbecued pork, fluffy scrambled egg and forgivable frozen corn. In Shrimp and Eggplant with Garlic Sauce ($8), while there are plenty of shrimp, there's no excuse for the critters not being deveined.
Another sizable serving meant to share, Moo-Shu Vegetables with Pancake (#715, $8.95) finds a plate piled with shredded napa cabbage, onion and mushrooms waiting to be folded into a stack of crepes along with raw scallion, English cuke and a squirt of hoisin. Slightly spicy Hunan Beef (#520, $8.50) finds the pounded meat alongside a great whack of al dente green pepper and onion, while Dry Sauteed String Beans Szechuan Style (#S33, $7.95 with or without ground pork) recalls the version that made Peter's Chung King famous back in the 70s. Cheaper, too.
My culinary curiosity pulls me to Mixed Vegetables with Crispy Rice Cake (#701, $6.50), something I've never come across on a Chinatown card. The veggies turn out to be forgettable - a standard stir-fry of broccoli, snow peas and bell peppers in thin sweet 'n' sour syrup - but the deep-fried rice is astounding, having the nuttiness of sesame and the addictive crunch of popcorn. Pair just the rice cake with either NHK's Hunan Beef, Szechuan green beans or the Moo-Shu veggies and discover why New Ho King is a very good thing.