LEE GARDEN (331 Spadina, at Baldwin, 416-593-9524) The enduring popularity of this very average Chinatown joint mystifies. Throw in a never-ending lineup of pushy customers fighting for an elusive place at a plastic-covered table, harried servers understandably hostile and just-OK grub that costs at least 50 per cent more than its competition and it's difficult to fathom the fuss. Complete meals for $35 per person, including all taxes, tip and a bottle of Tsingtao beer. Open daily 4 pm to midnight. Fully licensed. Access: one step at door, washrooms in basement. Rating: NN
late sunday afternoon and lee Garden is in full feeding frenzy. At the door, a crowd of 30 or so would-be diners jostle for position and queue for up to 45 minutes for a seat at a plastic-covered table.Despite a sign that says to take a number and wait, newcomers regularly push their way to the front of the line and attempt to grab the attention of the clearly harried staff who carry plates piled with things like pan-fried jumbo tiger shrimps with fresh pineapple ($20).
According to a number of readers polls (including NOW's), this is Toronto's favourite Chinese restaurant. Today's mixed crowd -- and it's this busy every day -- certainly agrees.
Before a party has left their table, the multi-layered plastic tarp gets bundled and whisked away, signalling those in the queue to stake their claim on the as-yet-to-be-deserted spot.
Why anyone would want to dine among this bad-mannered bunch baffles me. No wonder the servers are hostile!
On top of that, Lee Garden's food isn't that special, considering it's priced at least 50 per cent higher than anywhere else on the Spadina strip. Two bucks for a very average Golden Crispy Spring Roll? Seven for a small bowl of -- granted, quite good -- hot-and-sour soup? Fourteen for fried rice?!?
We start with a wall-advertised special of fresh pickerel fillet ($12.95), a pleasant speckled fish served with what's described as egg white and ginger wine sauce.
Think bland cornstarch gravy with nary a hint of wine or ginger. Its accompanying taro fritters are downright nasty.
That bitter tuber shows up again in Crispy Golden Taro Fish ($12), only now it's mashed and shaped like an oversized goldfish that's been stuffed with chopped carrot and broccoli and garnished with a ludicrous maraschino cherry .
Verging on delicious, Crispy Golden Tofu Pie ($14) -- do I detect a theme? -- sees silky tofu formed into a trio of deep-fried hockey pucks stuffed with mixed veg and coupled with a pair of lovely poached shrimp quenelles.
Deep-fried bean curd ($10) is a regulation mix of tofu, carrot and Chinese broccoli that'd set you back seven dollars down the street.
The final insult?
A small bowl of plain steamed rice goes for an exorbitant $1.50.