GOLD STONE NOODLE (266 Spadina, at Dundas, 416-596-9053). Complete meals for $15 per person, including all taxes, tip and a domestic lager. Open Sunday to Thursday 8 am to 2 am and Friday and Saturday 8 am to 4 am. Licensed. Access: barrier-free but crowded space, washrooms in basement. Rating: NNN Rating: NNN
Even on a slow day, Chinatown is chaotic. Negotiating its narrow sidewalks piled high with crates of hairy rambutan and 10-for-a-dollar tomatoes can be as perilous as slaloming a skateboard down the Spadina streetcar right-of-way.
From eight in the morning till 4 am the following day, the biggest commotion occurs in front of Gold Stone, a 10-year-old noodle house that also happens to be the nabe's most popular. Just getting in the door proves a major challenge, let alone commandeering one of the bare food-court-style tables.
Some hopefuls line up in no apparent order in the narrow open-kitchen entryway for takeout as others wishing admission try to push past a steady stream of customers attempting to leave, all the while interrupted by shouts of "Watch your back!" as uniform-clad servers carry steaming bowls of soup overhead through the clamouring crowd.
Once seated, surrounded by a group that ranges from toddlers in high chairs to seniors slurping congee, we scan the 400-plus-dish Cantonese card. We decide to stick with what Gold Stone knows best - noodles and barbecue. Of the many we try, two are particularly impressive. Sui-Kau Noodle (#139) finds six plump dumplings stuffed with firm shrimp, minced chicken and shredded Chinese mushrooms swimming in a perfectly grease-free broth brimming with al dente mein.
Even more palatable, BBQ Duck Noodle (#146, both $5.95) sees the identical soup 'n' noodle base layered with slices of amazing non-fatty fowl and vibrant-hued bok choy. The barbecue comes freshly sliced from the rack of 'cued critters in the front window - ducks (#212, $16 whole/$8 half), deliciously cooked and, because of the eatery's volume, never dry, their moist mahogany skin barely scented with licorice-y five spice powder.
For anyone who's only encountered goose at a holiday spread, Gold Stone's gander is a revelation (#211, $22/$11). It's again surprisingly fat-free, its sweet meat as tender as venison. However, the real eye-opener is the house Soya Sauce Chicken (#215, $14/$7), a lightly sauced and steamed bird that's possibly the juiciest broiler this side of Swiss Chalet. And make sure to ask for House's essential but not always offered raw garlic and Chinese chive hot sauce to amplify the flavours of all of the above.
The 'cue also finds its way into a number of East-meets-West specialties like BBQ Pork Omelette (#48, $4.75), a yolky faux frittata folded over nubbins of said pork and an incongruous veggie medley of freezer-case peas, corn and green beans, served with aggressively toasted white Wonderbread. I perversely pair it with a sad side of woefully underdone Fried French Fries (#85, $1.95) that would probably keep the kids happy.
The same pork and frozen veggie contingent reappear in Young Chow Fried Rice (#282, $6.50), an otherwise tasty soyless combo sprinkled with scrambled egg and undersized cocktail shrimp. Better is Gold Stone's kitchen-sink House Special Chow Mein (#301, $8.75), which sees great whacks of barbecue pork mixed with crisscross-cut calamari and rubbery squares of cuttlefish squid - the so-called chameleon of the sea hanging in the front window that looks like a fluorescent orange hot water bottle - as well as thinly sliced scallops, chicken strips, baby bok choy, Chinese 'shrooms and the odd frozen shrimp or two in anise-scented, cornstarch-thickened gravy.
Like several other relatively recently opened restos in the area, Gold Stone also features an unusual combination of traditional Chinese fare filtered through a colonial British sensibility. How else to explain the presence of Cream of Ham Soup (#343, $3.50), Luncheon Meat with Macaroni in Soup (#44, $4.95) and Iced Ovaltine (#15, $1.95) on the menu?
We throw caution to the wind and order Baked Chicken on Rice Portuguese Style (#300, $7.50). It arrives at our Formica-clad table in an oval ceramic casserole teeming with hacked skin and bones 'n' all pieces of miscellaneous bird in a very sweet but underpowered yellow curry. Don't let the handle of Pan-fried Black Pepper Steak with Spaghetti Hong Kong Style(#77, $7.95) put you off, especially when you could be inhaling pounded, peppered beef and caramelized onion on a bed of greasy noodles. Good greasy noodles, of course.
How Russian Borsch Soup (#344, $3.50) made it onto the menu of a Chinese restaurant is a mystery, even more so once you taste its thin gruel strewn with carrot and celery.
But Shrimp Szechuan Style (#390, $11.50) gets thing right. A bed of limply steamed lettuce is piled with 20-some crustaceans and a mess of sugary green bell pepper. Take note, Golden Leaf - you sell virtually the same plate for 18 bucks. But then, you have table linen.