Whenever I ride my bike through Chinatown, I wonder how any motorist could think Dundas is a shortcut across town. It's major gridlock.
Four-wheeled vehicles might not be moving, but I manoeuvre easily through the bumper-to-bumper congestion until I catch sight of a sign over a restaurant that that makes me skid to a stop.
I'm a sucker for a silly name, but this one's a doozy -- OPM Den. All I can think is that this joint must have one helluva smoking section.
Alas, once inside, I find that no one's inhaling anything stronger than a Camel Lite. But there's something peculiar about the place that I can't quite put my finger on.
Muted crooning On the sound system, Diana Krall's muted supper-club crooning gives way to soul sista Macy Gray's diva display. Then I spot the giveaway. There, under a pot-light strung with New Age crystals, stuck to the side of the beer fridge is a rainbow flag decal. OPM Den -- subtitled La Cuisine Chinoise -- is queer-friendly.
We consider this a good omen as we focus on the lunchtime dim sum lineup. First to arrive, pickled vegetables -- crunchy cubes of sweet, vinegary bitter melon, daikon and carrot ($2) -- makes a great side dish. There's nothing to go with them until a tasty ship-shaped bowl of cold cellophane noodles with sesame-oil dressing ($2.75) docks at the table several minutes later.
Pan-fried green-onion pancake and shredded radish cake (both $1.50) look exactly the same -- a pair of 8-inch flaky pastry discs. One's laced with bits of scallion, while the other appears to be stuffed with minced pork. Our server insists it's daikon radish, but it neither looks nor tastes like the glutinous white root veg we're expecting.
A large steamer arrives, its lifted lid revealing six sausage-stuffed goon tong gow (described on the menu as "soup-filled dumpling in Chinese style, $3.50"). Careful -- they're extremely hot and they squirt. More controllable pan-fried pork potstickers ($2.80 for four) are quite enjoyable if somewhat greasy.
Too chicken to order marinated pigs' ears ($3.75), we settle on five-spice marinated duck ($5). Steamed but served at room temperature, it comes with its fatty skin and bones still attached -- a lotta work for little reward.
A few days later, I cobble together a takeout spread from OPM Den's Szechwan dishes. Rice vermicelli Singapore-style ($5.95) is the same dish served all over town: curried noodles, tendrils of carrot, scrambled egg, frozen cocktail shrimp, tiny shreds of barbecued pork. Studded with whole dried red chili pods, sliced beef with eggplant ($8.25) features deliciously meaty electric-blue eggplant mixed with thin strips of garlicky steak. Of the few vegetarian selections, succulent deep-fried tofu gets combined with fiery carrot, chewy Chinese mushrooms and humongous snow peas ($7.95).
There's one other thing that sets OPM Den apart from its neighbours -- its patio, a good spot to watch Chinatown come to a standstill.
Yes, it's a silly name and, no, laudanum's not on the menu. But this step-above Cantonese-slash-Szechwan spot combines stylish-for-Chinatown digs, cool tunes and better-than-most food. And there's a curbside patio. Complete dinners for $25 ($10 for dim sum lunch), including all taxes, tip and a domestic beer. Open daily 11 am to 11 pm. Fully licensed. Access: 10 steps at door, washrooms on same floor. Rating: NNN
Fiery eggplant with thin sirloin strips