SAIGON PEARL (2A Kensington, at Dundas, 416-598-1573) Complete dim sum meals for $18 per person, including all taxes, tip and a domestic beer. Average main $2.50. Open Monday, Tuesday and Thursday 9:30 am to 7:30 pm, Friday to Sunday 9 am to 8 pm. Closed Wednesday. Licensed. Access: one step at door, washrooms in basement. Rating: NNN Rating: NNNNN
I don't know how many thousands of times I've passed Saigon Pearl, the rather dumpy and always seemingly empty diner at the foot of Kensington just down from Courage My Love that bills itself as home to "the best Chinese and Vietnamese food in town."
"Yeah, right," I'd scoff, and head off somewhere else, not giving the spot a second thought.
That is, until this last Thanksgiving weekend, when, with nearly everything else closed, the last balmy day of the season calls for anything-but-turkey, a patio and cheap suds. Instant inspiration: Saigon Pearl!
Arriving noonish for maximum rays, we find the tree-shaded terrace locked up, its fading plastic furniture chained to a rickety wrought iron railing. Undaunted, we head indoors into a smallish space furnished with maybe a dozen bare tables. Calendars grace off-white walls, a TV set blares, and sunlight streams through dusty café curtains. I can see why I've given the place a miss.
"Everyone here is Chinese. That's a good sign, isn't it?" wonders the Troubled Balkan after quickly casing the joint and counting six other customers.
By that logic, the Tim Hortons at Dundas and Spadina is the Centro of Chinatown.
Soon, Pearl's owner, Lieu Paul, brings dim sum menus and a dented pot of strong green tea. As the Balkan natters away about whatever it is he natters about, my attention wanders and I recognize a familiar face.
"I've been coming here every Sunday for eight years," says my NOW colleague, photo coordinator Karen Chapelle, who's just as surprised to see me. "It's so good and so cheap!"
She also informs us that this supposedly unknown eatery has appeared in Karen X. Tulchinsky's Toronto-based novel Love Ruins Everything. That would explain the group of librarians who've just commandeered a communal table in the Pearl's small back room.
On Chapelle's recommendation, we start with steamed shrimp har gow dumplings ($2.50), the litmus test for any Cantonese dim sum cantina. Pearl's interpretation is textbook, a quartet of rice noodle packets stuffed with large chunks of al dente seafood.
Though the house shiu mai (chicken or pork, $2) fall somewhat short of the mark, a trio of vibrantly green spinach dumplings filled with sesame-scented veg, an eggy custard-like sauce and more toothsome shrimp are outstanding.
Chiu chow dumplings (both $2.50) are even more delish, three steamed bundles bursting with minced chicken, crisply fried nuggets of baloney-like sausage, chopped Chinese celery and diced Chinese mushroom.
Once dipped into salty chili paste, wonderfully doughy steamed buns contrast explosively with their sweet cores of barbecued pork ($2), while lightly fried wonton wo tip potstickers ($2.25) get sauced with vinegary dark soy.
Sadly, when it comes to restaurants, the words "squid" and "rubber" are too often synonymous, so naturally I'm a bit wary of ordering Saigon's rendition. Quirkily listed as "calamaries ($5.75)" on the card (must be a French thing), these marvellously tender tentacles have been lightly breaded and dusted with chili before being deep-fried to golden perfection. Squirted with lime, they're swoon-worthy.
Most hardcore herbivores will balk at a kitchen that includes chicken feet ($2) and beef tripe ($2.25) in its repertoire, but they'll learn to look the other way once they try Pearl's Vietnamese-influenced meat-free dim sum menu. Fried vegetarian spring rolls ($2) turn out to be grease-free cylinders loaded with cabbage, carrot, and 'shrooms (pass the nuoc cham, that tasty dipping sauce, equal parts nam pla fish sauce and soy), and fried chive dumplings ($2.25) reveal themselves to be Chinese radish cakes ($2) minus the Chinese sausage, a gloriously greasy guilty pleasure.
Chapelle has also pointed out a dish whose name always gets a chuckle out of her Sunday crew: Fried Vegetarian On Rice Noodle ($8.95). Substituting crunchy chow mein noodles for the flaccid noodles, we knock off this retro stir-fry of market-fresh greens mixed with heavenly pillows of deep-fried tofu in a flash.
Fools for pho, we can't resist Pearl's deliriously tasty chiu chow-style satay version ($5.75), thick with slippery rice stick and plump slices of rare, aerated beef, especially after we figure out that its deep-brown garnish is a generous toss of deep-fried garlic and not the Baco-bits we first suspected.
If our visits to Saigon Pearl have taught us anything, it's never to dismiss something because of its appearance alone. Who knew that all these years we've been overlooking a hidden treasure in our own backyard?