CHINA HOUSE (925 Eglinton West, at Bathurst, 416-781-9121) Complete dinners for $22 per person (lunches $16), including all taxes, tip and a domestic beer. Average main $9. Open Monday to Saturday noon to 11 pm, Sunday and holidays noon to 10:30 pm. 20 per cent discount Saturday and Sunday noon to 3 pm. Licensed. Delivery. Access: barrier-free, washrooms in basement. Rating: NNN
In the local resto biz, five years is considered a very successful run. Only Fran’s on College (established in 1940) and Vesuvio’s in the Junction (1957) have lasted 50.
Add China House to that exalted club. Launched in 1958, this long-running Canadianized Chinese restaurant in Forest Hill hits the half-century mark later this year.
Little has changed. The building’s facade still sports an impressive neon sign advertising Cantonese and Mandarin cuisine, and you enter by crossing a bridge over a moat full of make-a-wish pennies.
The two spacious dining rooms are a hoot, the main arena dominated by a large bonsai-style tree - fake, of course - strung with paper lanterns. Walls are painted deep red and hung with black lacquer panels, the matching carpet deeply plush.
We feel like we’re on the set of a glamorous Hollywood movie circa 1942 and almost expect to find Sydney Greenstreet in a double-tasselled fez permanently perched on a banquette.
Like the decor, China House’s menu is a romanticized Western version of the Far East, from which all the flavoursthat timid taste buds might consider offensive – garlic and ginger, say – have been removed. Sure, it’s as authentically Chinese as the vegetable chop suey ($6.50) – “That’s bean sprouts, you know,” says our helpful server – but most of it makes for some mighty fine scarfing.
We’ve commandeered a circular table for five complete with lazy susan, and shortly it’s piled with sauces – soy, hoisin, hot mustard – and a bowl of crunchy deep-fried chow mein.
Dressed in a short formal red jacket, our slightly shaky septuagenarian server returns with perfectly plump egg rolls ($1.30) – not the frozen ones you find most everywhere else – and bowls of tasty wonton soup ($3.50) brimming with al dente bok choy.
For a joint that caters to a predominantly Jewish clientele, China House offers an awful lot of pork, including six different types of spare ribs.
We opt for the plain deep-fried Vancouver variety ($8.95) over the sweet ’n’ sour ($6.50) and, while not terribly meaty, they’re a delectable guilty pleasure.
Presented on a silver cake stand, what look like crisply battered spring rolls turn out to be China House’s most popular specialty, breaded chicken stick with bacon ($8.50). Though their description sounds like a heart attack on a stick, they’re insanely delish, especially when dunked into house-made vinegary plum sauce sauce.
Moo shu pork – a super-fresh stir-fry of tenderloin, sprouts and scallions in a light sesame-scented sauce – gets wrapped up DIY-style in delicate Mandarin crepes, while Moo goo gai pan sees boneless chicken breast paired with perfectly à point veggies.
Only Szechuan shredded beef with Spanish onion in black pepper sauce (all $8.95) fails to live up to its billing, its “mild hotness” an understatement.
Beef, tomato and onion lo mein ($8.50) smacks of mushy spaghetti and meatballs. But Southern-fried chicken ($8.75 for half of a good-sized bird) – for those afraid of egg foo young ($7.95) – is something even miserable Aunt Marge from Sarnia would enjoy sinking her teeth into, even if the accompanying fries are as frozen as her taste in food.
And what better way to finish off a nostalgic nosh than with fortune cookies?
Cutting-edge foodies may balk, but unexpectedly good food at bargain prices served by charming, old-school servers in a truly remarkable room is cause for celebration in our books. Gung hay fat choy!