SHANGHAI COWGIRL (538 Queen West, at Bathurst, 416-203-6623) Noisy and smoky, this rockin' resto offers updated greasy-spoon grub with soul-food twists in a room that recalls a sleek deco diner. Complete dinners for $25 per person ($15 at breakfast or lunch), including all taxes, tip and a domestic beer. Open Monday to Wednesday 10:30 am to midnight, Thursday to Saturday 10:30 am to 4 am, Sunday 10:30 am to 6 pm. Fully licensed. Smoking section. Access: short step at door, washrooms in basement. Rating: NNN Rating: NNN
the bovine sex club, queen west's raucous rock 'n' roll rec room, polarizes people. Some see it as a full-tilt party palace, others as a pretentious playground for the past-it. Located in a former textile store right next door to that welded-junk-covered club, Shanghai Cowgirl, a 21st-century take on a classic 50s diner, has the same effect on people: they love it or loathe it.
Not bothered by the wall of smoke rising from the griddle where a short-order cook fries up all-day three-egg breakfasts (from $5.65)? Then perch yourself on an orange vinyl stool at Cowgirl's shiny black Third Uncle-designed lunch counter and scarf down Montreal bagels slathered with cream cheese and piled with lox, capers and chopped red onion ($7.85).
Or settle into one of several high-backed booths (reclaimed from the Queen City Restaurant) that line this brightly lit room; the smoke's not quite so in-yer-face here. The selection goes far beyond greasy-spoon grub, with side trips that take in both Seoul and soul food. Seems Shanghai's a globe-trotting cowgirl.
Swamped from the day it opened less than a month ago, this already popular spot still has a few kinks to iron out. Because the varied menu is considerably longer than usual for places like these, the kitchen's not quite up to full speed. Servers, while always helpful, aren't as familiar with the menu as they will be in a few weeks. Normal, really.
Think Cowgirl's busy now? Watch her explode once spring, er, springs (in late August, according to this year's Farmer's Almanac), when an 80-seat backyard patio complete with brick barbecue replaces the parking lot out back. There, undoubtedly, the Shanghai burger, a thick hand-formed patty sandwiched into a cornmeal-crusted bun spread with wasabi mayo, will taste even better.
The same fiery mayo shows up on the amusingly dubbed Trailer Trash Sushi ($6.95 with fries or a very good salad of ripped romaine, radicchio, frisée, spinach and sweet peppers in a creamy dressing), a Portuguese pada bun that holds moist grilled chicken breast and leafy green watercress.
Few appreciated the humour in naming a perfectly good steak Ranch Muffin, so it's now known as Sterling Silver Sirloin ($14.75), a substantial 12-ounce, inch-think slab of perfectly grilled beef sided with roast potatoes and al dente green beans.
Both Chicken-Fried Steak ($10) -- a pounded and battered deep-fried schnitzel-like flank served with delicious country gravy enriched with milk -- and cornflake-and-breadcrumb-coated Ghetto Chicken ($10.45) continue the southern home cookin' theme. While both come with spuds and corn on the cob, a more appropriate side is Blackened Tater Salad ($3.48), seared red-jacketed potatoes doused with Cajun spices and dressed in house-made mayo.
A mess of cool cellophane noodles gets layered over a mess of greens -- crinkly red leaf, cubed sweet peppers and cukes, red and green onion, bean sprouts -- in Seoul Food Salad ($5.65) but needs a more assertive sesame-oil vinaigrette to be authentically Korean.
Vegetarian Shanghai noodles ($6.50) have nothing to do with the curried vermicelli found in Chinatown but are instead a pleasing pile of chow mein egg noodles strewn with purple cabbage as well as pepper and carrot julienne. Spring Rolled ($2.61) -- two microscopic wonton wraps stuffed with indeterminate minced veggies -- could use a rethink. And where's its menu-advertised plum sauce?
Drunken mussels ($7), 20 or so gritty molluscs unfortunately steamed in beer instead of wine, should be served with bread to sop up the sauce. On second thought, maybe they shouldn't. Sweet Tater Fries ($3.04), deep-fried shoestring sweet potatoes, arrive minus their promised mayo.
Burn You Twice Chili ($6.10) does exactly that: first of all, the tasty Texas-style bean-free con carne's about as hot as Mariah Carey's career; and secondly, where's the toast that's promised on the menu? A side of corned beef hash ($1.30), as large a portion as the chili, makes up for the disappointment.
Things get back on track with chef and co-owner Andy Kristoff's Jägermeister-spiked chocolate mousse that sells out the moment he makes it. Brought-in southern-style pecan pie and a crumble-topped apple version make good substitutes (all desserts $4.35).
What gives with Cowgirl's weird prices -- $6.52, $6.09, $1.74? Someone clever has decided to set prices that, with 15-per-cent tax, add up to an even number. Great idea theoretically, and no doubt a no-brainer for the wait staff. But how do customers calculate a going-rate tip when their bill shows prices including taxes, without an itemized breakdown?
Think again, Cowgirl. firstname.lastname@example.org