Krispy Roll (789 Warden, at Eglinton, 416-759-5757) Complete meals for $20 per person ($12 at lunch), including all taxes, tip and an iced coffee. Average main $8. Open Monday to Thursday 10 am to 10 pm, Friday 10 am to 11 pm, Saturday 11 am to 11 pm, Sunday 11 am to 10 pm. Unlicensed. Cash only. Access: one step at door, washrooms in basement. Rating: NNN Rating: NNN
In the last decade, downtown Toronto has become home to as many Vietnamese noodle houses as Japanese sushi joints. But one of the best and most popular Saigon soup kitchens - Dai Nam - split Spadina two years ago and high-tailed it to the depths of Scarberia.
We've been meaning to check out convivial owner Anh Mai's new spot - now rechristened Krispy Roll - for some time, but only got around to it last weekend, when I convinced the Rivoli's Stephen Hobson to gas up his classic 64 T-Bird and join me for a jaunt to the burbs. Who better to accompany me than the avid foodie who first discovered Dai Nam back in the day?
Located in an anonymous strip mall next to a lingerie boutique, Krispy Roll is hard to miss: just look for the Scarborough water tower across from the Wal-Mart parking lot next to the flea market. Once inside the eatery, find a towering space decked out with vinyl-covered tables, retro chandeliers and hanging baskets full of plastic plants. Round these parts, that's considered classy.
Both fools for pho, we start with a steaming bowl of rich duck broth swimming with French colonial confit-style bird, dark-skinned and deliciously fatty. Thick with chewy chow mein noodles, earthy Chinese mushrooms and vibrant baby bok choy, it comes garnished - as does much of Krispy Roll's card - with bean sprouts, red bird chilies and both Thai basil and mint leaf ($6.50 small/$6.99 large).
Unlike the Szechuan original, Krispy's hot 'n' sour soup ($7.99/$11.99) is a fiery tomato-pulp base littered with meaty green New Zealand mussels in the shell, fish balls, faux crab and button 'shrooms - easily one of the better renditions in town. Listed as an appetizer, grilled rack of lamb ($15.95) turns out to be nine terrific on-the-bone chops made for sharing and dunking in an East-West sauce of red wine and purple basil.
In the some-things-never-change department, our favourite Dai Nam dish is now also the king of Krispy Roll's extensive card. Innocuously labelled "grilled beef wrapped in scented leaf ($10 small)" on the menu, this impressive main finds five Asian-style beef kabobs draped with tea-scented screw pine leaves. At table, we roll them in rice paper with a flock of sprouts, lettuce and herbs to create near-burrito bundles, top them with crushed peanuts and then dip them in sweet chili-fired nuac cham.
Mai and husband/chef Khanh Nguyen's menu also includes a few Thai specialties, such as a very good pad thai ($7.75) and another of long strips of tasty chicken breast sautéed with red bell pepper in coconut gravy coupled with rice noodles laced with creamy, smoky bean-curd paste ($8.99). Oddly, the only things we don't find up to par are the house's eponymous spring rolls ($3.25), four lacklustre deep-fried cylinders under-stuffed with mostly lettuce and vermicelli.
Five minutes from the Warden subway stop and steps from the Golden Mile, Krispy Rolls might seem a long way to go for pho. But for those who dearly loved Dai Nam, the trip will be worth it, especially to visit an old friend and share some marvellous food. Besides, isn't that what dining out's supposed to be all about?