FLIP, Toss & THAI KITCHEN (141 Harbord, at Brunswick, 416-966-6955) Former Salad King cook Sushen Sun offers first-rate takes on Thai standards that equal those of her ex-employer. Add uncommon attention to detail and this inexpensive Thai take-away beats far fancier Bangkok-style boîtes. Complete meals for $18 per person ($9 at lunch), including all taxes and tip. Open Monday to Friday 11 am to 10 pm, Friday and Saturday noon to 10 pm. Unlicensed. Delivery. Access: one step at door, no washrooms. Rating: NNN
Flip, Toss & Thai Kitchen looks very familiar to anyone who's ever enjoyed noshing at Salad King, the popular Ry High cafeteria.This tiny Thai take-away's menu includes the same dishes, described in the exact same words, complete with endearing typos like "steamed sticky rice coded with coconut milk, sesame and mango" (Mango Sticky Rice, $3).
It's not all coincidence. Flip's chef and co-owner, Suzhen Sun, was a line cook at Salad King for seven years.
Unlike her former employer's bustling fight-for-a-table business, Sun's three-month-old hole in the wall is very laid-back now that it's only just starting to catch on. There are two food-court-style tables and some benches if you want to hang around and eat in, but Flip is mostly a takeout affair.
The Harbord expressway is the perfect location for grabbing a phone-ahead dinner to go without having the Volvo towed across town by the parking police. There's delivery, too.
Above the counter, well-known starters and mains like Veggie Spring Rolls (three for $2.50) and Evil Jungle Prince ($5.45) are listed on chalkboards in beautiful handwriting. (See? Penmanship does count.) And like Salad King, Flip has a chili scale: mild, medium and, hotter still, 1 through 5 chilies (a 5 here is equivalent to a 10 at SK). Everything we try at strength-3 has just the right kick, without any nuclear meltdown of the palate.
Go straight to Thai Cold Rolls ($3.95), three wonderful oversized, loosely wrapped rice-paper cylinders stuffed with slivered chicken, scrambled egg, grated carrot and vermicelli. Dunk them in cloudy Thai sauce textured with peanut and coconut.
Or begin with tangy Glass Noodle Salad ($4.59) tossed with chicken, shrimp, onion, mint leaf and lemon, or Slice Chicken Salad ($3.99), an odd combo of crisp iceberg lettuce, thinly sliced pale tomato, julienned carrots and peppers in a bizarre choice of either Italian or French dressing. Wacky, but it works.
Shouldn't Hot Thai Noodle with linguine-like rice stick, broccoli, tail-on shrimp, a blast of aromatic Thai basil and nary a chili in sight -- described by the menu as non-spicy -- be called Not-so-Hot Noodles? Luckily, Kari Noodle (both $7.45) actually contains curry as well as shrimp 'n' sprouts. Breaded Delicious Fish would be better served next door with a newspaper-wrap of vinegar-drenched fries and some tartar sauce, while Pineapple Beef verges on tiki-tastic, recalling Polynesian sweet 'n' sour grub from the 60s (both $6.95 and, like all meat and vegetarian entrees, served with a mound of plain white rice).
Every Thai trat in town -- all 156 of them -- does Spicy Eggplant, but Flip's interpretation ($6.25) is far superior to most. Looking like slabs of electric blue mackerel, there's nothing fishy about these meaty planks of Asian 'plant sauced in Thai cuisine's trademark sugary heat. One of Flip's few original creations, So Soya ($3.95) sees rounds of chewy, smoky gluten (in a blindfold test they could be confused with pork) in a veggie stew thick with broccoli and slivered veg. Another first, Sunshine Dumpling ($5.45) finds tasty TVP nuggets in a sweet stew of tomato, zucchini, bell peppers and pineapple sections. Delish, and vegetarian, too.
After several visits, we order up three carbon-copy takeout meals from both Flip, Toss & Thai Kitchen (chili scale 3) and Salad King (chili scale 4) and bring them back to the NOW Test Kitchen to compare the culinary results. Both renditions of Phud Thai ($7.45 Flip/$7.25 Salad) are again miles ahead of their competitors, in both cases rice noodles mixed with exactly four medium-sized shrimp and zapped by a thin lime wedge. Flip gets the edge for ingredients, especially its addictive, spongy deep-fried tofu, but Salad delivers a deeper, warmer heat that builds to a slow climax.
Salad king Ernest Liu tells me he concocts his chili powder at home, so none of his employees -- current or ex -- know the secret recipe. Flip's fiery formula relies on lime to discharge its pyro payload.
Same with Street Noodle Soup ($5.45/$5.25), where Flip wins on components -- skinned fresh plum tomatoes versus tinned -- but Salad trumps in the fire department. While both do renditions of Spicy Mussels, a near-dozen New Zealand molluscs on the green half-shell ($8.25/$7.75), Flip takes the prize for presentation. On a plate heaped with standard Thai elements, Flip chef Sun distinguishes herself with her artfully carved carrots that fan out like matchbooks, not individual matchsticks, and diagonally cut lemon grass that morphs into elegant oval rings.
Where did she learn her technique? At her grandmother's side? At a Bangkok banquet hall? In a luxe Singapore hotel dining room kitchen?
"I watch the Food Channel!" explains a cheerful Sun. email@example.com
if at first...
For reasons known only to corporate head office, lifestyle retailer Club Monaco keeps opening restaurants in its flagship Yorkville digs at Bloor and Avenue Road. The first folded three years ago. The second stab, Colony, has just called it quits after a single summer season. Watch for the Kubo dudes to try to revive this stiff in the near future.
Anyone downtown with a hankering for perogies is going to have to hightail it to Roncesvalles now that Zyweic (2 Irwin, at Yonge) has burned to the ground.SD
With 156 Thai restaurants blanketing the town, you wanna be selective. We recommend these.
ERIC'S KITCHEN (2222 Queen East, at Beach, 416-693-2221) With a menu that careens all over the culinary map, this narrow, inexpensive neighbourhood spot combines the tastes of Thailand, Italy, Jamaica and Japan in eccentric digs. Takeout and catering, too. Best: grilled sushi-style salmon -- seared on the outside, raw within -- served, like most mains, with a whack of veggies (broccoli, cauliflower, snow peas, okra, charred peppers, eggplant and zucchini); Jerk Chicken Strudel, a spicy South American empanada-like turnover twisted through JA and the Alps; barbecued coriander-basil half chickens; low-fat tuna-lentil salad; French-Canadian grilled cheese and garlic sandwiches; honeyed curry lentil salad; substantial all-day cowboy 'n' cowgirl breakfasts. Complete dinners for $30 ($15 lunch and brunch), including all taxes, tip and a glass of wine. Open Tuesday to Friday noon to 10 pm, Saturday 10 am to 10 pm, Sunday 10 am to 8 pm. Brunch Saturday and Sunday till 3 pm. Closed Monday. Licensed. Access: One step at door, washrooms on same floor. Rating: NNN
SALAD KING (335 Yonge, at Gould, 416-971-7041) Think you can stand the heat of any kitchen? This cafeteria-style Thai fast foodery offers deceptively mellow Thai fare that packs a long-lingering afterburn. What they call medium-strength will cause unsuspecting diners to break out in a sweat. For days. So popular, regulars know to make reservations. Best: cashew chicken with sweet peppers and steamed rice; crisply fried sweet-and-sour orange chicken; Thai basil noodles with shredded egg, dried shrimp and al dente veggies; vegetarian fare like deep-fried tofu in a mild Thai spice blend; Evil Jungle Prince -- Asian veg in garlic chili sauce; and fiery mango salad with crushed-peanut topping. Complete dinners for $12 per person, including all taxes, tip and a bottle of imported Thai beer. Open Monday to Friday 11 am to 9:30 pm, Saturday 11 am to 8 pm. Closed Sunday and holidays. Licensed. Daily 10 per cent student discount 2 to 5 pm. Access: one step at door, washrooms on same floor. Rating: NNN
VICKY'S FISH & CHIPS / SUE'S THAI FOOD (414 Roncesvalles, at Howard Park, 416-531-8822) At this plain-Jane Parkdale diner with a split-personality, ignore Vicky (good fish, terrible chips) and concentrate on Sue. She may not dish up the best Thai in town, but she's certainly the cheapest. Despite the low prices, shrimp dishes come with butterflied jumbo shrimp -- not a lot of them but better than the tiny frozen ones offered elsewhere. And the vegetarian versions are even more inexpensive! Best: pad thai laced with coconut milk and garnished with crushed peanuts; green curry with Thai basil; crispy noodles with mixed veggies; cashew shrimp with red peppers, tart green apple, and onions; Icelandic cod with coleslaw (hold the fries). Complete dinners for $12 per person, including all taxes and tip. Open Monday to Saturday 11 am to 9 pm, Sunday and holidays 4 to 9 pm. Closed Sunday, holidays. Unlicensed. Access: Barrier-free, washrooms in basement. Rating: NNN