by David Fujino
Uncle Tetsu’s Japanese Matcha Café
I boldly took an optimistic walk to Uncle Tetsu’s Japanese Matcha Café at 596 Bay and Dundas Street West (the old Chinatown). I figured that by going to the café section of their business, I’d avoid the famous long line-ups at the parent location — but still get a taste of their famous cheese cake.
As I approached the café this afternoon, I did notice about four people slowly filing into Uncle Tetsu’s cheese cake headquarters. … Just like I figured. Line-ups.
Upon entering the small café, I was quietly disappointed to find there was no seating; instead, it was filled with mostly female staff in white t-shirts intently handling round cheese cakes. When I ordered a “slice” of cheese cake, I didn’t know I’d be purchasing a 6” diameter light green matcha cheese cake from Uncle Tetsu’s (with ‘red bean’ printed on a green inked box) that was then gently placed into a red and white Uncle Tetsu’s carrying bag. Uncle Tetsu’s face is branded into the top of each cheese cake. His face is on the cake boxes and the red and white carrying bag. Talk about heavily logo-ed. The more scholarly readers might see parallels with the mon which Japanese design is world famous for. As the ancestors must have said, It pays to advertise.
Gradually it started to register, as I looked at the price-tagged plates arranged in front of me, that these thin slices of cheese cake were closer to what I was looking for. I just didn’t know it. Foiled again! by the Japanese culinary gods and goddesses with their different English usage and their different culinary do’s and don’ts. (Eh bien.)
Armed with a medium decaff coffee (44 cents more than caffeinated coffee), and my red and white Uncle Tetsu’s bag dangling from a left finger, I found a bench in the mall at Bay and Dundas where I could sit and quietly sample my cheese cake. As I happily spooned the evenly porous cheese cake into my mouth — it was so airy — I also noted that the colour and rich-yet-muted taste was that of green tea, matcha. Yumm. The famous Japanese attention to detail was evident in each bite — the cheese cake was sweet, but not burning or sticky, nor cakey. You’ll notice that many Japanese sweets don’t linger, nor do they get stuck on the roof of your mouth. They’re light and refreshing, then gone. And if they’re made with chocolate, it’s unsweetened chocolate that’s used, like in German baked goods. Yumm. (Tetsusushi Mizokami is the founder of the Uncle Tetsu’s Shop and has several Uncle Tetsu’s in the world. Toronto got its Uncle Tetsu’s in the spring of 2015. During a December 2015 visit to his shop in Toronto, Mizokami was genuinely surprised but happy to be considered a global celebrity, according to the TV news show, CP24; and now the latest news is that a third Uncle Tetsu’s will be opening around the corner near Dundas and Centre Street in early 2016. Uncle Tetsu’s is settling into the Chinatown I knew as a kid. The new place provides some sit-down seating and young Japanese females serving tables.
If you’re in the neighbourhood, just travel west from Uncle Tetsu’s along Dundas St. and you’ll soon arrive at McCaul Street. Go north on McCaul, and it’s two blocks to Baldwin, where you’ll find Konnichiwa, a survivor from the 1980’s (?), still located at 31 Baldwin Street.
(Baldwin was a major street in Toronto’s ‘village’, way before Yorkville and the hippies came into being. ‘The village’ was roughly defined by Edward, Elm and Gerrard Streets which run west from Yonge in parallel and stop at University Avenue’s hospital row. Next to the intersection of Yonge and Wellesley stood the emblematic coffee house, The Bohemian Embassy on St. Nicholas Street. It was resurrected in a second floor hay loft by Don Cullen during the 1970’s into the 80’s. Ian and Sylvia, Gordon Lightfoot and Mike Seeger, are some of the folk elite who performed at the Bohemian Embassy. A‘village’ in Toronto offered a quietly asocial mentality and gatherings of restaurants, its share of steak houses, coffee houses, poets, vintage clothing and furnishings, taverns, and people with a different point of view, both morally and aesthetically speaking. Toronto’s version of Greenwich Village embodied a ‘Bohemian’ life style and allegedly non-capitalistic values. Me, I didn’t breathe in all of the prevailing assumptions that filled the air and really I didn’t hang out on those streets because it’s a little before my time.
It was on a grey weekday that I dropped into Konnichiwa on Baldwin for lunch, where, aside from one waitress’s alarming tendency to take orders before you’d looked at the menu, I found the service to be attentive and well-organized: they’re Japanese run, they keep Japanese business hours and need I say more? Admittedly, I’m not always comfortable eating amidst this kind of efficiency, but this is paradoxically what I’ve come to get. I’m here for the food; specifically, but I’ve come for Japanese food prepared and served by Japanese at a small Japanese-run restaurant in the Baldwin Street village in downtown Toronto. At least, that’s the way I’ve always viewed Konnichiwa. Japanese food and location.
In reality, these days the vast majority of Japanese restaurants in Toronto are operated by Chinese and Korean owners. Here the insertion of Chinese food (for example, spring rolls) into a Japanese bento box is — you could say — both a political and a cultural act. And it goes on every day in the Japanese restaurants in Toronto.
Here are further examples of what I mean: There is a sushi counter and small rotating Chinese kitchen staff at the Maple Leaf Gardens Loblaw’s; the sushi counter’s operated by TNT of Vancouver, and the staff is men and women dressed in dark blue happi coats with white patterns and white headcaps.
Then there’s Aji Sai, with at least two restaurants downtown — one on Yonge, just south of Davenport Road, and one on trendy Queen Street West, across the street from City TV. But I forgot to mention the black Aji Sai restaurant and resto-lounge on Yonge, north of Wellesley. The Aji Sai’s are Korean run.
Konnichiwa steadily got busy at lunch time. I ordered the luncheon sashimi plate, which came with salad, miso shiru, and a bowl of rice. The sashimi was fresh and the salmon, tuna and tako stood out for me. As a digestive, fine shreds of raw daikon were served, instead of shoga. The salad was iceberg lettuce, mixed salad greens and shredded red cabbage with the familiar orange dressing. The miso shiru teemed with green onions (like at Tokyo Grill), and I enjoyed two cups of green tea. In general, the presentation was straightforward and the total bill, including tip, was $20.65 for “cold food” (as an Argentine friend once described sushi and sashimi to me.) I was happy.
Sakura on McCaul
On another day, just two blocks south of Konnichiwa, I planned on ordering lunch from Sakura in the food court on McCaul Street. For me, Sakura’s always been a ‘go to’ option, especially if you’re visiting the AGO (Art Gallery of Ontario). I had a ticket for the J. M. W. Turner exhibit (“Painting Set Free”) and on this day Sakura was the place to enjoy an affordable and tasty lunch before looking at Turner’s abstracted representational pictures.
Wouldn’t you know it? It’s under new management and now operates as Sushi Café Bon Gung, with new lit up signage. The chicken katsu I ordered —steamed rice, green salad and miso shiru — with green tea added, including tip, came to $13.04. I found the food and portions satisfying, and the price was right. The menu hadn’t changed much either, as far as I could tell. It’s nice to know that some things in life remain the same, like chicken or pork katsu.
Kowloon, Sea Food Dim Sum Restaurant
Closer to the corner of McCaul and Baldwin lies Kowloon at 5 Baldwin Street. As you swing west onto Baldwin Street, entering from McCaul, it’s hard to miss Kowloon, the third restaurant on your left.
Kowloon runs a front patio in the spring and summer for their (long time?) beer sipping and cigarette smoking white male clientele. Being a non-smoker, I prefer a seat in the restaurant where I can enjoy some Chinese tea and occasionally a Tsing Tao beer in a climate-controlled atmosphere. I’m happy to eat their Cantonese-styled food and I’m always humbled by the staff’s dedication to fast service, especially at peak lunch hour times! And when I say staff, I certainly mean the kitchen staff. They make the food and the Dim Sum. On this visit, one of the cute bespectacled ladies from the kitchen played to the dining room crowd. She caught my eye and celebrated the hearty banter of the five or so kitchen staff. I responded with a glance and an encouraging smile.
A few years ago, I remember one of the male cashiers warning me that working in Chinese restaurants really makes you grow old. Well, he’s still here! as is the other boyish-looking, now grey-haired bustling waiter who took my order. This same cashier, who looks a little older, but was still in trim shape — dark black un-dyed hair and all — also took orders and cleared the dishes. He’s a pretty organized hard- working guy. No lazy people need apply to a busy Cantonese restaurant.
My order was a small chicken corn soup (I sprinkled it with lots of white pepper), followed by chicken and green beans on steamed rice. The subtly gelatinous brown sauce with sliced white onions suited the chicken dish. Alternately, I sipped tea and a cold Tsing Tao beer. The dining room was filled with people eating and socializing and just living their lives. I was content to be there. The total bill was $22.27, tip included.
Like many of us, I do cook at home for economic and health reasons, but for pleasure and convenience, I periodically like to revisit familiar haunts, such as the four establishments I’ve just written about. They’re in the Bay and Dundas, and McCaul and Dundas areas — and they all deserve a place in the living Asian food history of Toronto.
Eating at these four places brought up tasty memories of previous times. These memories, like childhood, quickly disappear, and so they should be written down.
You have not been reading a Best Japanese and Chinese Food list. Who actually believes in that? You’ve been reading about certain restaurants that belong to certain neighbourhoods in Toronto — and you’ve been reading about how much comfort and pleasure they bring to their customers’ lives.
- Uncle Tetsu’s Matcha Café, 596 Bay Street, Toronto Ontario, M5G 1M5, Telephone: 416 591-0555
- Konnichiwa, 31 Baldwin Street, Toronto Ontario, M5T 1L1, Telephone: 416 593-8538
- Sushi Café Bon Gung, 109 McCaul Street, Unit M5H3K5, Toronto, Ontario
- Kowloon, Sea Food Dim Sum Restaurant, 5 Baldwin Street, Toronto, Ontario, M5T 1L1, 416 977-3773