Above, Toronto's Chinatown's off-the-menu tea and Chinese food. All photos by the author
In a previous lifetime, I was a line cook in Toronto. I had just moved there from Austin, Texas, to work in a popular downtown restaurant. There were subtle traditions in my new Canadian home I had to get used to—in Toronto, one must learn the art of chugging, because alcoholic beverages can’t legally be served after 2 AM. On my first night out drinking with the kitchen staff, last call came too early, as it always does for cooks in Toronto, who clock out around 1 AM. That night, the front-of-house staff—who made more money than us shithead cooks—headed out to get wrecked at some bougie booze can (an illegal late-night club). Cooks can’t afford the $20 cover, the $10 beers, or the $40 baggies of blow that make those experiences bearable so Ravi, our sous-chef, soberly suggested that the kitchen crew head out for a pot of cold (and affordable) tea in Chinatown before turning in for the night. I didn’t know what he meant. I figured he wasn’t a big imbiber, or was trying to politely put a cap on our bad drinking habits. We all hopped in the cab and headed downtown.
When we arrived on the corner of Spadina and Dundas, we walked into a bustling Chinese restaurant* with a large dining room that was buzzing with offensive fluorescent lighting, magnifying people’s tired, drunken visages. White plastic cloths covered the tables like safety nets surrounded by baby-pink colored walls. A row of gold, glittery cat tchotchkes motioned toward the cash register. As we stood in the waiting area for a table, I noticed that—even though I had downed a few cocktails at this point in the evening—it seemed like all of the patrons were shitfaced, cheers-ing one another with porcelain white teacups. Was this how people sobered up around here? I wondered.
When we were seated at a round table large enough to fit six hungry cooks, Ravi waved down a server to place an order for a pot of cold tea and a plate of chow mein. When it arrived, I slowly took my first sip, anticipating the waft of earthy green tea. It wasn’t there. What the fuck? I thought. It was cold, alright, but there was that familiar yeasty fizz on my tongue—the Canadian taste synonymous with hockey games, field parties, camping trips, and music festivals. When I registered the taste of Labatt 50 beer to my lips, I learned that cold tea is just what they call ice-cold beer in Toronto's Chinatown.
I’ve since retired from a life on the (kitchen) line, but I continue to work in the food industry. Last weekend, I found myself engaged in a long night of bourbon drinking with a large group of local chefs when last call at the bar cracked down on our social session far too soon. We turned to Chinatown for the obvious solution. It’s not the cheap, dirty thrill of the booze can, where you’ll end up snorting shitty coke and making out with some busboy(s) from Bar Isabel, but drinking cold tea feels like an innocently illicit act out of adolescence.
Heather Mordue, pastry chef-turned pizza-maker at L’Unita; Nick Liu, the man famous for his big mac steamed bun at GwaiLo Invasion; and Steve Gonzalez of Valdez, Toronto’s popular Latino street food restaurant, took me to their favorite late-night Chinese restaurant* known for serving cold tea. Our server quickly brought over an ice-cold pot of beer—it was slightly watery, insipid, and absolutely perfect. One does not get artisan craft brews in this situation. We splashed back glugs of Labatt 50 as we slurred out our order for crispy squid, razor clams with XO sauce, and black bean beef over crispy noodles. As we drained the teapot, we ordered a three-course Peking duck dinner.
The streets were dark and dirty. I looked out the window and spotted a fumbling junkie on a nearby street corner. He knocked over an overloaded trash can. It was 2:30 AM, so we ordered another pot of tea. A group of drunkards noisily barged their way into the restaurant. After they managed to sit and flag down a sober waiter, I overheard their demands, which sounded like almost every dish on the menu and several pots of “cold tea.” A local restaurateur at a nearby table—and acquaintance of Nick’s—was swaying in his seat. Jabbing his chopsticks in the air, he yelled over at us, “Try the Singapore noodles! They’re fucking great! Woohoo!” spraying masticated bits of MSG-soaked noodle shrapnel into the air.
I wasn’t surprised to see fellow food industry people in our blurry tea rendezvous, because this is a shared sacrament of Toronto chefs, line cooks, and after-hours imbibers. Tyler Shedden, the executive chef at Café Boulud Toronto, swears by cold tea as a well-rehearsed practice. According to Shedden, cold tea also exists in Vancouver and Manhattan, where he first discovered the off-the-menu Chinatown beverage.
In Vancouver, bar patrons can buy six-packs of beer from the bar at closing time. In NYC, last call is at 4 AM, after which you can easily grab a six-pack of cold ones from the closest bodega. But despite being the fourth largest city in North America, Toronto's drinking laws are stingy, making cold tea a necessity.
Chinatown street items in the daylight hours.
After a blurry evening coated in beer and black bean sauce, I hailed a cab home to stumble into bed. The next day, I woke up with a pounding headache and sadistically opted to head back to the scene of the crime. Chinatown giveth one nasty hangover, and Chinatown taketh away. In the daylight hours, one must deal with the aggressive push of strangers on the crowded sidewalks near Spadina and Dundas, where merchants crouch along the concrete, selling bundles of herbs, jewelry, jade plants, plastic Buddhas, and cheap scarves. Hungover, the scents from the seemingly beautiful fruit stands selling fruits and vegetables like lychees, gai lan, and mangosteens turned hellish with a whiff of the barf-y funk scent of durian fruit.
Chef John Lee in Chinatown.
But this torturous daylight journey had a purpose: I was to meet up with John Lee, the Korean chef and owner of Chippy’s, a fried fish restaurant, for a Chinatown lunch. This is John’s hood, the place where he still remembers what it was like trying to get shitty in the 80s.
“Growing up in Chinatown, we knew the best places to get cold tea after the bars shut down. That was when last call was 1 AM and you couldn’t drink on Sundays," John said. "If you wanted to keep drinking, you either went to a booze can or ended up in a Chinese restaurant. These spaces transformed into hangouts for bar people and restaurant people. Anyone who worked late at night could get liquored up until 5:30 AM.” John's mention of beer made me nauseated.
King Noodle restaurant in Toronto's Chinatown.
The only way to cure a cold tea hangover is to eat at King’s Noodle—called “King Noodle” by true devotees—the most popular restaurant in Chinatown. Thankfully, John is a King Noodle regular, which helped the orders appear very quickly. We started picking at a large plate of pea shoots with garlic sauce, a dish of crispy pork, and Cantonese-style soy sauce chicken. John noticed my temporary ineptitude with the chopsticks. “Use a fork, sheesh,” he said, as he handed me the metal utensil from the plate of pea shoots.
Crispy pork and a plate of pea shoots with garlic sauce at King Noodle.
Bottomless pours of hot tea—the real herbal stuff this time—were sent over, and that awful hangover vanished.
Editors Note: The restaurants without names have not been included to protect their identities. You can tweet @IvyKnight to find out where to go in Toronto’s Chinatown, and visit SwallowDaily.com for more from Ivy Knight.