It’s a bit surreal to go to Yonge and Dundas and walk through the doors of the recently opened Congee Queen. This GTA restaurant franchise has nine locations, including Markham, North York, and Scarborough. and has been, for almost two decades, synonymous with suburbia for my family. You are now in the heart of the city center.
For those unfamiliar with Congee Queen, it actually has quite a following. When I asked on twitter what was everyone’s request, 100 people responded. Cantonese chow mein, salt and pepper fried calamari and fried tofu chosen by a former co-worker. Turnip Pies with Corned Egg and Pork Congee from a Recipe Developer. Seafood congee with grilled pork rice noodle roll from another. No two orders are the same, as Congee Queen serves “jook, fun, mein, fan,” a general Cantonese term for four types of dishes: congee, rice-based noodles, flour-based noodles, and rice. Each category has dozens of iterations, resulting in a menu with over 300 items to choose from. It might seem overwhelming at first, but once you’ve got your ideal order, placing your Congee Queen order can feel like belonging to an unspoken club.
While many people may be familiar with the menu, few are aware of Peter Cheung, the man behind Congee Queen and currently the company’s president. I finally got to meet him recently, and when we sat down at the new location, Cheung asked a server to bring me not only hot tea, but also iced green tea with honey, and a hot cup of Hong Kong milk tea, just in case. . . I realized that for a restaurant I’ve eaten at dozens of times, I don’t know anything about how it all started.
“How much time do you have?” Cheung says with a smile as we chat in Cantonese.
Cheung moved from Hong Kong to Toronto in 1994 and got a job in the kitchen of a gourmet restaurant in Richmond Hill’s Golden Court Plaza, as he was a perfect fit since he helped out at his father’s restaurant as a child. He and his friends then decided to open their own restaurant together, resulting in Congee Wong’s first location at Peachtree Plaza in Markham (the restaurant’s Chinese name is actually “Emperor” as “wong” translates to ” king”).
“We worked from morning to night, from 8 am to 9 pm, sometimes we would stay until 1 am,” he recalls. “You had 15 minutes to eat and that was it. We couldn’t afford to be away from the kitchen for so long because there were so few of us.”
Additional Congee Wong locations have opened up around the GTA. In 2002, the partners decided to split up, each managing a separate location independently.
Cheung himself took over the North York Congee Wong location at Finch Ave. E. and Leslie St. In 2004, he opened a second Congee location at Don Mills Rd. and Lawrence Ave. E. to complement the actual name of Congee Wong, he named the new venue Congee Queen (or “Empress” in Chinese).
Along the way, Cheung ventured into other restaurant concepts in the far north of the GTA: Petit Potato, a Taiwanese-Japanese fusion restaurant; Sushi Legend Japanese restaurant; and Good Catch Boil House, a Louisiana-inspired restaurant and bar that sits next to its sister restaurant, Hong Kong’s Good Catch Cafe in downtown Markham.
Seven more Congee Queens also opened in Thornhill, Markham, Scarborough and Mississauga, each run by a different chef who apprenticed for a year or two at a Congee Queen before striking out on his own. In those early years, Congee Queen hadn’t caught the eye of the local, inner-city-focused food outlets, but it did gain a loyal following in the suburbs and with some inner-city dwellers willing to make the trip north.
The newest location at 362 Yonge St. is an elegant, earth-toned split-level space where Swiss Chalet stood for decades. As a long-time Congee Queen customer at the Scarborough and North York locations, I knew exactly which of my favorite dishes I wanted to photograph: house-made seafood and Taiwanese fried noodles with mixed vegetables (E4 on the menu), deep-fried turnip patties (K53 on the menu, aka daikon cakes), and a tureen of the porridge of the same name, the house super bowl congee (A7, plain congee with shrimp, scallops, arctic clams, and halibut and salmon in slices).
Noodles are one of the rare dishes my father, the toughest critic of Chinese cuisine in town, approves of. He says they don’t skimp on the seafood and it has just the right amount of wok hay, the aromatic smoky flavor achieved by cooking over a wok fire. As for the congee, I find the rice porridge here to be thicker than the watered down versions offered elsewhere, and what I crave when I’m under the weather or jet lagged. Daikon cakes, by far the most popular dish in my Twitter poll, are a labor-intensive dish of shredded daikon that is shaped into a patty that is then steamed and deep-fried to a crispy outside. and soft as a pillow inside.
And now, downtown diners will experience the same. Although this location is not in a primarily Asian neighborhood, Cheung says palates have changed a lot since he opened the first Congee Queen. “The current generation (of young people) knows a lot more about Chinese food and has higher standards,” he says, pointing to the Toronto Metropolitan University across the street, where two of his sons are students. “Toronto is much more diverse now, and food is a very important way to show our culture.”
While it’s not that Cheung was expecting a receptive urban clientele before opening downtown, it was the logistics of finding a big enough space.
“In fact, we spent more than five years searching,” he says. “Finding a big space is really hard, especially when the rent is higher. You can find a 2,000 square foot space, but we needed at least 4,000 square feet because we have over 300 menu items.”
So when the Swiss Chalet closed, Cheung was able to secure the space at a time when it seemed like more restaurants were closing than opening.
“The funny thing is that before I opened Congee Queen, I also had a little Thai take-out and bubble tea shop across the street,” he says. “I would look at the Swiss Chalet and think how great it would be if I could open a restaurant there, but I never thought it would happen.”
Correction — November 24, 2022: Congee Queen’s newest location is at 362 Yonge St. A previous version of this article incorrectly stated the address.
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