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Aug 22, 2008 12:51 AM

Looking for Good Traditional Dim Sum (Downtown)

I still haven't found a decent dim sum restaurant in Toronto. The last place I checked out, the Bright Pearl, was very mediocre at best in my opinion. So I'm opening this up to the Chowhounders...

To clarify specifics: I want a place that focuses on the older Cantonese dim sum, not newer dishes from Hong Kong, or non-Cantonese dishes.

They MUST USE the carts. Absolutely necessary!

They should have a good selection of steamed dishes, not just fried stuff, and preferably a good number of shrimp and seafood dishes (good quality har gow is a must, and I still haven't found any place that serves it up to my standards).

There's also these semi-sweet steamed buns I like...I don't know what they're called, but they don't come with any filling in them, and they serve them at a lot of the dim sum places where I come from.

Oh yeah, what would be really good is if they had a desert cart with those sesame balls and the egg custard tarts. I haven't had either of those in ages.

Any suggestions?

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  1. If you did a search of this site, you would find that Forestview and New Treasure have their fans are in the downtown area and use carts, but are at a level quality wise below many in the Scarborough or York Region area. Would help if you indicated where you are from to get a perspective of your standards.

    1. Can you give some example of older Cantonese dim sum ? Just like T Long said, it would help if you indicate where you are from, and the some of your favorite dim sum places (probably not in Toronto) to get a perspective of your standards.

      29 Replies
      1. re: skylineR33

        My favorite dim sum experiences were in the early 90's or late 80's in the San Francisco area. I don't know how much that's going to help even if you're very familiar with the SF area, because I don't remember exact names of places (some may no longer be around), and I've fallen out of touch with Chinese cuisine in California.

        It's been a long time since I've had really good dim sum.

        Perhaps, use the other specific criteria that I've suggested to help guide me. I like dim sum desserts a lot, and so far, of the place I've been to, they don't even serve the egg tarts, which is pathetic!

        1. re: markml

          If you are tied to cart service and downtown, other than the two previous places (Forestview & New Treasure) I've mentioned, you are probably out of luck. There are also 2 places called Yui Wah and Sky Dragon, and while I do not have first hand knowledge of them, have not heard great reviews. I would either look outside the downtown area, or forget the cart requirement and look at Rol San, Dynasty on Bloor or Lai Wah Heen in order of increasing quality. My guess is that Dynasty will at least match your SF memories for food quality. Btw, I'm surprised that any dim sum place would not have egg tarts...

          1. re: T Long

            I've not visited Dynasty yet, but their website is a bit discouraging. I'm suspicious, because the dim sum menu they give lists things like meatballs and spareribs, which to me, doesn't sound very traditional. Also, since when is shark fin soup a dim sum item?

            On the other hand, it does suggest that they may have some of the items I want, although I can't tell without going there.

            But I much prefer the carts, because you can see what you're ordering and make sure it's fresh, and because it's just not fun having dim sum without the carts. And of all the dim sum places I've been to that stopped using carts (not just here but back in Cali), not a single one have I been pleased with.

            I'm willing to travel outside of downtown for decent dim sum, but if you suggest a place, try to make sure it fits my criteria as best as possible, because I don't want to travel far to be dissapointed again.

            1. re: markml

              The closest place to downtown that have carts and is at least decent (that I can think of) is Elegantview at the SE Corner of McNicoll and Vic Park. (Note: My recollection is that they have carts, but may not use them during the non- peak periods....I've been there for the early bird specials when I believe the carts are parked and you order off a list).

              Carts are fun, but over time I've actually come to favor non-carts better. It depends on when and where you sit and how obnoxious you want to be (like not waiting your turn and serving yourself), so often we've missed out on favorites such as tripe or shrimp cheung fun or even har gow as these popular items are gone before the cart comes around. Then you have to wait and wait around for the next batch. Freshness is not a problem with ordering off a list at a good restaurant.

              I've been in Toronto since the late 60's and am pretty sure that beef balls and spareribs have been dim sum staples as far back as I can remember along with the basic sui mai and har gow. Agree that shark fin soup is rare as dim sum item....but I see nothing odd about that. At Dynasty, they even have a Peking Duck offering which again is rare.

              Be sure to share your feedback with us as you try the different places! Enjoy your dim sum (and carts). Start with New Treasure downtown.

              1. re: T Long

                T Long, do you know if Rol San is non-cart? I'm in agreement with you that non-cart is just fine, and sometimes better. Not missing on items, quite often fresher. With the exception of a few staple dishes that fly off the cart, sometimes you see the same cart going around a few times.

                1. re: grandgourmand

                  Rol San is least it was the last time (a few years ago) I went. It's a favorite on this web-site, but I find it cramped and unappealing....good value though. My preference is to pay a bit more and go to the Dynasty on Bloor street when going for dim sum in the downtown area. Lai Wah Heen is better, but too hard on my pocketbook to go that often. All three are non-cart!

                  1. re: T Long

                    Dynasty looks good. At least on the website. What kind of price difference are we talking about? And what makes it better?

                    1. re: grandgourmand

                      I think you are looking at something like $40-$60 range for 3 people at Dynasty...sorry can't be more precise as I couldn't find any old credit card statements to verify right now. Rol San would be significantly less...30%?? What you get is a cleaner setting...and probably cleaner food. Much more upscale and English-friendly. Subjective of course, but worth the difference to me. Hope that helps.

                      1. re: T Long

                        that's a good indication. I don't care about the english friendly (it's actually part of the fun when you can't communicate well). But cleaner is something I'm more sensitive to and would appreciate. Thanks.

                      2. re: grandgourmand

                        Though I have only been to Dynasty on Bloor once, I would not return. I honestly did not enjoy the food there - I found the food to be too dependent on pork stuffings (with respect to their dumplings) and heavy-handed on salt and oil. Their rice rolls were also flimsy and disintegrated upon touch. The wrappers for both dumplings and rice rolls are a deal-breaker for me. Of course, every restaurant has their off-days...

                        One method I use to gauge if a resto is solid is the type of soya sauce they employ. Oftentimes a very basic, bulk version is used that is dark, heavy, and malty in flavour and in colour. The better restaurants tend to use a slightly more sweet, less salty soya sauce that is less opaque. It all starts with the soya sauce IMO (a basic building block)

                        I know that many others have enjoyed it and I respect that everyone has their own preferences. IMO, Pearl Harbourfront is better - you can see the discussion below. Just my two-cents.

                        If you are willing to pay that much, you can probably dine at Lai Wah Heen without too much of a premium if you order carefully. Dynasty is not a cheap alternative to Lai Wah Heen if that is what you were searching for, IMO. All of those higher-end dim sum places are in the same ballpark with respect to prices. I would recommend just eating/ordering less to save money, rather than looking for cheaper dishes all around.

                        Cheers and Happy Eating!

                        1. re: BokChoi

                          I'm not really looking for a cheap alternative to LWH. When I go for dim sum, I get pretty standard stuff. Har Gow, Siu Mai, pork spareribs in black bean sauce, rice noodle rolls, sticky rice in lotus leaf, other shrimp dumplings. So looking for very good versions of these, plus anything else that might look good that day.

                          I usually go to Pearl Court on Gerrard ST. I enjoy it, but it's pretty average.

                          As a side note, when I was a kid, my dad used to take me for dim sum in Ottawa. I remember looking forward to roasted quail. I don't know if that's a traditional dish, but I've never seen it on a dim sum cart since then.

                          1. re: grandgourmand

                            Head up to Ruby Chinese restaurant. They have a quail there on the carts for about $2.50 a pop. Cannot beat the price. The quality is also not too bad. I used to have it with every meal, but have not had it in the past year or so (I still watch them go by each time though). I think I may have overdosed myself on it. (beware of the rest of their dim sum though. I really cannot stomach it. But to each their own. I usually fill myself on their BBQ noodle soup dishes and fish congee when I am there. You can search for links to photos I have posted on other threads)

                            I guess I am the strange type of eating beast that will be willing to starve and tighten up the belt when I realize that I have been eating out waaaaay too often. T_Long, I should try Dynasty again sometime - after what all my relatives and you have been saying, I cannot believe it is as bad as my experience leads me to believe.


                          2. re: BokChoi

                            lol...the best way to eat/order less is to not go at all. I've found LWH to be significantly pricier than Dynasty (which I prefer over Harbourfront). But when I do go to LWH, I am prepared to pay the each their own I guess. And I've been to both more than once. Cheers!

                            1. re: T Long

                              Admittedly, I go very infrequently to downtown Chinese restaurants because in my neighbourhood, I am surrounded by excellent choices with good prices and variety. I should probably give restaurants more than 1 chance (now that I think of it, I probably have gone to Harbourfront 2 or 3 times just because I was in the area and it was fine all times), but for me to travel past all those other options, the food had better be darn good! I also find the variety at both Harbourfront and Dynasty to be quite limited, at least compared to what I am used to from uptown restaurants. So when downtown, I try to go to non-Chinese restaurants, mostly because I am saturated and looking for change.

                              So far, only Lai Wah Heen has been worth the drive downtown specifically for (IMO).

                              1. re: BokChoi

                                I would agree that Downtown Chinese restaurants are not go-to places (LWH excepted) for those living in the burbs. I only go when I'm stuck downtown such as for family obligations (Chinese food is favored by the extended family), which is fairly often. With this limitation (having to eat downtown), places like Dynasty stand out for me. Not really fair to compare it to LWH which is exceptional (including prices). Dynasty is solid and stands out for downtown, but it would just be good/ok uptown where there are many similar quality/price places....actually Dynasty might even be a bit pricier.

                                1. re: T Long

                                  Agreed - I try not to post anything regarding downtown Chinese restaurants solely because of these reasons (price, quality, variety as compared to the 'burbs). LWH has a nice dumpling wrapper, which I appreciate. Most places either make it too thick and tough, or too overcooked and mushy. IMO, LWH doesn't really give me the 'value' I am looking for either - hence why I head to Grand instead for about 20-30% less in price (but similar quality). Let me know if you discover a new go-to place for downtown Chinese cuisine - I am always on the prowl for a new joint.


                    2. re: T Long

                      Now that I think about it, I might have had these spareribs and beef balls before. It's really hard to say, because I don't really go by the names of these dishes but what they look like.

                      1. re: markml

                        That may be one of the reasons you want the carts! Actually Pearl Harbourfront might be worth a try for you...I didn't mention it earlier because I was not certain it had carts (& I personally think its a bit of a tourist rip-off place, but I digress) and its been a while since I've been there, but others have confirmed the carts and it is definitely more upscale than the Bright Pearl mentioned in your original posting. Hope you try out both the New Treasure and Pearl Harbourfront which will book-end your experience at the Bright Pearl...would be interested in your feedback.

                    3. re: markml

                      The Steamed Beef Meatballs and Spare ribs are 100% authentic dim sum items, probably they are just not in the San Fran restaurants you talked about. They should be in every dim sum places which labelled "authentic".

                      The shark fin soup/seafood dumpling you are talking about are actually seafood dumpling in clear broth with hint of shark fin. This is a variation of dumpling, all the basic cantonese cuisine elements are there but with better ingradients (if the restaurant makes it correctly). I am not sure how good dynasty makes it, but it is a traditional item too.

                      1. re: markml

                        Markml: The steamed semi-sweet buns you referred to in your original post are not typical of Cantonese cuisine. They are more typical of Northern Chinese food...the places that serve dumplings like Asian Legend will likely have them. In Toronto, I'm not familiar with any place that serves Cantonese Dim Sum also serving the buns. The places you remember that did serve both would be the result of a "melting pot" of different Chinese cuisine....whereas it seems in Canada, its more the "multicultural" approach to Chinese food....hey, did I just describe the difference between the US and Canada!

                        1. re: T Long

                          Well, I've been to Asian Legend, which is far far from the cusine I'm talking about (Northern Chinese as you said) and they did not have the correct buns.

                          1. re: markml

                            Hi markml: I was just trying to be humorous...labels like melting pot and multiculturalism are overused and have lost their meaning imo....I prefer not to use these terms normally. Cheers. Btw, stuffed semi-sweet buns (eg with bbq pork) are dim sum staples...perhaps you experienced a variant where the restaurant just skipped the filling. (If so that would be cheesey)

                            1. re: T Long

                              T Long: Well, people would generally put their own fillings in the buns, but I like to just eat them plain. The actual bun is different than the ones I've seen here that are stuffed with bbq pork. I like it better. Maybe this just has to do with the bakery quality?

                              1. re: markml

                                There are different types of steam buns. The bbq pork buns are usually very fluffy and some have smooth surfaces and are filled with different fillings like lotus seed (like a custard)

                                bbq pork:

                                lotus seed bun:

                                this bun looks smoother:

                                hmm after looking at those first two, maybe the bun is actually made of the same dough. They taste different to me, but it might just be my perception.

                                markml what do you mean people would put their own filling? you mean the restaurant serves them as just plain buns, and people at the table fill them up with whatever they want??

                                1. re: szw

                                  Hey szw: That's exactly what I mean. The buns and the toppings are served least that's what I remember.

                                  Also, they all taste different to me too! I think the dough may be similar but there are slight variations that effect taste and consistency.

                                  The buns I'm talking about were very smooth, and I don't think as fluffy as the BBQ pork ones. More dense I think...but not too dense. I've had both the BBQ pork ones and the lotus seed ones back in Cali too, and if my memory is correct, the lotus seed one was closer to the plain ones but not quite the same. None I've had in T.O. so far are even remotely close -- the BBQ pork bun at Bright Pearl was a joke, not even really a bun.

                                  Your 3rd picture looks similar to my memory, except mine have a mark on them.

                                  1. re: markml

                                    Here's another clue that just occurred to me: the unfilled buns are very similar in quality to what are known as "shou tao" but maybe not quite as good.

                                    Actually, if anyone knows of a place in Toronto that serve good shou tao, please let me know because that's a good sign to me.

                          2. re: markml

                            In my experience, the dim sum at Rol San (non-cart) in downtown Toronto seems fresher and higher quality than the cart places downtown. Rol San steams or fries whatever you have ordered right after you order the dish, rather than ahead of time, so the food arrives hot at the table ( so hot that you have to let it cool down or you could suffer a dumpling burn on the roof of your mouth!) The last 4 cart experiences I've had in downtown TO (at Forestview, Yiu Wah, and Sky Dragon in downtown's Chinatown and Pearl Court on Gerrard in Chinatown East) all were mediocre. Some of the food looked like it had been wheeled around the dining room a few too many times, and some of the steamed items like har gow tended to have a soggy wrapper.

                            Rol San has the freshest economical dim sum downtown in my experience, and Cha Liu (Yonge and Eg), Dynasty (Bloor) and Lai Wah Heen (outside Chinatown, but in Toronto as opposed to Markham, Richmond Hill or Scarborough) are great for a splurge (at least $20-30 per person, Lai Wah Heen would probably cost more). There's also Lai Toh Heen on Mt Pleasant, which I have not tried. They are all non-cart.

                            For a cart place outside Toronto, I did have a good economical dim sum at the Scarborough Grand ($10-$12 per person when I went), but I still prefer the splurge non-cart dim sum at Casa Imperial or Empire Court (usually around $20-$25 per person).

                            In Oakland (haven't had dim sum in SF), Saskatoon (surprisingly) and Calgary, I have had good, fresh dim sum from carts, but I haven't found this to be the case in Toronto.

                            The other good thing about the non-cart restaurants is that if you visit on a slow day in the middle of the week, you still have the choice of 30 plus dishes right away, without waiting 20 minutes for a specific dish to roll past you. There's usually more choice at the non-cart restaurants, and some of the upscale ones (Cha Liu, Empire Court, Ambassador, LWH) will have specials or seasonal menus where you can try something new & innovative.

                        2. re: markml

                          Dim sum in early 90's and late 80's in San Fran ?! Definitely not traditional. I now know you mean westernized cantonese dim sum in the old days. You won't be able to find that in Toronto, HK or mainland China. You may still find this kind of things in Toronto like 10 years ago, but things move on and improve and no more.

                          I am not sure why you can't find egg tarts in Toronto, all the restaurants I have been to serve this common items. I have not been to downtown toronto for dim sum for a long long time (except LWH) though.

                          1. re: skylineR33

                            We've split the discussion of the origins of dim sum in San Francisco and Hong Kong and moved it to the General Chowhounding Topics board. You can find the thread here:

                      2. markml, why don't you listen all the items you deem to be "authentic"? You mention authenticity but you have only mentioned egg tarts. I would say beef balls and spare ribs are very authentic. I have been having then all my life from when my mom would cut them up into little pieces for me and let me eat them with a toothpick as a small child in HK and Canada. Citing SF as the origins of dim sum doesn't quite sound right and using it to discredit dim sum from HK as not authentic is even more baffling. So, tell us, what are the specific items you are looking for and maybe then the people here that are well versed in Chinese cuisine can assist you. I will not be the one listing you restaurants for I haven't lived in Toronto for very long, only a few years but it seems that there are many of those on this board that would be able to help you.

                        4 Replies
                        1. re: budeeez

                          He listed a bunch of stuff in the original post, but honestly I think those are all pretty standard stuff that I've seen everywhere, I can't imagine any dimsum restaurant not having those.

                          I've heard Chinese food in SF is amazing and very authentic actually. I think the hostility in this thread comes from markml trying to suggest that dimsum started in SF before HK, which is absolutely laughable, and I guess the distinction between what is older traditional dimsum and what isn't should be made clear, because I really don't know.

                          While carts are fun, I think its just a novelty these days and I prefer a good restaurant where I can order from the menu. Carts are almost dead in HK too.

                          I am new to Toronto so I'll be watching this thread to find some good recs hopefully.

                          OH yeah, there is a big difference between "americanized chinese food" and "chinese food in america". We can all admit there are some awesome Chinese restaurants in vancouver, and even there you can find sweet and sour chicken ball takeout restaurants.

                          1. re: szw

                            Of course there are differences in americanized chinese food and chinese food in America. There is no doubt there are some great chinese restaurants in San Fran, but there is also a whole bunch which serves americanized chinese food, especially in the early days. And from what OP is describing, it is more towards the "traditional americanized" chinese food especially when he/she has no clue about the traditional beef balls and spare ribs dim sum.

                            1. re: skylineR33

                              Just curious, what's your favourite dim sum dish skyline? I try to order something new every time, not always successful, but it helps add variety.
                              what I find is that downtown dim sum (incl. Chinatown east, but excl. LWH) has relatively little variety. I went once to a dim sum in Markham and there were things I'd never seen before.

                              1. re: grandgourmand

                                Seafood dumpling (灌湯餃) in clear broth is my favourite dim sum. It has been around for hundreds of years (for anyone who is interested in it's authenticity). It is served individually. What you get in most of the dim sum place nowaday is the dumpling sitting in a small bowl of broth. Not too many places in Toronto make it right.

                                But if you want the original version with the soup inside the dumpling (similar to shanghainese dumpling), you have to go to HK. Some of the dim sum place in HK still has it. I like both versions.

                        2. Surprised no one has mentioned Pearl Harbourfront. Their dim sum is hands-down the best downtown. They do most of the classic dumplings, plus some outstanding originals. And they have carts AND a menu (the best of both worlds).

                          Alas, it's not in Chinatown, it's a bit more expensive than Chinatown (for familiar, inexpensive dim sum in Chinatown, agreed that Rol San is probably tops), and it can't begin to compete with the variety available in the suburbs. But it meets all your criteria.

                          1 Reply
                          1. re: jon b

                            Pearl Harbourfront is definitely not bad. It does satisfy all the criteria (cart, authentic, English menu, etc) as well as has a nice view. It is quite amusing to watch them try and negotiate the carts down the split level floors though. I was going to suggest it as well, but I was having a hard time trying to gauge the expectation & price level from the long debate above.
                            I have only been once and doubt I would return - not because it was bad, but because I usually only frequent uptown Chinese dim sum places (I still find them noticeably better than Pearl Harbour.), or Lai Wah Heen when I head downtown for it. OK, to be honest, I only eat at Grand pretty much nowadays. I probably helped to pay their rent over the past 1.5 years.

                          2. I'm from Montreal and passed through TO last weekend. Whenever there, we always make a stop or two in Chinatown.

                            Last week, we stumbled into a dim sum joint on Dundas. I don't recall the name, but it was perhaps a dozen doors east of Spadina on the north side. You had to climb a flight of stairs outside to enter.
                            We were the only non-asians in the place, it was packed, and they served dim sum from carts. Not over the top, but standard, good food. Har gao and sui mei sure (I liked the har gao, didn't try the sui mei), but also chicken feet, tendon in anise, congee, pork blood, and much more. A blend of fried and non-fried items.

                            Maybe a Toronto native could figure out the name of this place?

                            8 Replies
                              1. re: porker

                                Sounds like Forestview to me. It's upstairs, on the north side of Dundas, east of Spadina, like you described. And they definitely serve tendon!

                                1. re: phoenikia

                                  Also, when looking into the kitchen when exiting the bathroom, there was a long line of what looked like par-boiled ducks hanging in a service area. They also had a prep area at the back of the dining room where they fried various items.

                                  1. re: porker

                                    that would be forestview for sure. which i have to say is now potentially on my no fly list. they raised their happy hour prices to 2.00/dish and filled up one of my favourite dishes with way too much pork and celery (there's supposed to be some pork and lots of bamboo and mushroom, no celery!)

                                    i may regrettably have to go to rol san... i don't like that they overcook most of the items i love.

                                    1. re: pinstripeprincess

                                      Born and raised in HK over here.I would like to add that Pearl Harbourfront and Lai Wah Heen have pretty authentic dim sum. We used to love going to King's Garden but since it closed down, we have been regulars at Pearl Harbourfront.

                                      There is another place called Bamboo in Greek town (yeah I was surprised too) that serves pretty good quality dim sum (fresh scallop on top of xiu mai, homemade dumplings) that I would recommend too.

                                      1. re: pinstripeprincess

                                        I wonder if celery is supposed to be so prevalent in oriental cuisine. I just feel restaurants use it as a simple, cheap filler.

                                        1. re: pinstripeprincess

                                          psp, is $2 a lot for a steamer? Like my ablility to read chinese characters, I find going thru a dim sum bill a crapshoot -- prices and categories vary by a huge difference from place to place.

                                          Like when we went to Kim Moon last, based on your good words, the bill was only about $10 less than at Rol San, and we generally eat the same amount of food.

                                          1. re: neighborguy

                                            it is and it isn't. the value of forestview is in their atmosphere and in the really cheap happy hour (what used to be $1.50 per dish) but my most recent experience showed a decrease in quality and an increase in price. although 2.50 per steamer isn't unusual at other places, i'm not entirely sure if the balance is quite right anymore at forestview that would make it my top pick anymore.