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Swatow: Are you kidding???

Needed to grab a mid-evening bite last night and we were around Spadina, so decided to try Swatow based on a few positive comments here. Oh my God, I repent! I do not understand how this place stays open. I have never had such an unmitigated mess served to me in the guise of 'Chinese' food in my life.
I ordered my comfort food standby, Chili Pork Lo-Mein, not a complicated dish and received one of the weirdest platters I have ever seen. Strips of what I assume was pork (there was no flavour to confirm it) swimming in a pool of luminous red sauce atop very dry clumps of noodles. There were also strips of what appeared to be picked black fungus. I usually forego the accompanying broth as i like my lo-mein dry, but in this instance I had to drown this mess just to get it down and possibly add some flavour. If there was any chili hiding in there, it eluded me. The whole thing tasted like it came from a packet.
My wife ordered sliced fish with mixed veges, but despite ordering in Chinese received deep fried fish with sweetcorn sauce instead. Too tired and hungry to argue, we tackled it anyway. The dish should be renamed 'Cornstarch with rice and bits of corn and fish topped with more cornstarch'. The fish was obviously frozen and was mushy. The sauce was so thick and starchy as to be inedible and the whole thing completely lacked flavour. In two words: Bloody awful.
This is the kind of sub standard faux Chinese that was probably par for the course 30 years ago, but should be extinct by now, surely? I wasn't expecting gourmet cuinine from a Spadina joint, but this was beyond gross. Who goes here? And why?

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  1. Try the Swatow special noodles and the shrimp dumplings in soup and get back to us.

    1. Yeah I don't get the hype around here of ANY chinatown restaurant. I'm willing to bet that almost everyone who likes the food down there is non-asian. Ignorance is bliss as they say.

      18 Replies
      1. re: sbug206

        Exactly. I won't be getting back to anyone about special noodles because I will never step foot in such a dive again.

        1. re: sbug206

          Yeah right, I never see Asians eating Chinatown.

          1. re: jamesm

            But they don't go around proclaiming how great it is. It's average at best. It's like hyping Tulip as a great steak restaurant. It's ok but nowhere in thesame league as Barberians, Harbour 60, etc.

            1. re: sbug206

              Every restaurant in Chinatown is average at best?

              1. re: jamesm

                Yep. Compared to those in Markham, Spadina is a dive.

                1. re: sbug206

                  While I agree that on average Markham restaurants are better than those on Spadina, you are assuming everyone has the desire (and the means) to drive to Markham for a meal. For those of us who live downtown, we will have to talk about and find the best available on Spadina.

                  1. re: Teep

                    OK...let's talk about that. Surely there must be one ray of sunshine on that godforsaken strip? I've had half decent Vietnamese there, but an even slightly good Chinese place still eludes me. I know that most places there are average at best, but Swatow was genuinely bad. I know the difference. So, any recommendations?

                    1. re: munchieHK

                      Your earlier praise of Hi Shanghai for dim sum on another thread makes me wary about making a recommendation that would excite you, as my own preference is for Cantonese. If you could identify a Cantonese restaurant that you've enjoyed in Toronto, perhaps I and others could recommend ones of similar quality on Spadina...or at least have a better idea of what you are looking for...perhaps its not Cantonese?

                      1. re: T Long

                        I love Cantonese. I also love Shanghainese and Hunanese and Szechuan and Chiu Chow... why does that seem to be such a problem for people here? Are we restricted to enjoying one regional cuisine only? Cantonese is Cantonese and there are many levels to the cuisine. I lived in Hong Kong for 10 years and I frequently ate at top end Cantonese temples like Fook Lam Moon,18 Brook or the Grand Hyatt, as I was frequently invited there by friends and associates. Although I enjoyed them, my favourite Cantonese place was a little room above a factory in Fo Tan with no English name and where most of my fellow diners worked in the factory. Believe it or not, I do know my Cantonese, but I am not rigidly bound to some notion of what a cuisine should or should not be. Why is that so difficult? Can I not like Hi Shanghai AND Emperor? Who wrote this stupid rulebook?
                        Why would you be 'wary'? Is the world going to end if you recommend something I happen not to like? It's only food, for god's sake, I wish people would stop treating it like some kind of religious sacrament. Either you have a rec or you don't, but I'm tired of the political BS that seems to rear its ugly head every time Cantonese food is mentioned.

                        1. re: munchieHK

                          Hey just trying to better understand your tastes to make a better rec..no intent to set you off...

                          My favs on Spadina are Rol San, Lee Garden and E-Pan....all Cantonese. A lot of people (not me) like Mother's Dumplings which is not Cantonese.

                          1. re: T Long

                            Yeah, sorry about that. I was a bit over sensitive after the nonsense with Hi Shanghai etc. There are certain people on this board who seem to only exist to wind people up, without mentioning any names. Thanks for the recs and my apologies for the rant.

                            1. re: munchieHK

                              Heavens, who could you be talking about?

                              Try Chinese Traditional Bun. It's on Dundas, just east of Spadina. I really enjoy it, as do many others. It's a hole in the wall place. Good dumplings, noodle dishes, ask for the homemade noodles.

                              For dim sum on Spadina, I've found the best quality is Rol San.

                              Swatow is brutal.

                              1. re: grandgourmand

                                Isn't that just WEST of Spadina? (for Chinese Traditional Bun).

                                1. re: estufarian

                                  Not if you're facing South....just kidding. yes, West of Spadina.

                          2. re: munchieHK

                            Your pick on Hi Shanghai for dim sum suggest me that Asian Legend is a place that you will like on Spadina.

                            1. re: skylineR33

                              Everyone's palate is different and what you find tasty may be horrible for someone else so don't get your knickers in a bunch when someone doesn't like what you like. Relax people. My parents enjoy Hi Shanghai and I don't like their food at all. I also still enjoy some of the food at Ding Tai Fung and lots of CHers will say that their food has been slipping .. but so what, I like it and that is what matters to me. I happen to think that the dim sum at Rol San is mediocre at best and some of it is pretty bad. I like the Beef Hor Fun at Swatow. They make it a litttle spicy which I really like. That is pretty much the only think I order when I am there and they are open in to the wee hours of the morning which is usually when I go in.

                              1. re: theel

                                I've only been to Swatow the one time, but it did seem from the surrounding tables that the dish that looked the best (unfortunately I didn't know to order it beforehand) was the Beef Ho Fun (noodle soup right). I was not that impressed with most everything else, but I said to my spouse that if we ever come back...Beef Ho Fun for sure!

                    2. re: sbug206

                      Not for BBQ: that stuff is the bomb! and everywhere on Dundas and Spadina. The bakeries are good too, as is Dim Sum at Golden Pearl and Rol San among others. Imho Pacific Mall is way overrated for food.

            2. I know its a bit far. But if you like 'chili pork lo-mien' you should give the congee/noodle outfit in the food court of the 'Middlesfield' T&T a try. Its pretty similar to the version served in Hong Kong's Mak Man Kee or Mak's ( assuming you've come across those two institutions during your 10 years stay in HK ).
              The thing about having this chili hot sauce pork lo-mien in Toronto is that, if the cook isn't from Hong Kong, they usually screw it up! Since most mainland Chinese cook havn't tasted the authentic HK version before!. However, based on what you posted the version you had was not half bad when compared to the one I had at a noodle shop near Alton Towers in Markham. Not only did the sauce/noodle tasted like s$#@$. The waitress, without my instruction, actually poured the soup over the sauce of my 'lo-mien'! during the 'first go around'!! citing that way it would make the noodle more moist! $#@$#^%&^&!!!

              6 Replies
              1. re: Charles Yu

                I always love Swatow when I go, of course I have never gone before 2:00am or before 6-7 pints.

                1. re: Burger4ever

                  lol. i think that's where a lot of the praise comes from - i know for me swatow has been the go-to place for years in the middle of the nice after the bars close:) or, in the more recent years, the go-to places when i am coming back to toronto from a trip in the middle of night and need a meal after a long drive and drive-in fast food.

                  not quite sure that there have been a ton of posters claiming swatow to be some showcase of cantonese cuisine, as both sides in this debate seem to be assuming (or implying).

                  1. re: Burger4ever

                    LOL... and everything tastes good after a night out like that! Even that silly food truck that hangs around downtown is acceptable after a night at the bars.

                    1. re: lyndak

                      Yes, even flourescent orange sauce on greasy chicken balls tastes good under those conditions.

                      1. re: Pincus

                        I think that's the same reason people still cite Johnny's as a great burger place. It's the only one (or one of few) open late enough for after-drinking burger fixes.

                    2. re: Burger4ever

                      Haha, I have exactly the same experience at Swatow! Corn chowder is excellent at 3am!

                  2. Swatow can make decent Szechuan Prawns and good 'special noodle'. Everything else (and I truly mean everything else) I have tried from there has been a total disaster.

                    I do not understand the love for the place at all.

                    Places to try on Spadina/Dundas:

                    1. Mother's dumplings. Excellent dumplings. Some complain they are bland. House made chili oil is divine (nutty and delicious). Try the green-onion pancake and the Da Lu Noodles (pay the extra for hand-pulled).

                    2. Chinese Traditional buns. Execellent dumplings and many steamed bun. But, be sure you do not miss the jellied bean curd with 7 (?) sauces. The Dan Dan noodles are good too (different than many -- less sesame, more cucumber, not as hot as I'd like). The pancakes are not as good as MD.

                    Lots of other items to try on the menu (pity I can't get past the stuff I already know is excellent).

                    When they opened, all the cups/dishes were broken "seconds", the cutlery was plastic, the table cloths were garbage bags, the ceiling tiles were often missing and the lights half out. They have since made enough money to renovate, decorate, hire staff, replace the equipment and plates. They got to here on good food.

                    3. If you really, really want dim sum downtown, try Rol San. They do fried items especially well.

                    4. Lee Garden and E-Pan are unlikely to really excite, but, they can usually be counted upon not to fail miserably. There are a few good items on King Noodle's menu too (but, it has been too long since I went for me to make any particular recommendation there)

                    7 Replies
                    1. re: Atahualpa

                      Nice review. I completely agree. I am looking forward to going to Chinese Traditional Buns. I went when it was totally unknown before all the hype. It used to be extremely bargain basement atmosphere. Good to hear it's got a little reno. Good for them. Swatow can go f- itself. Never treated so poorly by a restaurant owner.

                      1. re: food face

                        I like Chinese Traditional Buns but I had something really really bad there last week. It was a noodle soup (with th ehand pulled noodles) called Noodles with Hot and Sour Meat Sauce. The "sauce" was bland soup that was so watery that I think it came straight from the tap. The meat and spicy part would probably have been good if there was even the slightest bit of flavour in the soup. Horrible. I'll still go there, for buns, dumplings, dan dan noodles, etc. But please, don't get that "soup".

                      2. re: Atahualpa

                        E-Pan was a pleasant surprise when they opened up. Consistently decent food but now I am bored with the menu. Still a good fall back because they can be relied upon to serve decent food and the service is very good.

                        1. re: theel

                          I don't know. I've had nothing but good stuff at Swatow. Shrimp in Lobster sauce, Beef Tendon in 5 spice powder, lemon chicken, Char-siu pork, hot & Sour soup. Their clientele also seems to me to be pretty mixed. I hear lots of Cantonese being spoken.

                          Only been to Rol San once and I wasn't impressed. Less tasty, fattier meats, and their clientele for some reason, was all white guys on the way to a hockey game.

                          Who knew? I wouldn't be able to vouch for their authenticity, but it's certainly not of the "chicken ball" variety Chinese food. I've been eating there now for over 15 years and love it. The only places I've been in town that come close are Spadina Garden on Dundas or Fairview Seafood restaurant in Scarborough at Markham and Sheppard.

                          1. re: currycue

                            currycue - i'm not a rol san fan either.
                            my heart has always been with king noodle!

                            Is the lemon chicken and sweet and sour of the fluorescent variety?
                            I must try that tendon dish. I like the cooked and marinated tendon (or beef shank) in the T&T deli prepacks.

                            1. re: currycue

                              Rol San is mainly popular for their Dim Sum lunches....and very much caters to their mainstream Chinese clientele....but is non-Chinese friendly.

                          2. re: Atahualpa

                            I read a lot but never write a review but after reading this post, I kick my lazy butt and want to contribute (hopefully).

                            The best dish and only dish I will have in Sawatow is fish ball rice noodle soup. It doesn't mean they make a very amazing noodle soup, it is because all the other items in the menu are very awful.

                            The restaurant I will go are

                            1. Rol San, a good dim sum place in chinatown. I will rate them 6.5/10. Their competitors are so wrost.

                            2. Taste of Shanghai, if Mother Dumpling makes good dumpling, then they make their dumpling way better, in term of the dough and taste. However, not many choice for dumpling since they are not a dumpling house. Beef noodle soup and pan seared dumpling are the best in that joint, easy be one of the best in Toronto, Markham and Richmond Hill area. I rate them 8/10.

                            3. Lee Garden, a good place with good food. I like most of their dishes. Steamed fish is my favourite dish among those. My only complain is they are making a lot of adjustment to cater cancusian. I would say local people will love it even though they make true cantonese food. (7/10)

                            4. Pho Hung, I like viet foods a lot and most of them in that join are above average. If you like vietnamese food, no need to go north. I like Pho Hung because their noodle soup not much MSG on it. But they do put a lot in their main dishes such as pan seared fillet of fish in fish sause. (7.5/10)

                            5. New Sky, most of the items promoted on the wall are delicious, a very solid southern Chinese restaurant, chicken congee, black bean lobsters, clam, a lot of very yummy starters. I think I will go for dinner tonight. (7/10)

                            Others worth mention are Asian Legend (friendly servers and spotless deco), king's Noodle (good for quickie), New Hong Kong restaurant(the only rest serve Hong Kong milk tea combo).

                          3. Swatow is bullcrap. I don't know who started the cult of Swatow (Toronto Life maybe...) but just don't go, Mrs. Thatcher is from Hong Kong and won't go there even if she's starving.

                            1 Reply
                            1. re: Thatcher

                              Their wonton soup tastes like dishwater. I judge many a chinese restaurant by how they make a humble dumpling and if you can't make wontons you is off da list! Don't go - go to Kings Noodle or Legend or anywhere but there.

                            2. When I eat out with the GF's Chinese family its always either Xam Yu, or New Sky. The food has neither offended or excited me. Seems to be solid family style food.

                              6 Replies
                              1. re: haggisdragon

                                Have to agree and disagree with all of you. Swatow has 3 good dishes:

                                1) Pan-fried pork dumplings-ask for them well with the sweet soy sauce on the side
                                2) Shrimp dumpling soup-with or without the vermicelli-add a little spicy oil
                                3) Special noodles-fettucinni like (almost al dente), with lots of veggies, pork and shrimp

                                Eat these 3 dishes and stay away from everything else and you should be quite pleased!!

                                1. re: robb

                                  So it looks like you are saying that only 3 dishes of perhaps 100 are good? in that case, 97% of the menu is not worth ordering. OK, if they only have 50 items then only 94% is bad. I'll rush right over!


                                  1. re: foodyDudey

                                    Whoa....FD those are some fancy numbers-you some kinda scientist? What I am saying is that if I am downtown, near chinatown, I know a restaurant in which I can get 3 pretty good dishes and be very satisfied. Most of the dishes I've tried there are lousy to average, but the 3 I mentioned are all above average. Do what you wish with my opinion.

                                    1. re: robb

                                      Though I don't get down to the Dundas-Spadina Chinatown as often as I used to, I've probably tried every joint in the neighborhood over the years, though almost always at lunch - for a Chinese dinner, I invariably go uptown, where the best cuisine resides, and often not that much more expensive than Dundas and Spadina. Most spots around Dundas and Spadina aren't up to much. Not lousy exactly, but usually bland - which Chinese food should never be - and tasteless, and inconsistent. Still, I like the aforementioned Chinese Traditional Buns for most everything on the menu; Goldstone, on Spadina south of Dundas, for soups and other simple dishes; and the first resto on the west side of Spadina just north of Dundas, the name of which I can never remember, which is also good for soups and relatively uncomplicated dishes. The Asian Legend on Spadina, referred to earlier, is, in my view, the weakest in the Asian Legend chain - the uptown versions are much better, for both service and execution of dishes, though the menus of all of them are pretty much the same.

                                      I think the problem around Dundas and Spadina is that most of the restos are trying to hit low price points to accommodate the nearby price-sensitive student population. And they're certainly doing it, but at the expense of taste and decent service. Besides, you can't expect a Chinese resto, whose menu items often number 100-150, to do everything right. The best you can hope for at Dundas and Spadina is try to discover what a joint does well, and stick with it. All else is a crapshoot.

                                      I haven't been to Swatow, a rant against which started this thread, in many years. Too many of my friends have found it dreary and borderline acceptable, which doesn't encourage return visits. But then, they don't turn up there after midnight, when it seems everything tastes good to hungry revellers.

                                    2. re: foodyDudey

                                      i must admit there are plenty of places around town that have a mediocre or so-so menu but do one or two things well and i go to those places fo that one thing.

                                      i remember when i lived on st. clair at vaughan, there was a typical chinese-canadian resto across the street with pretty mediocre food. but they made this orange chicken dish with real orange rinds that was delish. that's all i ever ordered there:)

                                      1. re: Kasia

                                        I consider Swatow the place for people who just got out of the bars and are hungry at 2 am...

                                        I never understood the appeal, but there is one thing they do well, and that is any of the noodles in soups and my personal fave - Shrimp Dumpling Soup...

                                        And they are open late every night of the week. Late at night on a Sunday or weeknight there are not a lot of options and Shrimp Dumpling Soup from Swatow is a million times better than McDonalds or other junk foods.

                                2. Look, I am about as strong an advocate as there is for Markham/R.H. Chinese food, but Swatow really surprised me last Friday.....

                                  The usual late night hunger had to be satisfied, so I step into King's Noodle only to be told I had to finish in 20 mins. Basically it was their way of telling me to buzz off, so I complied. Walked across the street for Swatow, even though I haven't been in a good 8-9 yrs.

                                  My usual late night spots are Pho Pasteur and Goldstone, with King's Noodle, Mother's Dumpling and Xam Yu all closing much earlier than I would like. I generally only eat at Chinatown late night.

                                  I was leery, my last experience at Rol San was truly dreadful, and I tend to lump these two together. They're filled w/ drunk entertainment district people ordering individual plates for themselves, usually variations of sweet & sour pork, etc....

                                  I get in and ignore the plastic menu, which caters to the above mentioned crowd. I notice the prices are higher compared to King's or Goldstone, by about a 1/4. Off the wall, I notice most dishes lacked English translations, good sign for me, bad sign for the whiteys as they're deprived. I order the following.....

                                  1) tung choi (water spinach) w/ preserved bean curd

                                  2) curry squid

                                  3) preserved fish and diced chicken fried rice

                                  Each dish way surpassed my expectations, they were truly executed well. The wok hey was strong with the tung choi, great crunch yet was definitely cooked, with a hint of preserved bean curd. The fried rice was fluffy yet dry, with hits of saltiness delivered by the preserved fish. The curry itself was very reminiscent of street stall curry fish ball sauce, probably one of the most authentic I've had in a long while. Trust me when I say I haven't had good curry fish balls in Toronto, ever! If they set up a street stand using this sauce for curry fish balls as a Toronto a la Carte, I would be there every damn day. HK curry fish balls hold a dear place in my heart, lots of wonderful childhood memories are associated with it. The taste of it along w/ bus exhaust, haha......those who know, know.

                                  I know if I revisit Swatow, chances are the quality will be nowhere near as good. That's the main problem w/ these places, consistency. Whoever was working the late night Friday shift, he was on his "A" game.

                                  Staff spoke entirely Cantonese, which is surprising as Mandarin is more common nowadays w/ restaurant workers. Why? Because there are rarely any new Canto immigrants. Restaurant jobs aren't exactly the most desirable, usually left for new immigrants.

                                  This can transition to a new topic, the lack of new blood for Chinese cooks. You'll rarely see anybody younger than 40 in a Chinese kitchen nowadays. The younger people that do work in a kitchen, they do it only because they have no other employment options. Once they develop their English skills, they're apt to jump ship to something more profitable and less strenuous. It is a serious problem facing the Chinese food community. We might not notice it now, but in 10-15 yrs time, if no new blood is injected, we're heading for trouble.

                                  2 Replies
                                  1. re: aser


                                    This is hilarious. I've been going to Swatow since 1995 (not kidding) and often when I've gone, I point to the non English menu and say, "I want that, whatever it is, I want what you like, I don't care, bring me the non-whitey stuff".

                                    I've always walked away happy and satisfied. You are right, its not always consistent, but to me it hits the spot late at night when nothing else is open. Its just fast food people, and its relatively cheap and not McDonalds.

                                    I've tried Rol San and found it dreadful too.

                                    I find your observations on the young Chinese cooking scene interesting. Thanks.

                                    1. re: Splendid Wine Snob

                                      Well I'm glad you take those risks, and wish more would do the same instead of falling back to sweet & sour pork.

                                      Just to elaborate on the local Chinese cooking scene......

                                      In the classic French brigade system that most "white" restaurants follow, the prep work is done by the line cooks or apprentices. Because of the lack of new blood in Chinese cooking, a lot of head chefs in Chinese restaurants end up having to do their own prep work. They can't hire apprentices because no young Chinese people want these jobs.

                                      Imagine Susur, David Lee, McEwan, etc... actually picking up a knife and dicing a 10lb bag of onions? It's just not happening......yet it is happening in Chinese kitchens.

                                  2. I am a long time Swatow veteran, having gone there a few times a year for nearly 20 years as best as I can remember. I view it as Chinese greasy spoon and thus only hold out limited expectations for it. That said, I really enjoy a selection of dishes there. As others have mentioned, shrimp dumpling noodle soup is always enjoyable and I also like a number of "off the wall" dishes.

                                    I definitely don't think it is in the class of some of the finer Chinese restaurants in Markham, nor is it even as good as much of the stuff at Chinese Traditional Buns and Mother's Dumplings. But I still like a selection of dishes there much as I still like the fries at McDonald's.

                                    1. Actually their braised beef brisket and tendon soup noodles as well as their fish and octopus balls soup noodles rival some of the best Markham/Richmond Hill/ Scarborough have to offer. They are also one of a few establishmentS that offers freshly made 'fried fish skin'. So crispy, delightful and addictive! A perfect snack IMO.

                                      1. I'm surprised no one has mentioned Yueh Tung!! It's on Dundas, just west of Bay. The food there is the best downtown, but like most people have mentioned, cannot touch Markham/Scarborough/Richmond Hill. Dishes to try at Yueh Tung are: chili chicken, spicy lobster, beef with chinese broccolli, cream corn soup, and seafood chow mein.

                                        If you downtown folk ever make it up north, try Congee Wong, Richmond Court and Asian Legend. YUMMMMMMM!!!

                                        1. Just head across from street from Swatow for the best Chinese food on Spadina---Taste of China.

                                          1. 3 WORDS

                                            KOM JUG YUEN!!!

                                            Classic Cantonese fare frequented by Chinese and white folks alike.. Why?? because they offer the classic Chi-merican chicken balls, along side treasures like bass meat and tofu in hot pot, or THE BEST HOT AND SOUR SOUP IN THE CITY (please please please find a better place!) Oh and don't forget.... The barbeque pork (char sui)... and if you really want to get wet try the duck, the same duck that the restaurants in the area serve (literally the same ducks, I have on multiple occasions seen uniformed waiters from various restaurants purchasing whole roast ducks... why? because Kom Jug has been a staple in the community for more than 30 years, perfecting recipes and making some new ones...
                                            On a budget?
                                            BBQ pork on rice is $4.75 I think
                                            BBQ pork fried rice is $3.75
                                            and the list goes on..

                                            more dough than a 5 spot? try the:
                                            shrimp and egg on rice
                                            Cantonese chow mien
                                            Singapore style vermicelli
                                            crispy spicy beef
                                            deep fried squid in salty spice
                                            fried stuffed tofu (with fish)