It’s taken awhile, but I’ve found another Asian noodle soup worthy inclusion in the Lunch Under $10 collection. The selection is somewhat troublesome in so far as it actually costs $10.95 (plus tax and tip), but that’s close enough (we don’t quibble over details when it comes to good food). It’s also troublesome in terms of ethnography and GFR’s credentials in the temple of the cult of the authentic. I’m not sure exactly where it’s from or, to be more precise, to which national cuisine it might belong.
The bowl of soup can be found at Lee Chen Asian Bistro on the east side of Yonge Street between Cumberland and Yorkville. Outside its doors, Lee Chen Asian Bistro does not look promising. What, for instance, is an “Asian bistro”, anyway? And how much trust is to be put into a restaurant with big illuminated signs showing pictures of its food on its signs? Inside, it’s hard to make heads or tails of it, either. It looks a bit like a big Swiss Chalet outlet went on a mind expanding trip to the Far East: there are big laminated menus, and a bar full of mass marketed wines. But at lunch any day of the week, it’s busy. It’s full of all sorts from (my guess) Asian students to groups form the surrounding office towers. And the kitchen in the pack is full of cooks busily shaking woks, drawing up noodles and getting things ready for the waiters and waitresses with big trays to be stacked with steaming hot plates and baskets.
The menu at Lee Chen is, indeed, extensive. On a Saturday or Sunday, it’s full of families and/or friends sitting at tables pushed together, and sharing lots of small plates. Their soup dumplings are particularly good as per my kids (and I agree). I’m not expert, but I think “Asian Bistro” is more like a pan-Chinese restaurant. I found Lee Chen on a tip from some neighbours. They were over at friends’, who were billeting a Chinese language student. When asked what was the best Chinese food she’d had in Toronto, the student had answered Lee Chen. It may have been the only Chinese restaurant she had been to, since they’re relatively rare around where I live, but the compliment recommended Lee Chen to my neighbours, who liked it and sent me forth. Also, downstairs, by the washrooms, is displayed a plaque from the Taiwanese Consul General awarding Lee Chen some sort of acknowledment for serving Taiwanese food, so this seems to be the general idea. Although I have yet to find reference to the soup by searching the ingredients and “China” or “Taiwan”, so it’s entirely possible that it was actually invented in their kitchen, and so can be counted as Canadian.
Lee Chen’s House Soup Noodle is a light meat broth (chicken and pork, I’m pretty sure) with thick and long rice noodles. Added to this are matchsticks of lean pork (loin by my estimation), crunchy bamboo sticks and pickled mustard greens. It is the soup version of another dish on the menu, House Fried Noodle, and another derivative, House Fried Rice Cakes. Or perhaps they are the noodle and rice cake versions of the soup. Anyway, the point is the noodles and dressings have been quickly fired in a wok before being introduced to the broth. This has the effect of imparting the soup an appealing smokiness and Maillard Effect umami. It’s a bit like having a soup that tastes like a delicious cooking smell. The greens and bamboo are lightly pickled, so still crisp and tasting fresh. And the pork is toothsomely chewy. With a dollop of chilli and garlic paste the whole thing becomes a soul affirming noodle soup that warms the core of the body. Perfectly suited to any winter’s day, I have never not finished a bowl.