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, for almost two decades, been synonymous with the suburbs for my family. Now it’s in the heart of the downtown core.
For those unfamiliar with Congee Queen, it actually has a big following. When I asked on Twitter what everyone’s go-to order was, 100 people responded. Cantonese chow mein, salt-and-pepper fried squid and fried bean curd chosen by a former coworker. Turnip cakes with preserved egg and pork congee from a recipe developer. Seafood congee with barbecued pork rice noodle roll from another. No two orders are the same as Congee Queen serves “jook, fun, mein, fan,” a catch-all term in Cantonese 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 more than 300 items to choose from. It can feel overwhelming at first, but once you have 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 know about Peter Cheung, the man behind Congee Queen and is currently the president of the company. I was finally able to meet him recently, and when we sat down at the new location Cheung asked a server to get me not just 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 began.
“How much time do you have?” Cheung says with a laugh while we converse in Cantonese.
Cheung moved from Hong Kong to Toronto in 1994 and got a kitchen job at a congee restaurant in Richmond Hill’s Golden Court Plaza, as it was a natural fit since he helped at his dad’s diner growing up. He and his friends then decided to open their own restaurant together, resulting in the first location of Congee Wong at the 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 staying till 1 am,” he remembers. “You had 15 minutes to eat and that was it. We couldn’t afford to be away from the kitchen that long because there were so few of us.”
Additional Congee Wong locations opened around the GTA. In 2002 the partners decided to split up, each managing a separate location independently.
Cheung himself took over the North York location of Congee Wong at Finch Ave. E. and Leslie St. In 2004, he opened a second congee spot at Don Mills Rd. and Lawrence Ave. E. To compliment the Congee Wong’s royal name, he named the new place Congee Queen (or “Empress” in Chinese).
Along the way Cheung ventured into other restaurant concepts in the north end of the GTA: Petit Potato, a Taiwanese-Japanese fusion restaurant; Japanese restaurant Sushi Legend; and Good Catch Boil House, a Louisiana-inspired restaurant and bar that’s adjacent to its sister restaurant, Hong Kong diner Good Catch Cafe in downtown Markham.
Seven more Congee Queens also opened in Thornhill, Markham, Scarborough and Mississauga, each helmed by a different chef that apprenticed for a year or two at a Congee Queen before going off on their own. In those early years, Congee Queen hadn’t captured the attention of the downtown-centric local food media, but it did gain a large loyal following in the suburbs and with some downtowners willing to make the trip north.
The newest location at 363 Yonge St. is a sleek, two-level earth-toned space where Swiss Chalet was for decades. As a long-time Congee Queen customer to the Scarborough and North York locations I knew exactly which of my favorite dishes I wanted photographed: house seafood and mixed vegetable fried Taiwanese vermicelli (E4 on the menu), fried turnip patties (K53 on the menu , otherwise known as daikon cakes), and a tureen of the namesake rice porridge, the house super bowl congee (A7, plain congee with shrimp, scallops, arctic clam and sliced grouper and salmon).
The vermicelli is one of the rare dishes my father, the toughest critic of Chinese cooking in the city, approves of. He says they don’t skimp on the seafood and it has the right amount of wok hay, the aromatic smoky aroma achieved by cooking over a fiery wok. As for the congee, I find that the rice porridge here is thicker than the water-downed versions offered elsewhere, and what I crave when I’m under the weather or jet-lagged. The daikon cakes, by far the most popular dish from my Twitter survey, are a labour-intensive dish of grated daikon formed into a patty and then steamed and pan-fried to make it crispy on the outside, pillowy soft on the inside.
And now, diners downtown will get to experience the same thing. Though this location is not in a primarily Asian neighbourhood, Cheung says palates changed a lot since the first Congee Queen opened. “The current generation (of young people) know a lot more about Chinese food and have higher standards,” he says, pointing to Toronto Metropolitan University across the street, where two of his kids are students. “Toronto is a lot more diverse now, and food is such an important way to show off our culture.”
Though it’s not that Cheung was waiting for a receptive urban clientele before opening downtown, it was the logistics of finding a space big enough.
“We actually spent more than five years looking,” he says. “To find a large space is really hard, especially with rent being higher. You can find a 2,000-square-foot space, but we needed at least 4,000 square feet because have more than 300 items on the menu.”
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 and bubble tea takeout shop across the street,” he says. “I’d look at the Swiss Chalet and think how nice it would be if I could open a restaurant there, but I never thought it would happen.”
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