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Iconic Dishes

We find out what Hong Shing's secret sauce really is

Twenty-five years, one devastating fire, countless orders of General Tao Chicken — Hong Shing owner Colin Li tells us all about this epochal Toronto restaurant. 

This city can be fickle. We Torontonians vibrate over the new, swarming the latest restaurant like seagulls with smartphones until the buzz dies down and the next big thing comes along. It’s not uncommon to see restaurants shutter here just months after opening. “If you last long in Toronto, you’re definitely doing something right,” says Colin Li, owner of Hong Shing, the long-standing Chinese restaurant on the corner of Dundas Street West and Centre Avenue.

He’s running the show now, but that wasn’t always the plan: “I was here every day after school, just doing my homework,” Li recalls. “My parents never told me, ‘Hey, when you grow up, this restaurant is yours.’”

Hong Shing Toronto | Owner, Colin Li

Hong Shing owner, Colin Li

Six years ago, at age 24, Li took over Hong Shing, which was in its 19th year. “My parents gave me the keys and were like, ‘OK, that’s how you lock the door. Good luck.’ I had to figure out everything myself,” he says with a laugh. When Li’s parents came to Toronto from China and opened Hong Shing in the 1990s, they too had to figure everything out on their own — and in a different language. As they say — history repeats itself.

But Li isn’t someone who fixates on the past. Determined to succeed, and to stand out, the first thing he did when he took over the restaurant? Painted it all black. “My parents flipped their shit.” The previous outdoor signage was red, yellow and green, which signifies good luck; “[my parents] were like black means death and funeral,” Li explains.

Change is hard, especially when things are working — you don’t get to 20-plus years by being lucky. But Li had even bigger hopes for the future. “I wanted to do something where I [did not] touch the food, but rebranded and repackaged it in a different way,” he says.

Back in 2016, a certain photo-sharing app was blowing up. “I grabbed my phone, and I was like, ‘Let’s start putting this on Instagram.’” Frustrated by the lack of Chinese food he saw online, Li posted photos of everything from a heaping plate of deep-fried spicy shrimp to their perfectionist pit-master, chef Tim, who comes in at 6 a.m. every single day to roast Cantonese-style duck, pork and pork belly.

“I wanted to show people that there’s a lot of craft and artistry that goes into it,” Li stresses. People started paying attention and posting their own photos. Beyond the likes and followers, the sharing of Hong Shing’s 60 menu items — spanning all of China’s regions — represents so much more.

“What we still face to this day are the old stereotypes of how Chinese restaurants are dirty, old school, no bar program, lack of service. I’ve been trying to fight that all my life,” he says. “When I started the Instagram account, some were like, ‘Why would I want to follow a Chinese restaurant?’ That just drove me to become more creative and prove that we can adapt to the times and be relevant.”

Instead of shying away from their popular American Chinese dishes or morphing them into something they aren’t, Hong Shing shows them off. “People were kind of ashamed of eating General Tao Chicken, but General Tao Chicken tastes really good. You should be proud of it,” Li says, enthusiastically.

The stereotypes aren’t the only challenges that Li has faced since adopting a teen-aged restaurant. Mix in a pandemic, a devastating fire and a misleading viral video — it’s enough to make anyone want to throw in the towel. But, nevertheless, Hong Shing is still here, and Li’s jubilant nature unscathed: "The key thing my parents taught me was a willingness to fail."

He was able to see the fire as an opportunity to upgrade the “mom-and-pop” restaurant into something more sleek “to match our digital storefront.” Li even helped to develop Hong Shing branded athleisure, and the restaurant sponsors a local basketball team in the Megacity League.

While Li holds the keys, Hong Shing doesn’t just belong to him. It has always been a place for community, where multiple generations can come together over a plate of crispy beef on a slow Sunday, where the same staff have worked for over 20 years, where Toronto eats.

Golden Fried Lobster

Hong Shing Toronto | Golden fried lobster

“My parents are from Guangzhou in the south of China. It’s surrounded by water. When we opened Hong Shing, my father was always like, ‘No matter what, we’re always going to have lobster on the menu.’ It reminds him of back home. With lobster, the big thing is to keep it simple. The way we cook ours is we batter it, then fry it a little for some crispiness and texture. Then, we toss it in a wok. We have a few different sauces, but our best seller is the ginger-onion, which brings out the natural sweetness of the lobster — it’s just green onion, garlic and ginger. That’s all you need. I’ve seen people travel all the way from Brampton and Mississauga just for the lobster.”

Oven-Roasted Duck

Hong Shing Toronto | Oven-roasted duck

“We source our ducks locally. And chef Tim’s process — from marinating it in seven spices overnight to cleaning it, rinsing it, then air-drying it for another night — takes 48 hours. Chef Tim has been doing it for 40 years. The ducks aren’t the same sizes, but he’s able to consistently make the same flavour profiles for all of them. That’s a mastery in itself. He is a legend. I always ask him, ‘Are you ever tired?’ And he tells me, ‘I’m very happy that I’m able to go to a job that feels like the first day of work every day — there’s always something to learn.’ He’s such a perfectionist and very [into routine]. And that’s how you become consistent in the quality of your work. This is a lost art in our cuisine because a lot of young people don’t want to do this kind of stuff. The time that he puts in is amazing.”

General Tao Chicken

Hong Shing Toronto | General Tao chicken

“There are a million recipes in the world, from food courts to high-end restaurants. What makes ours different is the sauce base. We use a white vinegar, our house sambal blend, hoisin, tomato. Our General Tao is more red and bright in colour than a lot of places. It has the four S’s: sweet, sour, spicy, savoury. We slice the chicken breast thinly, coat it, batter it, fry it — kind of like nuggets. Then, the way we cook it in our wok — just like the crispy beef — there’s still a crunch, but the sauce just glazes it perfectly. I love it on rice, on noodles, on anything.”

Deep-Fried Spicy Shrimp

Hong Shing Toronto | Deep-fried spicy shrimp

“This dish is among people’s favourites. We get big prawns and marinate them overnight with a lot of spices. Then, we batter them, fry them and toss them in our signature house sambal sauce, which is a spicy blend of chilies and a Chinese broad-bean paste called doubanjiang — it’s sweet, smoky, fragrant. We coat the shrimp in that sauce and toss it with bell peppers and garlic. It’s one of the best shrimp dishes I’ve ever had in my life. Everyone gets their own dish; there’s no sharing. If there’s a table of eight, there will be eight shrimps.”

Crispy Beef

Hong Shing Toronto | Crispy beef

“This is my dad’s signature dish. We use beef strip loin, cut it into bite-sized pieces, coat it with a little flour, fry it and toss it in this sauce with ginger, garlic, chilies and green scallions. He used to make this for his staff back in China. When he came here, he wanted to make something similar for the palate here, but he didn’t know if the customers would like it. They love it. I always invite chefs to come in, and crispy beef is that one dish that everyone thinks is amazing and really unique. I think it’s the way that we wok-toss the sauce. The wok’s high temperature gives this char texture and then glazes the beef really well, so it’s still crispy, but it’s coated with the sauce.”

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