Don’t believe everything you read: Ten Mile Aroma

Ten Mile Aroma in the Dundas/Spadina Chinatown was selected for a visitation by the VTS on the basis of its great name alone. Doesn’t it just make you think of Bugs Bunny, being wafted along in mid-air, tantalized, stroked by fingers of smell? Or maybe Like Water For Chocolate, when Juan the Mexican Revolutionary Captain is riding by the De La Garza Ranch and does not see, but instead smells the approach of his true love Gertrudis in the form of a powerful cloud of the scent of roses.

There was a mixed reception from the intertubes, however. “This is the worst restaurant in Toronto,” said one online reviewer proudly. “I highly recommend it.” According to the vox pop, Ten Mile Aroma has the cheapest beer in the GTA. At $4.99 a pitcher, it’s ruthlessly competitive for the title, and a single glass of beer can be had for a laughable $1.70. That’s the kind of money one can (and by the looks of some of the clientele, does) collect by standing on a corner for 10 minutes and asking for spare change. Ten Mile Aroma is consequently a magnet for people with no other options and the food has been derided by some as nothing more than a meaningless sideshow to this spectacle of desperation: however, I think the main mistake those reviewers and bloggers are making is that they’re going at night.

With some fear and reluctance, the VTS approached on a brilliantly sunny Friday at high noon.
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It didn’t look too bad inside:
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There was only one gentleman of reduced circumstances sitting by himself in a corner, sipping his beer and politely minding his own business. The rest of the customers were Chinese. The floor tiling was chipped here and there, but everything was neat and orderly and a fair attempt at cheeriness had been made with lanterns and paper dragons as well as a large screen TV that played airbrushed Official images of China narrated in Mandarin.
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As the website says, “much attention has been attached to ensure you a cozy and inviting ambiance where you could enjoy not only the great meal but also the authentic atmosphere.”

The menu is lengthy, but not overwhelmingly so. The tagline for the restaurant is “Northeastern Chinese Cuisine” and indeed, there are many non-classic items on offer. The last time I ate Northeastern Chinese food was in Beijing, after a frustrating morning of trying and failing to catch a bus to a less-popular part of the Great Wall (and Dear Reader, to be lost in a Chinese bus station when one neither reads, speaks nor understands any dialect of Chinese is to be truly lost). I was noted in my distress by a group of strangely well-dressed men standing on a street corner, one of whom came over to investigate: they all worked for company that organized and attended international trade fairs and spoke excellent English. He quickly got me all the information I needed, then invited me to direct traffic with himself and his colleagues (in 1996 all citizens were still expected to perform some sort of ritual community service). After directing traffic at a busy intersection in Beijing for an hour, it was time for lunch: they took me to a Northeastern restaurant they liked. I told them to order whatever they would normally have – I mainly remember fish entrails and some sort of gristle dish with dried cherries.

Ten Mile Aroma has dishes somewhat in that vein (“BBQ Chicken Gizzards on a Skewer” “Speedy Fried Pork Intestine” “Spicy Shredded Chicken with Jellyfish” “Pig Foot with Soya Sauce”) but also some things that sound a bit more appealing to the western palate. Both Margie and I do work that is policy related, so we were intrigued, for example, by “Fried Spicy Chicken Framework”, but that turned out to be a pile of chicken bones rather than a Transformative Action Plan. “It’s just bones?” we asked the waitress. “Just bones,” she said. “No meat at all?” we asked again, hopefully, “not even a little?” “No, no meat.”

Fine, back to the drawing board. We submitted our order by writing down the numbers from the menu on a small piece of paper with a golf pencil: Fried Beef with Cumin in Bread, Spinach Salad Mixed with Carrots, Bamboo Shoots and Various Nuts, Sliced Fish With Chili Sauce, and one of the specials of the day, Stewed Lamb with Cabbage in Hot Pot. Plus some steamed rice. More food than two office workers require, but for posterity we thought we should order a few things, anyway. The waitress wordlessly took our order and disappeared: the waitstaff had been hailed by the blogosphere as fabulously rude, but again, we were disappointed here by service that was merely businesslike and more or less efficient.

The Lamb Hot Pot came out first:
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It was a delicate broth with a top note of cumin, tender chunks of fatty lamb, pieces of roughly chopped napa cabbage that retained some bright green-ness and slices of non-overcooked carrot. Lurking in the bottom of the hot pot was a nest of translucent sweet potato starch noodles, a thicker version of the kind used in Chap Chae Korean noodle salads. There was nothing extremely forward about this dish, but it was subtle, balanced, tasty and well-prepared and we kept circling back to it for more.

The Spinach Salad was fairly exotic:
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It was cooked spinach, served cold and properly “shocked” in cold water to ensure that it stays a nice fresh green. The spinach was dressed in a sesame oil and vinegar dressing (we could not place the vinegar, all we knew is that it wasn’t derived from rice) and was bedecked with walnuts, two kinds of peanuts, and cashews along with golden raisins and a small dried type of Chinese fruit somewhere between a plum and a berry. Refreshing and unusual.

We expected the Sliced Fish With Chili Sauce to be a “dry” stirfried dish, but it came out in a large bowl, partly submerged in a dark hell broth:
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And attractively garnished with flash-fried red chilies and thinly sliced green onions. Also hidden in the broth were large chunks of fried white boneless fish, possibly basa, as well as a tangle of crunchy bean sprouts and boy choy. Floating in the dark red broth were occasional Szechuan flower peppers, tiny little balls that look like regular black peppercorns from a distance but are actually miniscule dried blossoms. The taste of them is frequently described by westerners as “spicy dishwasher detergent” and it’s close to the mark. Bite one and it will deaden the tip of your tongue for at least a few minutes.

The dish was spicy but nothing to send one running for beer (which I suppose, is unnecessary anyway in a place selling the stuff for $1.70, as the price alone is sufficient motivation). Nothing was overcooked. It was quite good, but somehow I came away with the feeling that it should have been better: it was inexplicably less than the sum of its parts.

Last thing out was the Fried Beef with Cumin in Bread, which quickly acquired the nick-name “The Harbin Burger”:

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This was really, really good. The bread was some sort of quick leavened flatbread, the sort of thing you would get if you took a small piece of naan dough and squashed it on to a flat-top griddle rather than the inside of a tandoor, then turned it once. Inside was a Northeastern Chinese sloppy-joe mixture of slightly tough shredded beef cooked with sliced onions, with plenty of cumin. Delicious. I can see a round of pitchers and a few dozen Harbin burgers making for not a bad night out at Ten Mile Aroma.

Ten Mile Aroma did not furnish the regular Chinese restaurant experience one has come to expect in North America, i.e. either bastardized Cantonese or in more recent times, Szechuan. The range of ingredients definitely had a northern, near Mongolian flair with so many lamb dishes on the menu, a generous hand with the cumin, a fondness for grilling things on skewers and the confident use of wheat and sweet potato starch rather than the more typical dominance of rice.

It wasn’t the best Chinese food I’ve ever had, but it was not even close to the worst, and for the price it represents excellent value. I’m not sure who is working the night shift at Ten Mile Aroma, but he or she isn’t cooking during the day judging by our experience. If you’re looking for a solid, mind-expanding but perhaps not completely mind-blowing meal in Chinatown and you’re on a budget, just follow your nose.

Ten Mile Aroma, 428 Dundas Street West – http://tenmilearoma.com/
$35.00 for two (or six: we took away a staggering amount of leftover food) including tax, tip and a pot of extremely weak tea. Adding quite a lot of beer would have made almost no difference to the bill, but a significant difference to the afternoon’s productivity.

Ten Mile Aroma on Urbanspoon

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