There’s an interesting phenomenon that I’ve noticed after living in the GTA for so many years (note to self: I really, REALLY got to stop talking as if I’m an external party observing life in Toronto. I’m NOT. I’m IN it every day and have been for a long time), which is that, despite the abundance of Asians living here and the equally-abundant varieties of Asian cuisine designed specifically to cater to this population, it is still up til now WITHOUT a single international Asian food chain. Bubble tea houses/cafes are the only exception, and even that is a recent phenomenon, as up until several years ago, the only international bubble tea chain available here was TenRen. And I never really understood why.
Let’s take sushi, for example. Well-loved by the many Asians (and non-Asians) that live in the GTA, you can find approximately TEN POINT FIVE MILLION sushi restaurants in the GTA, some of which are little mom and pop shops, and some are small local chains. But you’re not going to find, let’s say, Sushi Tei here. Another example? Korean food. There’s around FIVE POINT TEN MILLION (lulz) Korean restaurants here, but you’re not going to find something like Bulgogi Brothers (actually, we DID get them, then they closed down – which proves my point even further). For a time, there were a few small independent operators that served Japanese-style burgers, but you’re not going to find MOS Burger here. Ditto Japanese-style pasta. We got a little restaurant serving it, but no sign of Pasta de Waraku.
This brings me to the main focus of this article: Japanese rice bowls. A nice, simple dish consisting of soft Japanese rice and some rich ingredients, the most well-known international franchise that serves this (that I’m familiar with) is Yoshinoya. No sign of that ever coming here, either. But this post WILL be talking about the local, mom and pop shop that serves it: Donburi. And while I may never understand why these Asian franchises don’t open shop here, I’m very thankful that the likes of Donburi are here to sate my appetite, ensuring that I don’t miss out on the delightful culinary morsels that I grew up loving and being familiar with.
Donburi, located interestingly enough in the extremely Chinese-heavy plaza of Commerce Gate, is an oddity in many ways. It is one of the only places in the GTA that serves this unique dish, and explicitly targets the mainstream population. This is in large contrast to its surrounding tenants, which deals almost exclusively with Chinese (and often fresh mainland Chinese) population. It’s also of particular interest for me because it occupies the exact spot where I had my first date with my soon-to-be wife. The old bubble tea cafe’s interior was so uniquely crafted with its little huts and ponds that it was a complete surprise when I found out that they gutted the whole thing and made it a sparklingly clean and bright Japanese restaurant. With all this peculiarities in mind, how could I NOT go here?
The restaurant’s main distinguishing feature is how open, bright, and cheerful the whole spot looks like. In contrast with the many restaurants in the plaza that looks like it was designed with little purpose other than to cram as many hungry Chinese families as possible, this little gem actually looks like it was created with purpose and care. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe it WAS created to cram as many people as possible. But seeing the spacious open concept kitchen and seating, along with what feels like tons of space between tables, such a thing was far from my skeptical mind. It also helps that the waiters are always friendly and ready to help you, and (ERMAHGERD) actually speak fluent English! What a concept.
During this visit (not our first), we decided to have the takoyaki (Octopus balls) to start with and the umami rice along with the fried shrimp rice. We also discovered that they now have a lunch special menu, displayed in the usual creative way that I’ve come to expect from this establishment. I personally don’t think it’s THAT much cheaper than their actual regular menu, but I suppose it’s a bit less, and I’m pretty sure you get soup with it, something which you normally don’t get. As for us, this time we’re eating like a BAWSE, so no lunch specials today! Maybe another time.
The takoyaki came first, and it was delicious. It was piping hot, as is customary, but interestingly it wasn’t SO hot that the little bonito flakes on top of it looked like it was waving at you (something which has always creeped me out tremendously). Thus we didn’t have to wait like half an hour to eat the damn thing, which is much appreciated by this food blogger and his equally hungry fiancee. The balls were tender and fluffy, and the octopus pieces weren’t rubbery, which was nice. I still wish they had wasabi mayo, something I once had in Singapore, but then again I didn’t ask for it so maybe that’s something I should do next time. Portion size was standard, and while it wasn’t anything that blew me away, it was still better than many others I’ve had. Solid marks.
The umami rice is, by far, THE thing we always order when we come here and is also the dish YOU should order when you visit Donburi. Taking its name from the oh-so-satisfying flavour terminology that the Japanese came up with (it’s the really satisfying “kick” that you get in good-tasting foods, something MSG tries to replicate when you sprinkle it on your dish), the dish is very aptly named. There is sweet, savoury, salty, all mingling together, with the smoothness of the surimi pieces frequently broken up with the satisfying crunch from the vegetables that come with the dish. It was (and always has been) an excellent dish, worthy of being the signature item on the menu itself. And as someone who just can’t get enough sauce, I TOTALLY GOT ENOUGH. That should be convincing enough for you.
The fried shrimp rice was a bit…interesting. It’s not bad, and is actually rather unique. I half-expected a version of the rather delicious tempura don I had on a previous visit, but this time I realized they were actually whole shrimps, deep fried to the point of super crispness (you could eat the whole thing) but without burning the inside part. In other words, the juicyness of the shrimp is mostly intact and feels almost like a freshly boiled shrimp. It’s kind of hard to explain, but the end result was a very crispy and seasoned exterior with a smooth but bland interior. It actually didn’t quite work for me. It’s definitely something new and very good to those who feel that the actual shrimp taste in a tempura is mostly gone (which it usually is). But for me it felt too much like eating boiled shrimp, which I’m not too big a fan of. Worth a try, but I’ll stick to the tempura don next time. The sauces on the shrimp were pretty killer tasty, mind. They do their sauces right, this place.
I would heartily recommend everyone to go visit Donburi. In fact, if you promise to review them on Yelp, chances are you’ll get a free dessert out of it. Our previous visits have yielded us with a deliciously light strawberry tofu cheesecake, along with an equally delightful green tea creme brulee. True to their Asian roots, neither of these desserts were heavy. I couldn’t show you any pics here as we didn’t have any during this visit. But this is definitely another notch on the restaurant’s belt. Bonus points also goes to the restaurant for having a charming logo and proper marketing of its design throughout the store, from the uniforms to the menu. As a marketing man, this pleases me to no end. They do their FOOD right, their SERVICE right, and their MARKETING right. Good.
Say hi to Irene, the uber-friendly manager there, along with Stanley (who I believe is the owner). They’d only be too happy to converse with you, and they truly care about making your experience eating there a positive one. And I’m perfectly OK if Yoshinoya never opens here in the GTA, ‘coz I got myself some Donburi!
–Final verdict: Mari Makan!
505 Highway 7 East
Toronto, ON L3T 7T1