Growing up in a big family meant that there were few restaurants that could accommodate 15-20 people for brunch on a regular weekend. When you're looking for family-style dining with giant tables and super cheap food, the only place to go is Rol San for Dim Sum. It's become such a favourite in my family that we head there regularly whether we're two people or twenty.
When I was a kid, the banner said "NOW SERVE DIM SUM." I guess that shows how old I'm getting, because Dim Sum at Rol San has been a Toronto staple for ages now and is regularly voted the "Best Dim Sum" by NOW Magazine's Best of Toronto contest. With a big sign like that, you really can't miss this place, but just in case: it's on the east side of Spadina, opposite St. Andrew Street.
Rol San is simple: plastic table cloths, neon paint, and lightning fast service. When cooking up the best Dim Sum in the city all day long, what more do you need?
As you can see, the place is packed. If you arrive any time after 1030am on a weekend, expect to wait in some pretty intense lineups. They have two full sized dining rooms, but there's always a wait for a table. This weekend we showed up around 12:45 and waited about 15 minutes for a table for five.
The wait is definitely worth it, and the food comes out of the kitchen so quickly that you're eating in no time. If you take a close look at the menu in the above photo, you can see I wasn't kidding when I said this place was super affordable. A pot of tea is waiting for you when you sit down, and all you have to do is fill out your order sheet and leave it on the edge of your table. Next thing you know, food magically starts appearing on your table as soon as it's ready. Each order usually has about 3-4 pieces and everything is meant to be shared.
Without further delay, here's a look at the food:
Deep fried squid.
Shrimp dumplings in the foreground, vegetable dumplings behind them on the right, and sticky rice wrapped in lotus leaf. At the very very back you can see our attempt at being a little bit healthy and eating something green. We ordered a plate of bok choy in garlic sauce off the dinner menu. Like dim sum, the dinner menu is available all day, but at midday on a weekend they won't automatically bring a copy of it to your table so you have to ask for it specifically.
This isn't the prettiest of dishes but my little sister absolutely loves it: shrimp rice rolls. It's pretty similar to the shrimp dumplings but my siblings are crazy for shrimp so we order them both.
Grilled eggplant stuffed with (more) shrimp. You can also get a better look at the sticky rice and bok choy behind them. The rice is piping hot so be careful not to burn yourself when you open it up...
Again: not super pretty. But really delicious I promise! The rice is well-flavoured and stuffed with sausage and pork. It's very filling; half of one is usually enough for me.
Food disappears fast in my family! I managed to snap a quick picture of the last pan-seared pork dumpling before it got snapped up. These are a big favourite of mine. I've found some decent frozen replicas in the speciality section of the grocery store but nothing beats the real thing.
A few other dishes I would recommend are the beef spareribs and something listed on the menu as "Homemade Pan Fried Pancake". I haven't figured out exactly what's in it, but it's a savoury green onion or chive pancake fried in a generous amount of oil. It's a new addition to our family's usual dim sum roster and it's become a favourite all around.
For desert there are custard balls: a sweet dumpling stuffed with thick vanilla custard.
And my childhood favourite: sesame balls. These are what I always looked forward to when we came to the big city for dim sum when I was a kid, but as I write this, I'm realizing that I have no idea what's inside them. Traditionally sesame balls are usually filled with red bean paste, but these are different, and much better! I think it may be poppy seed paste based on the look and flavour, but after some googling I couldn't find any recipes for sesame balls that call for a poppyseed filling. Does anyone out there in internet-land have any idea? Now I'm dying of curiosity… I can't believe I've been eating these for decades and have no idea what makes them so delicious.
Lastly, I give you my dad's favourite desert: mango pudding.
Dim Sum has clearly always been a staple in my brunch rotation, but it's recently come to my attention that it may not be such a big part of urban food culture in other cities. My boyfriend is originally from Montreal, and after over 30 years on this planet and multiple trips around the world, he had never tried dim sum until I took him to Rol San last year. Suffice to say he was an instant convert. For those of you outside Toronto, is Dim Sum a regular feature in your city? If not, I highly suggest you give it a try if you can find it nearby. And if you're one of the few Torontonians who haven't embraced dumplings for brunch, get yourself to Rol San straight away and let me know what you think!