CLOSED: Kanpai Snack Bar (Toronto)

Kanpai snack bar

We don’t get night markets in Toronto. Sure there’s the occasional one in Markham or Cherry Street, but it’s yet to occupy a permanent location, even if only during the summer months. In Taiwan, their street food is infamous, where for under $20 you’d be stuffed from the small plates of xiaochi. Street food we do not have, but Kanpai Snack Bar does offer us a taste of what we’re missing and in conditions that are way more comfortable than the plastic tables and stools of Taipei.

I wouldn’t say the menu is the most authentic, as a lot of crowd favourites such as beef noodle soup, oyster omelets and stinky tofu won’t be found here. But, there are certainly strong influences from the spices and ingredients used with most menu options ranging from $4-$7 a plate.

The sole item over the $10 mark is their Taiwanese fried chicken. The 8-piece “bucket” ($22) feeds a crowd with large dark meat portions simply oozing juices as you bite through it. Fried chicken is gracing menus across Toronto and Kanpai’s doesn’t disappoint. Although the chicken doesn’t seem to be brined, there’s more than enough flavour from the liberal dusting of spices in the breading. The hot sizzling pieces are then topped with chopped cilantro, green onion and bird’s eye chili (if you really want it). It’s good and a dish sure to evoke food envy if you don’t order it and see others tucking in.  

Kanpai snack bar fried chicken

Fried chicken and coleslaw go hand-in-hand. At Kanpai, they’ve swapped out the cabbage for potatoes in their Taipei tater slaw ($5).  Julienned potatoes are slightly under cooked so that there’s still a subtle bite to it. It’s tossed in a Szechuan peppercorn dressing, that as a warning pools on the bottom of the plate; so when you first take the slaw from the top it seems light, but whoever gets the last of it is met with a tongue searing burn.

Since there’s never enough fried chicken, we also tried the MC Hammer ($7), named thusly as Kanpai believes you “can’t touch this” blend of herbs and spices. Unlike the fried chicken, the breading is less intensely flavoured but the chicken meat appears marinated so each nugget is well seasoned throughout. Try having a piece with the fried Thai basil leaves, they add a hint of aromatic that makes it outstanding.

The crunchy theme continues with the deep fried goldmember ($7), salt and pepper dusted pieces of squid served with a house-made cocktail sauce. And honestly, if you’re going to do it you might as well go all the way… we had to try the piggie smalls ($6), the most decadent of the bunch – slices of pork belly deep fried and topped with the same salty and lightly spiced mixture.

Not everything is fried and crispy on the menu. The O.G. “original gangsta” bao ($5) is a traditional take on the pork belly steamed bao with slices of slow cooked five-spice pork dressed with shredded carrots, fresh cilantro and a salty pickled mustard greens relish. With the plethora of pork belly baos available across Toronto this one was under whelming. Admittedly, we left this for a while as there was just too much food to try, so it could be that by the time we ate it the bun and pork had cooled. In hindsight, we should have ordered the food in batches to avoid having everything coming simultaneously. The salty dip on the side is interesting, like a beef dip in Taiwainese form.

Maybe it’s because we started with such strong dishes that by the time the shrimp po po ($7) came it seemed bland. Kanpai, I strongly recommend serving this dish first, think of it as a salad before the main courses. Certainly, it’s a nice contrast against all the fried options but compared to the other dishes lack the Taipei influences. Cold peeled shrimp, diced avocados and orange segments (a disappointment when you’re expecting pomelo) is mixed in with arugula, red onions and a tart dressing lacking the spiciness described on the menu.

Similarly, the cabbage patch kids ($5) arrive steamed looking rather than having the “wok fired” essence you’d expect. With the chili, garlic, onion and bell peppers added to the brussel sprouts there’s such promise that the dish could be aromatic… but alas, it was bland. The only saving grace is with such a meat filled starchy meal, we really did need something wholesome to counteract it.

My favourite part of the night was not the deep fried chicken (although it’s a close second) but rather the fried rice. I could seriously come back for a bowl for myself. The shricken satay fried rice ($8), a cheekily named dish with chicken, shrimp and mixed vegetables is combined with a deep rich tasting satay sauce.

Meanwhile, the red rooster fried rice ($7), likely a nod to the popular Rooster brand that makes rice, is pork based and uses a spicy jiao ma dressing made with Sichuan pepper.  Unlike other chillies, there isn’t the same burning sensation, but rather there’s a numbing property to it. If you can handle the heat, any of the above fried rice are a treat.

There’s a limited selection of desserts but both things we ordered were satisfyingly good. Ping pong beignets ($6), named for their size, are a great rendition of the deep fried doughnuts. At Kanpai, the batter is made with a glutinous mix of purple yam and sweet potatoes. At first glance, they look like a sugar coated Timbit, but as you bite into it a cheerful purple yam centre greets you.

A modern take on the traditional deep fried silver thread buns is the wow bao ($6). The middle is strings of soft bao made from pulling oil covered dough so that it takes on a noodle form. So, you can pull it apart and dip individual strands into the dips or just have more surface area to work with. The slightly spiced Nutella is good, but it was the classic combination of sweet condensed milk that brings back fond childhood memories. You need to really hold the condensed milk in your mouth to get the effects of the pop rocks; perhaps serving pop rocks on the side, so they stay dry, would help.

Cocktails are available on tap ($9.50), made-to-order ($10-$11) or as spiked punch by the pot ($50). The made-to-order glasses enticed us most and there were certainly alcoholic strengths for different tastes. There’s the easy drinking cheating communist with sochu (a spirit similar to sake) and pear brandy cut with the Japanese soft drink Calpico, lemongrass syrup, lime juice and garnished with a bird’s eye chili ($10). 

The Montauk Tame Impala ($10; borrowed from Toronto’s Monatauk Bar) is my kind of drink with tequila, ginger beer, chai syrup, cucumber and lime juice - not too sweet and just strong enough to remind you that you’ve having a cocktail. But if you really want to have a good night, the ooh Long Island iced tea ($11) arrives looking like an innocent lemonade, but tastes like the vodka, rum, tequila and gin it’s mixed with. Where are the promised oolong tea, lemon juice, and basil & simple syrup?!

The restaurant certainly encourages patrons to drink and eat. Prices are affordable so when deciding between two dishes, why not just get both? The staff genuinely wanted to help; a bright-haired Asian waitress made the point of stopping, dropping the dishes she was holding and offered to take a picture for us when she saw us struggling with a group selfie. So you may not be wandering around in a Toronto night market anytime soon, but thanks to Kanpai there is a comparable alternative. With relatively comfortable seating, friendly staff and tons of small plates to choose from – if you can take the heat, it’s worth a try.  

Overall mark - 8 out of 10

How To Find Them
 Location: Toronto, Canada
 Address: 252 Carlton Street

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Gastro World's Grading System

  • Anything under 5 - I really disliked and will never go back
  • 6 - decent restaurant but I likely won't return
  • 7 - decent restaurant and I will likely return
  • 8 - great restaurant that I'd be happy to recommend
  • 9 - fantastic restaurant that I would love to visit regularly and highly recommend
  • 10 - absolute perfection!

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