Why Are Diners Suspicious of Toronto’s Most Exciting Thai Food?

For starters, they have a problem with cask-strength fish sauce

Sai Grok Leuang, or house-made Thai blood sausage with a dipping sauce of fermented shrimp paste. All photos via Favorites’ Instagram.

When the health inspector showed up at his new restaurant, Jesse Fader just shook his head and chuckled. As co-owner of several Toronto restaurants, Fader is no stranger to the Goldilockian reactions of diners: too hot, too cold, too big, too small. But the situation at Favorites, which serves Thai cuisine, was something new. A dozen complaints of food poisoning in the first four months was more than all his other restaurants — bistro Paris Paris, two locations of Superpoint Pizza, and Bar Fancy, a late-night snack bar — combined.

“There’s a pang that hits your stomach when the health inspector walks in,” said Fader, a cook-turned-owner who, over 20 years, has worked in kitchens ranging from immaculate to those that ought to be shut down.

“You’re like, oh shit, do my fridges have all their thermometers? Is there any food that’s been left out? At Favorites, I had a laugh with him,” he said. “The floors are clean. The surfaces are clean. All the fridges are cold. Everything’s kept six inches off the ground and there’s no meat above veg. All of the things they’re looking for.” (A Toronto Public Health spokesperson confirmed Favorites was inspected based on a food poisoning complaint and no violations were found.)

Confident of his spotless kitchen, Fader was able to see the brief inspection as comedic. The reason for it, however, troubles him.

“I don’t think I’m saying anything crazy by saying that more or less all the Thai restaurants in Toronto are green, yellow, red curry, pad thai, khao soi restaurants,” Favorites chef Haan Palcu-Chang said. “They’re seriously skewed to a Western palate. Which means that a lot of stuff is way too sweet, not acidic enough, not spicy enough, missing a lot of the intense fermented fish sauce and shrimp paste that are ubiquitous in Thailand.”

“I started noticing the double standards. I can sell a pasta with cheese and pepper for $18 and never a peep is heard. Try and sell a curry for $20 in which there are 30 ingredients pounded by hand for an hour and people take this as a personal affront.”

Fader and partners Jonathan Poon and Monte Wan wanted to push beyond those boundaries. Portland has Pok Pok. New York has Uncle Boons. In Toronto’s Thai restaurants, everyone was playing the same hits, with none of the album cuts. In Palcu-Chang, the partners found the chef to execute their plan to serve that gap in the market.

Born in Toronto, Palcu-Chang helped open Vancouver’s celebrated Thai restaurant Maenam. After that, he continued to cook aggressively flavored Thai food in Copenhagen, at the Michelin-starred Kiin Kiin, and in Paris, as chef de cuisine of Le Marie Celeste. Then, he traveled through Asia, consulting, hosting pop-ups, and continuing to learn.

“I did that so I could come back home and offer something that I know is good that can stand up to any city’s food scene.”

While Thai food is a departure for Fader and Poon, Wan has established himself through his Thai restaurants Khao San Road, Nana, and quick-service concept Bangkok Buri. He’ll be the first to tell you that he has to cater to local tastes. About five years ago, I interviewed Wan when I had the opportunity to eat a staff meal with his cooks. In the kitchen with chef Top Srisomphan, sitting on an overturned plastic bucket, I had a som tam (papaya salad) that was the most spicy, fishy, limey thing I’d ever eaten. Srisomphan shared her recipe, which included not just the clear, amber fish sauce nam pla, but also pla ra, a cloudy, unfiltered, cask-strength fish sauce.

“In Thailand, the northeastern people make it themselves,” said Yui Kiewboriboon, host of Thai Radio Canada, who also works for the Thai Trade Centre. “It’s very strong. And people who have problems with the fish sauce, they will never be able to handle that smell. Even my husband. He says fish sauce smells like feet. But in time, when I put fish sauce in the Thai omelet, the day that I don’t put the fish sauce, he said it’s not delicious. Fish sauce makes Thai food more Thai.”

Wan was happy that I enjoyed the salad, but said that he could never serve a dish this way in his restaurants.

The situation at Favorites proved him right.

Favorites, which serves spicy, sour, salty, fishy food, has earned praise from local chefs. Kiewboriboon has become a regular.

But while the restaurant has been busy enough, the frequently hostile reaction from many diners — complaining that there’s no pad Thai on the menu, that it’s not real Thai food, that the portions are too small, telling Fader he’ll be closed in three months — caught the restaurateur by surprise.

“They get furious. We don’t see that at our other restaurants.”

Customers at Paris Paris don’t complain that it’s not real French food, or that they’ve been poisoned, or that the portions are too small, even though they are roughly equivalent in size and price to Favorites.

“I started noticing the double standards. I can sell a pasta with cheese and pepper for $18 and never a peep is heard,” Fader said. “Try and sell a curry for $20 in which there are 30 ingredients pounded by hand for an hour and people take this as a personal affront.”

Customers at Paris Paris don’t complain that it’s not real French food, or that they’ve been poisoned, or that the portions are too small, even though they are roughly equivalent in size and price to Favorites.

Diners may not do this consciously, but there’s a fairly well-established racial bias in restaurant menu pricing expectations. For his 2016 book, “The Ethnic Restaurateur,” New York University associate professor of food studies Krishnendu Ray looked at menu prices and found a huge disparity between average check sizes at French ($66.45) or Japanese ($68.94) versus Mexican ($40.41) or Thai ($32.50) restaurants.

“We can see the patterns clearly when we consider price of a meal as a proxy for prestige and value,” Ray told me at the time.

Or, as San Francisco food writer April Chan put it: “The marginalization of a cuisine is reliably proportional to the marginalization of its people.”

Wing bean salad in a dressing of coconut cream, chile jam, and lime juice topped with fried shallots, garlic, peanuts, and eggs.

This devaluing of whole cuisines is enabled by the media tradition of separate lists for “best restaurants” versus “cheap and cheerful restaurants.” The racist assumption that handmade Chinese noodles, or Mexican tortillas, the 24-hour process from maize to taco wrap, should cost less than Italian pasta, relegates entire food cultures to the discount aisle. The othering and marginalization of cuisines, no matter how much work is involved, or how costly it is to source ingredients, pushes these restaurants out of urban centers, where higher rents demand higher menu prices. Diners, who post on Yelp that they could get the same tacos on the street in Mexico for 50 cents, seem to be unaware that a portion of every bill is paying for real estate, and that there’s a discrepancy in overhead costs between a street cart and a full-service restaurant.

So it wasn’t surprising to hear that customers at Favorites complained about the portion sizes. But claims of food poisoning highlight a whole other level of ignorance. As bigotry goes, the perception that Asian kitchens are unclean is actually pretty old-school. This prejudice was so standard that mid-20th-century Chinese restaurant menus routinely informed customers of the kitchen’s hygiene practices.

“The type of restaurants I’ve worked in, Michelin-star restaurants, there’s a level of cleanliness we maintain,” Palcu-Chang said. “And my standards have not dropped. And our kitchen is completely open. It’s spotless.”

Another manifestation of prejudice in dining is where we point the finger when we think we’ve gotten food poisoning. The harmful microorganisms (including bacteria, viruses, and parasites) that cause food-borne illnesses can take days to gestate. And food poisoning can easily originate from risotto kept in an uncovered steam table. But diners are prone to blame the last meal they ate, disproportionately pointing the finger at seafood dishes or cuisines outside their cultural boundaries.

A dining room at Favorites in Toronto.

Allison Chris, associate medical officer of health with Toronto Public Health, said it’s very difficult for people to make that call on their own.

“After you consume a contaminated food, it may take hours to days — or more — to develop symptoms, depending on the type of germ,” Chris said. “For example, symptoms of campylobacter can take between three to five days after consumption of a contaminated food, while symptoms of norovirus typically take between 12 to 48 hours.”

The real issue, Palcu-Chang said, is diners, especially those who consider themselves very worldly, having no experience with this cuisine.

“It’s people not used to eating spicy food, not used to eating some curries that are rich in coconut fat, not used to eating some fermented fish products and, to put it crassly, probably pooping a bit after their dinner. But instead of going, maybe that’s because my body isn’t used to eating that type of food, it’s because it’s a dirty Asian restaurant and I got food poisoning.”

Diner feedback at Favorites has been that the food is too bitter, astringent, spicy, salty. Frequently guests tell them that they should serve the same dishes available at every other Thai restaurant.

“It hurts when you’re putting in 16-hour days and giving your life and soul to something,” Palcu-Chang said. “It sucks sometimes when people shit on it. But it’s par for the course if you’re trying to do something different and meaningful.”

Despite Fader’s shock at the audience's reaction, he’s not ready to give up.

“I can’t imagine a scenario where we would double back at Favorites and abandon our conviction,” Fader said. “I don’t want to change it. I want it to grow. I want people to get it and start craving it.”

While waiting for diners to embrace what they’re doing, Favorites has incorporated one, small, short-term solution.

“Trying to educate somebody on food before you give it to them, I never liked that. Instead, we have taken to dropping tablets of Pepto Bismol with the bill in the hopes of starting a friendly dialogue on the effects of eating spicy food.”

Corey Mintz a food reporter, focusing on the intersection between food with labor, politics, farming, history, ethics, education, economics, land use & culture.

Sign up for Heated with Mark Bittman

By Heated

Food from every angle. Take a look.

By signing up, you will create a Medium account if you don’t already have one. Review our Privacy Policy for more information about our privacy practices.

Check your inbox
Medium sent you an email at to complete your subscription.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store