Some like it hot

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By Emily Bowers

Anyone without a job is out of place and in the way in the cramped, oval-shaped kitchen tucked in the back of Salad King on Gould Street. Walking space is limited to two small aisles between two stainless steel islands covered in tins of Panda brand sauces, utensils and bowls of chopped vegetables.

Steam soars from the massive steel stove that cooks up to six dished at a time. Also squeezed into the small kitchen are six smaller stoves with two burners each, four refrigerators and three freezers.

A dozen employees deftly avoid colliding with each other in the small space that divides the front and back seating areas.

The smell of the food they prepare wafts out of the kitchen and into the restaurant, a combination of seafood, chicken and spices that makes hungry stomachs growl.

Colin Ng, 19, was thinking about his weekly visit to Salad King halfway through his class.

The first-year information technology management student pushes open the door of Salad King and strides up to the counter with an air of familiarity.

Like most afternoons at Salad King, there are several people waiting in line to order. Ng isn’t worried about holding up the line, though. He knows his phud thai from his Siam fried rice. He knows how many chillies it takes to spice up his meal. He knows exactly what he wants.

He glances at the menu that’s stretched across the wall even though his mind was made up before he left class in the business building a few minutes earlier.

“Seafood fried rice, no squid, extra shrimp. Thank you.

Ernest Liu smiles at NG while he punches in the order. He rapidly serves everyone in line, counting change and yelling orders to the kitchen behind him. Liu co-owns Salad King with his wife Linda. He takes care of the business of running the restaurant and works the cash.

Ng hands Ernest $7 and takes a plastic number 22. He sits down at a table near the counter to wait for his food, which usually takes about 10 minutes to prepare.

Linda Liu is Salad King’s head chef and the smiling lady who walks around the restaurant to ensure her customers are happy with the food and service.

The lunch rush is over and a few customers dot the tables in the front and back sections of the restaurant. The usual line that snakes around the tables and out the door is gone, so Linda has time to drop by Ng’s table to say hi.

The Lius took over Salad King in 1991 when they met the restaurant’s previous owner through a friend. Before the Lius took over, Linda says, the restaurant has a reputation for being dirty and was ridden with mice and cockroaches.

“Before, people don’t like to come to Salad King. [The owners] didn’t keep the restaurant very clean.”

The old restaurant served salads and deli-style sandwiches, but was losing money.

So the Lius took over and started cleaning up the place.

They kept the name Salad King to stay familiar to old customers.

“I didn’t know if we could manage or not. If I changed the name then the old customers won’t come in. And if no new customers come in [either], we are in big trouble,” Linda says.

She expanded the menu to include traditional Thai dishes and recipes she created.

Now salad is a minor part of the menu and business is thriving.

Keeping customers happy is Linda’s priority, from serving up homemade Thai dishes to setting up potential love matches.

Although she laughs deceptively when called a matchmaker, she admits that when she sees someone sitting alone in her restaurant on a busy day, she asks the solo diner to share a table with another lone eater.

She swears she does it to maximize the restaurant’s 65-seat dining area.

Linda estimates Salad King serves 400 dishes a day and has about 500 regular customers, half of which are Ryerson students.

Serving thousands of dishes a day, six days a week, keeps the staff on its toes.

The kitchen is buzzing as staffers prepare for the dinner rush. They exchange a few words in Cantonese, Mandarin, English and Thai, battling against clanging pots and pans for customers’ attention.

Further back in the kitchen, several employees wearing spotless green aprons concentrate on their individual assignments — mixing sauces, dicing chicken and chopping vegetables.

A cook swiftly mixes ingredients for a mango sauce used in a chicken dish while a woman carefully slices cabbages into small strips and dumps them into a large colander.

Sam Lopez, kitchen staff and cashier, sifts through a bag of inch-long green chilli peppers. She breaks off the stems and leaves so the chillies can be ground up and mixed into customers’ dishes.

One pepper eaten by itself, Lopez says, “Will make you cry.”

Salad King’s original “How far you dare?” chilli scale caters to personal tastes and tolerances. Customers can choose from one “nice” chilli up to 20 “Can get stomach upset” chillies.

Ernest created the chilli scale a few months after taking over Salad King. Before the scale, customers would guess how spicy they liked their food but were always surprised when they ordered more than they could handle.

“We ask the customer how hot, and they always say ‘very hot,’” says Ernest. “Most people are misled by other restaurants.”

He realized that many first-time Thai diners aren’t familiar with the degree of spiciness they can stand so he created the chilli scale for customers to choose themselves.

He says most regular customers stick to one or two chillies, but every Friday a group comes in and orders dishes with 30 chillies, a number that doesn’t even register on his scale.

Ng stays far away from the chilli scale.

He usually asks for no chillies, but orders one on days he feels daring.

“I can’t take the heat,” he says.

Ng frequents Salad King because it’s cheap — all menu items are under $10.

“For $7, the [portions] are always hefty,” he says.

Ng flashes his Ryerson I.D. when he orders to get the 10-per-cent discount offered to students between 2 p.m. and 5 p.m., something the Lius have been offering since taking over the restaurant.

P.J. Kerr, a first-year radio and television arts student from Montreal, loves Salad King for the food and the cafeteria-style counter service and self-seating.

“I can escape Toronto for a minute,” he says. “It’s great, some people here can’t even speak English.”

Linda drops by for a visit with Kerr and the student playfully demands a free dish for his glowing endorsement. He asks for one of his favourites, either pattaya chicken or orange chicken.

“I love the people here,” he says when she laughs at him.

The Salad King staff knows Kerr so well he doesn’t get a number for his order — they call him by name when his food is ready.

Salad King’s reputation for customer-friendly staff and spicy food has made it Toronto’s most popular Thai restaurant under $10, says NOW Magazine’s food editor Steven Davey.

He reviewed the restaurant in September 1998 and gave it a rating of three out of a possible five, meaning it was recommended and worth a second visit.

“Thai food is very popular in Toronto. We like it hot,” says Davey.

During his visit, Davey tried a daring 10 peppers in his meal, which, according to the chilli scale, translates to “Are you sure?”

Davey says his meal was the hottest food he’s ever tasted.

“For the next few days I can’t stop singing Johnny Cash’s Ring Of Fire,” he wrote in his NOW review.

“Number 22,” a muffled voice barks over the loudspeaker. Ng’s food is ready.

He pops up with an eager glance over his shoulder and almost backs his chair into a girl waiting at the counter behind him. He apologizes and walks around the corner to pick up his food.

“Seafood rice?” Ernest asks. Ng gives a nod of approval and is instructed to throw his number on the pile of cafeteria trays. Ernest smiles as Ng wanders into the back part of the restaurant to find a quiet corner to enjoy his meal.

Linda surveys the restaurant as she wipes down a table and smiles at the growing line of dinner customers.

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