At Toa Toa Chinese Restaurant, you can start your meal with what seems like dessert: egg custard tarts, silky, yolk-stained custard cradled in rich, flaky pastry crust.
But this is not dessert. This is Hong Kong-style dim sum.
When Americans think of Chinese food, most picture white cardboard boxes and cheap wooden chopsticks with red-stained pork fried rice or brown-sauce-slicked noodles with cute baby corn and limp spears of broccoli. But that is Americanized Chinese food, filling and affordable fare you order as takeout when you're too tired to cook, light on cash, or — when it tastes best — a little drunk.
You don't usually make a conscious decision to eat Chinese food on a Sunday morning, however. And that's a shame, because that's when dim sum — Cantonese for "the heart" — is meant to be eaten, restaurants jammed with patrons as they order from a parade of metal carts that circle tables trailing exotic aromas, stacked with bamboo baskets and rows of steaming teapots.
Luckily, South Florida residents don't have to wait for Sunday morning to dive into dim sum. This experience is available any day of the week at Toa Toa, Broward County's oldest — and perhaps most authentic — dim sum restaurant.
In a place where the Asian population is not as dense or identifiable as the Latin influence, Toa Toa is a diamond in the rough for hungry Chinese lovers looking for a taste of true dim sum, says May Wong, whose father has owned and operated Toa Toa in the same space in the Pines Plaza Shopping Center for more than two decades.
And the heart and soul of Toa Toa is chef-owner To Wong. Born and raised in Hong Kong, 62-year-old To mastered the art of dim sum in some of that city's most esteemed restaurants, learning the skill of wrapping dumplings in thin sheets of rice paper and braising chicken feet until they're tender enough to suck off the bone. Each day, May's father wakes up early to prepare all of the restaurant's 60 or so dim sum dishes by hand and from scratch, traditional offerings like char ciu (steamed spare ribs roasted and stained in a thick black bean sauce) and fermented bean curd in gravy. Decades past his youth, the chef's methods remain traditional — sugar and flour weighed in grams and recipes memorized by heart.
"My father cares so much about the quality of his food, he still does a lot of the work himself," says May. "That's why you'll find everything is always consistent. He's really picky, and I believe that is part of the reason my parents' restaurant has been so successful for so long."
In 1984, To immigrated to New York, where he began working for a local Chinese restaurants serving the country's typical, over-Americanized Chinese fare. Five years later, he moved his family — wife Alice and twin daughters May and June — to South Florida, settling in Margate. That same year, To opened Toa Toa Chinese Restaurant, what remains a no-frills Sunrise eatery just a few miles from the Sawgrass Mills Mall.
"The reason: opportunity," says May. "A friend had moved a few years earlier and told my father it would be a good place to start his own restaurant. They took the chance, moving here with my aunt and uncle, who at one time were owners and helped to open the restaurant."
The fact that nothing has changed at Toa Toa in 26 years — from its location in a large shopping plaza off North Pine Island Road to the muted diner-style decor — is a good thing. The place smacks of consistency thanks to To and his staff of ten.
From the chaotic lunchtime crowds to the lengthy list-like menu, diving into Toa Toa dim sum is a tad overwhelming for the uninitiated. It's made easier thanks to a helpful, patient staff. Many are family — including May's mother, father, aunt, and several Chinese-speaking servers — who happily navigate dim sum newbies through a picture-style menu offering a seemingly endless array of tapas-like sweet and savory dishes that include plump dumplings, squishy buns, and pungent congee priced $3.50 to $3.95 each.
As in China, dim sum has become a brunch-type affair in the United States, though it is also often served for lunch during the week. Instead of coffee with omelets, pancakes, and bagels, you'll share pots of hot, unsweetened house tea, which pair perfectly with the plethora of tiny plates piled high with piping-hot piles of gao (dumpling), guotie (pan-fried dumplings), Phoenix claws (braised chicken feet), louts-wrapped rice, and egg custard tarts.
Only a few restaurants, such as Toa Toa, offer the dishes all week long and throughout the day. The patronage is a mix of families of all shapes and sizes, sharing rounds of dishes. It's a change from the restaurant's early years, says May.
"It was hard in the beginning, and many of our customers were Chinese," says May. "It wasn't until the mid-1990s that we really saw a change, first with the Koreans, then the Vietnamese, and finally Americans of all ages embracing the dim sum. Now, when I go to visit, it's always a mix."
Today, weekday lunches and weekend crowds boast numbers in the hundreds, she adds, and staff will often go the entire day serving back-to-back tables, the kitchen running out of Toa's best dishes by day's end. It's a drastic shift from those early years.
At Toa Toa, the food arrives not in steam-table trolleys, as with many dim sum establishments, but in small, circular, single-serve metal baskets. It's a streamlined service that feels a bit like a diner on a busy lunch shift or weekend morning, but with plates of fun gor, siu men, and spare ribs.
Picky eaters will bypass squid, jellyfish, and chicken feet for dumplings, but they shouldn't here, where they're considered first-rate. Shrimp is the most popular dish. The steamed ones arrive four to a plate, bite-sized gooey domes of sticky rice flour encasing tiny, sweet, pink shrimp, their form visible through the dumplings' opaque shells.
Pork and chive dumplings are heartier, made of lightly yeasted dough wrapped around a filling of pork and jellied broth. They're pan-fried, soft rice skin searing into a satisfying crisp after a kiss from the hot steel pan. The result is a bit like a cross between soup dumpling and a pot sticker — but a dish best eaten fresh from the kitchen, before the dumpling cools and the pork and broth congeal into a syrupy glob.
Beef rice paste — what sounds like it could be a spreadable paste served over steamed rice — is more like a soft meat pop tart, jiggly sheets of rice paper stuffed so full that they tear apart from their own floppy weight.
For those who love chomping, sucking, and picking at bone, cartilage, and skin, steamed chicken feet can be a real treat. Using a three-step process that includes frying, braising, and simmering, the chefs at Toa Toa transform them from tough and leathery to tender, flavor-packed fare. To gently boils them in a spicy sauce flavored with soy, Szechuan peppercorn, clove, garlic, star anise, cinnamon, and chili flake. The result is a plump, gelatinous skin that falls from the bone without any chewing, flavored with a delicate spicy sauce. Once you get past the fact that you're eating feet, it's actually one of the tastiest dishes around.
While the dim sum is as close to Hong Kong as you'll find in South Florida, those familiar with American-style Chinese fare will find that such dishes make up most of the main menu at Toa Toa. Just a single selection — the Peking pork chop, otherwise known as sweet and sour pork — is considered a traditional Chinese dish, one you could order at a standard family-style restaurant in Hong Kong, says May.
Meals at Toa Toa end with satisfied customers boasting full bellies, not sweets, unless you save those piping-hot egg custard tarts for last. The best part: You don't have to order the cold jellyfish or steamed chicken feet to enjoy this dim sum.