This is the first of a series of eating east Asian cuisine in Toronto by flashbracket.
Where do I start with Kingyo? In a market full of excellent east Asian cuisine — Toronto that is, and definitely not Montréal — I often feel a bit overwhelmed trying to keep up with all the great restaurants serving Chinese dim sum, Korean barbecue, and Japanese ramen. I travel back to my hometown of Toronto whenever I can, and each time I’m back in town my family and friends are holding a list of places that we need to try, or restaurants they really want to go back to and know that I would be down for some good eats. Kingyo, a Vancouver inception, opened their Toronto outpost at the end of 2012 but I only made my way over to its Cabbagetown location earlier this year. So I am about a year late in the game. But I am glad that, since my first visit, I kept coming back to this restaurant serving Japanese bar food just about every time I was back in Hogtown. And every time I’m back on the train headed to Montréal I still think about my favourite meals and Kingyo is always one of them.
The first time we went to Kingyo we took the College/Carlton streetcar east and stopped off at Parliament. Even when I lived in Toronto I rarely took the quick ride east to Cabbagetown, but I can tell that neighbourhood continues to grow and is becoming much more hip and trendy. Kingyo’s presence is Cabbagetown definitely amps up the coolness factor of the neighbourhood as the brand’s kitschy aesthetic makes it worth the detour east of downtown. I know that Japanese izakaya is definitely not a new concept for the non-Japanese but it’s a specific kind of cuisine that is fun to eat with a crowd, especially if you’re dining in an atmosphere where Japanese cartoons are projected onto the bar behind the bar.
And boy, is the restaurant super Japanese. Kingyo thrives to make the dining experience authentic and unapologetic about its foreign-ness — every single server, bartender, hostess, and others that we had contact with spoke Japanese, bowed to us when we arrived and left, and shouted celebratory salutes at random. Japanese script decorated the menus with explanatory descriptions below in English, and the walls flashed with Japanese arcade games that should have come with a seizure warning for the strobe lights. And careful presentation of each dish communicated to each diner that we’re not in Kansas anymore.
Kingyo Original Tomato Kimchi
Izakaya, or Japanese bar food, is meant to be a casual affair and usually a hotspot for hard-working workers grabbing a meal at the end of a long work day. Drinks are served at the establishment and dishes are ordered to share. The lunch sets offered at Kingyo, however, are served in bento boxes meant to be consumed by each diner so they are less authentic in the izakaya experience, also in that the servings are huge. As this restaurant is in Toronto where vegetarians live quietly among us (just kidding), vegetarian-friendly items abound both for lunch and dinner. And of course, beers on tap and in the bottled form accompany a long list of sake, as well as some inventive Japanese-style cocktails and east Asian-inflected Mojitos.
Kimchi udon with cod roe
Items to order would be quite familiar to most diners who have had Japanese cuisine (other than just sushi) — Kingyo offers bento boxes for lunch with various options such as sashimi sets, pork donburi, Japanese curry, and their version of Ma-Po Tofu. The dinner menu, on the other hand, encourages sharing as per the traditional izakaya style and is divided into starters, salads, vegetarian options, sashimi, meat, fish, rice and noodles, and sushi. Some standards include edamame, assorted sashimi, kobe beef, and udon noodles. But it also serves an amazing rendition of Korean kimchi in a very tiny plate of tomato kimchi (as a Korean-Canadian, I approve), something for the brave called “Kingyo Style Death Chicken”, fish teriyaki, and stone grilled beef tongue. Therefore the dinner menu is interesting enough for the seasoned Japanese restaurant diner, but also keeps some items tried and true so to not scare those new to the cuisine.
Stone bowl mushroom tofu
Unlike some other Japanese izakaya establishments in town, Kingyo is not one of those places where your ears are buzzing with the constant yelling, banging, and blaring Japanese pop music that competes with your ability to hear your fellow diners. Kingyo is definitely not a peaceful place, but it still carries a fun and casual atmosphere where you may bring dates that you do want to speak to and not pretend that you can’t hear them. (Whaaat? Weak smile. Thumbs up. Make a laundry list in your head.) And when your bill arrives, they also serve you a lollipop of frozen grapes on a stick, and I personally love the east Asian tradition in many restaurants to serve complimentary fruit at the end of a meal. I really do give this place a thumbs up and I definitely approve the short trek to Cabbagetown to experience the Kingyo magic. Well, it’s a long trek from Montréal but I’m already penciling in my next visit.
Vegetarian lunch set
Donburi lunch set
Up Next in Eating Asian in Toronto:
Banh Mi Boys, Barrio Coreano, and more.