At first glance, People's Eatery on Spadina just north of Dundas looks like any other Cantonese restaurant in Chinatown. Other than its clean appearance, the one thing that intrigues me is the big sign on the front window announcing the "Best Peking Duck In Town". It's a high stakes claim and when I venture further I find it's a statement that holds its own.
Dinners start with a complimentary serving of lai tong or house soup which is usually a pork-based soup simmered slowly with green leafy vegetables. Here it's also served with chunks of firm cotton tofu. Lai tong doesn't appear on the menu but you can ask for it if they don't serve it to you automatically.
Historically, Peking Duck was reserved for Chinese banquet dinners. A server would wheel out the roast duck on a cart and slice it table-side to the appreciation and sometimes applause of the guests. At People's Eatery, the Peking Duck ($28.95 for two courses) comes to the table pre-sliced on a plate. The skin is perfectly crispy with just enough meat attached to provide that luscious mouth feel.
The dish is presented with thin crepe-like pancakes that are a great foil for the juicy duck. Spread a slick of salty, sweet hoisin sauce to the pancake, add sliced green onions, cucumber and carrots and top with a piece of the bronzed duck skin. Wrap and enjoy.
The rest of the duck meat is then served up either as a stir fry with rice, noodles, or my preference, accompanied by lettuce, called san choy bau in Cantonese. The fresh ice berg lettuce wrapped around the chopped duck filling delivers a savoury crunch for a delicious follow-up course.
Next we order the snails with black bean sauce ($8.50). The server, who speaks passable English, checks the kitchen and discovers they don't have any snails. She asks if we don't mind waiting a few minutes as one of the kitchen staff has run out to get some fresh snails from around the corner.
The snails - actually periwinkles - arrive glistening and well-coated with the black bean sauce. I hadn't noticed the wooden skewers and a pair of green chopsticks that were laid out earlier on the table. The green chopsticks stand out from the standard ivory-coloured ones and are referred to as public chopsticks, used only for serving food. The snails have a small disc covering the opening which is not edible. I remove that and then slide the skewer into the shell to peg my prized snail.
Another hit is the Buddha's Feast Familiar Vegetables Delight ($8.95), a culmination of stir-fried snow cloud and wood ear fungus (white and black Chinese fungus), reconstituted shiitake mushrooms, straw mushrooms, bean sprouts, snow peas, broccoli, sliced water chestnuts and baby corn pieces lightly coated in a soy-based sauce. We ask to have this dish served in a crunchy taro nest, a traditional plating method not used here, as we see that taro nest is on the menu for one of the sizzling beef dishes. They chef is happy to accommodate us. The pan-fried bok choy with garlic ($9.50) is another satisfying vegetable side-dish.
We also try the oxtail hot pot ($12.95) which is on a sign written with Chinese characters and does not show up on the regular menu, though it's so good it should. This dish of fall-off-the-bone braised oxtail is stewed in a slightly sweet soy-based sauce with a hint of Shaoxing rice wine and is remarkably succulent and tender. The menu also offers a stunning array of seafood including geo duck, the largest and plumpest shell-on shrimp I've seen in a while, and live lobster or Vancouver crab, served sautéed with ginger and green onion or black bean sauce, at market prices.
At the end of dinner, a bowl of complimentary dessert soup is offered, this time green bean as opposed to the more common red bean soup. As is usual with Chinese desserts, this soup is not overly sweetened.
At People's Eatery, the servers can be found chatting with the diners usually signifying a table of family, friends or regular patrons and check on their room full of diners often, if not too often. Aside from all of the mouth-watering dishes on the menu, it's their willingness to please that sets People's Eatery apart from the rest.
11am to 2am daily