Iconic Dishes

Rol San's iconic all-day dim sum is rooted in nostalgia

Rol San has been one of the best Toronto dim sum destinations for 30 years. Now, in a new location and with new but familiar leadership, it’s ready for the next generation of dim sum fans.

Rol San restaurant Toronto | Crispy beef in ginger spicy honey sauce

Few spots have won Toronto’s undying loyalty like Rol San. We’re willing to wager the city’s love runs deeper than just a predilection for the legendary restaurant’s all-day dim sum: It’s rooted in nostalgia. Countless late-night romps have ended with friends clamouring over the last plump shumai, innumerable hangovers cured by overflowing plates of deep-fried squid. Rol San has long occupied a dumpling-sized nook in our hearts, but to co-owner Joyce Li, it’s been her whole life.

“I was basically born and raised in the restaurant,” Li laughs softly, “I have so many fond memories. I was babysat by the waitresses. I used to help my grandparents out peeling the veggies.”

Li’s parents, Paul and Paulie, opened Rol San in 1994 after moving to Canada from Guangzhou. The restaurant’s overwhelming success initially came as a surprise, she admits. “It was shocking. In China, dim sum is enjoyed as a brunch, an early breakfast kind of thing. It’s almost taboo to eat it after that time. But my parents saw the popularity of offering it later, and they just stuck with it.”

Paul and Paulie nailed the all-day dim sum formula back in ’94, and very little has changed since. “We’ve had the same kitchen staff for 30 years — they’re basically family,” beams Li. “They can make these dishes with their eyes closed. Today, all the dim sum still tastes the same as when I was a little kid eating here. Guests will leave the country, then come back to Toronto decades later and say, ‘This is the exact same soup I had with my grandma, 10 years ago!’”

Rol San has solidified its reputation as one of the best dim sum spots in the city. Even celebrities can’t resist popping in to get their fix, including former Raptor Serge Ibaka. “He would come into the restaurant after his games and order spicy shrimp. We would have to sneak him in through the back entrance.” Recently, Li says Nelly Furtado sat for dinner. “I didn’t even notice until some guests pointed her out. I was like, ‘Oh, I should have played ‘Promiscuous,’’” she giggles.

But as Furtado croons in her 2006 hit, All Good Things (Come to an End). In 2019, Rol San’s landlord submitted an application to erect a commercial and residential building that would take over 323 Spadina Avenue. The Li family made the difficult decision to move on from the restaurant that had been their entire lives for the past 30 years. “It was quite sad to leave the old location,” Li says. “We’d made so many memories there.”

Rol San restaurant Toronto | Co-owner Joyce Li

The closure was short-lived, as Rol San soon reopened in a space across the street on Spadina. Despite the proximity, it was still a big change for the mom-and-pop restaurant. Rol San’s legacy, after all, is rooted in just how unchanged it’s remained over the years.

The new digs are admittedly smaller (though, there are plans to expand the dining room), and the menu is limited. The space is freshly renovated and feels more modern. The decor has been updated, too; a painting of the old location hangs out front, created by Toronto artist Anson Ng. And Li, once “the little kid running around in Rol San, stealing barbecue pork buns from the basket in the back,” she grins, is now co-owner. She plans to slowly take charge of the business over the next few years.

With Li poised to introduce all-day dim sum to Toronto’s next generation of brunchers and late-night revellers, Rol San isn’t slowing down. It’s still packed on weekends and the infamous lineups continue to snake out onto Spadina. The plastic tablecloths haven’t gone anywhere. Most importantly, the family who built one of Toronto’s most iconic restaurants from the ground up remains at the helm, and they’re only looking forward.

Rol San's most iconic dishes

Shrimp dumplings har gow

Rol San restaurant Toronto | Shrimp Dumplings Har Gow

Rol San’s dumplings follow a traditional dim sum recipe. “Har gow is one of the most popular things people eat here. The dumpling wrapper is a blend of rice flour, tapioca flour and wheat flour — that’s how it gets its clear look. Then, inside, we add the shrimp,” explains Li. Rol San serves them piping hot, so give them time to cool off before plucking them from the basket into your mouth.

Crispy beef in ginger spicy honey sauce

Rol San restaurant Toronto | Crispy beef in ginger spicy honey sauce

Li says Rol San’s rowdy late-night crowds can’t get enough of the crispy beef. “We thinly slice, then lightly bread the beef. Then we deep fry it until it’s nicely golden and crispy. The chef caramelizes sugar with chili oil until it becomes a nice caramel liquid. We toss in the veggies: green bell peppers, red bell peppers, thinly sliced onions. And then once that’s all mixed together, we toss everything with the beef. This dish is so addicting. You can’t just have one bite.”

Deep-fried squid tentacles

Rol San restaurant Toronto | Deep-fried squid tentacles

Squid tentacles are another dim sum staple. “I’d say almost 80 per cent of tables order this dish. For dim sum, we eat tentacles — we like the texture, the bite, over calamari rings that are usually much softer. We do a light flour dredge of the squid and then deep fry it quickly. The seasonings are marinated into the squid tentacles — a quick garlic and Chinese wine marinade.”

Cantonese-style fried noodles

Rol San restaurant Toronto | Cantonese-style fried noodles

“These are crispy Italian noodles that we deep-fry, and then we set on a plate as a base. The sauce is an oyster sauce-based gravy. We mix that with veggies and all the different kinds of meats — that’s what makes it special. There’s barbecue pork, beef, chicken, squid, scallops and shrimp. It’s all tossed together in the sauce, and then we coat it on top of the noodles. When it gets served to the table, the noodles start getting a little soft — you get these soft and crunchy bits mixed with the gravy sauce, and all the meat.”

Sesame paste balls and deep-fried pumpkin balls

Rol San restaurant Toronto | Sesame paste balls and deep-fried pumpkin balls

Li remembers these little sesame dessert bites have been on the menu since Rol San opened in the 90s. “They have fried mochi on the outside. Once you open it, a lava black sesame filling oozes out.” In 2019, they added deep-fried pumpkin balls that swap the jet-black filling for salted egg yolk custard.