Kom Jug: Remembering a Chinatown Institution
"Kom Jug was a big part of late nights in my twenties. Open until 4 a.m., it was my first stop after last call and it was always an experience. "
If you rode past Kom Jug (full name Kom Jug Yuen) on the Spadina streetcar you probably wouldn’t have noticed it. Amongst a sea of Chinese restaurants, it blended in— red exterior with a standard Chinatown light up sign above it. A sandwich board advertised the "Best BBQ Pork in North America." You’d probably see the owner, Ping, in the window chopping BBQ pork with a heavy cleaver. His style was chaotic but he chopped without looking and his fingers were still intact.
If Ping wasn't too busy, he'd almost always say Hi and ask me the same question, "you in school?" Sometimes if he was in a good mood he would give me a free spring roll.
Kom Jug was a big part of late nights in my twenties. Open until 4 a.m., it was my first stop after last call and it was always an experience.
Occasionally drunk people would come in and loudly make fun of the restaurant but the staff didn’t take shit from these customers and responded with deservedly unwelcome service.
One late night I bumped into a long, lost high school friend from where I grew up in the stairwell to the bathroom.
Two good friends of mine (now been together for five years) had their first date there after meeting at the bar earlier in the evening.
I once took the leftovers of a large order of creamed corn chicken soup to bring home. At the time I lived in a house with 5 twenty-something guys and we would ate it for days. In the end, we had to throw out half of it. It was just so much food we couldn’t do it (and after 3 or 4 days the egg in it started to taste a little off).
I asked a friend of mine who speaks Cantonese what Kom Jug Yuen means— after a short call with his dad, they determined it meant "The Golden Peacok." But then I received a follow up message. The topic had come up over dinner and my friends parents argued over the translation. Following a short debate I am now told with more certainty that Kom Jug Yuen actually mean "The Golden Duke’s Garden". Signifying the food of this restaurant is fit for a king.
Kom Jug was a staple of me and my friends late night diet until 2012 when the staff seemed to have changed. Prices started going up and food quality went down. Worst of all, Ping was nowhere to be found. Kom Jug had changed ownership. But why? Nobody seemed to know.
In 2013 I moved away from Canada for a few years. When I returned in 2016 I came back with a huge list of old Toronto restaurants I missed and had to eat at for old times sake— Kom Jug was at the top. I knew it wasn’t what it used to be but I was excited to relive old memories. But I noticed something horrific one day: the lights were off. The windows sat empty. Not a single BBQ’d dead thing hung in the window. I crossed the street for a closer look and sure enough the day had come - a “For Sale” sign hung in the window. Kom Jug was dead and I had missed my chance for one last meal.
After the demise of Kom Jug I didn’t bother hitting any of the old late-night spots in Chinatown anymore. The drunken pork on rice meals became replaced with other drunk eats like shawarma on fries, fancy overpriced hotdogs and poutines. Guess this is what change tastes like.
Sometimes I would relive the glory days by reading old Yelp reviews of Kom Jug. One night I came across an old thread on the RedFlagDeals message board that mentioned Kom Jug and saw a comment that caught my attention. Someone mentioned a place called Yip’s Kitchen in St Lawrence market. Apparently Yip's Kitchen was run by Ping’s son. Very interesting.
Digging deeper I realized Ping was my old pal’s FIRST name, NOT his last as I had thought. And sure enough with some further searching I found an old newspaper article from over a decade ago about Kom Jug featuring a short interview with Ping. Surprise, surprise his last name was indeed Yip. It had to be true.
I knew I had to check out Yip's Kitchen.
I biked over to St Lawrence market but felt disheartened after walking a couple laps of the market and not seeing Yip's. Was it possible Yip’s went extinct too? Then I noticed a staircase. I had forgotten the downstairs. I booked it down the stairs, turned the corner of the first couple stalls and there it was. A big Yellow sign that read "Yip’s Kitchen".
I did a couple laps to compose myself and scope out the place. It wasn’t a traditional Chinese restaurant like Kom Jug— it was more of a food court, lunch spot.
I got in line and scanned the selection of pre-prepared mains looking for the pork I had craved for so many years now. They had a lot of the usual suspects: General Tao, spring rolls, among others. At first I thought I might be out of luck but eventually I noticed it further ahead in line— the best BBQ pork in North America.
I was greeted by a nice, younger man when it was my turn to pay. I asked him if this place was related to Kom Jug. He smirked and asked how I knew that.
It was all coming together. He introduced himself; Ryan Yip. This must have been Ping’s son. We chatted briefly and I let him how much I loved Kom Jug. The line of other hungry people started to clog up so he gave me some soy sauce and chilli sauce and told me to wait off to the side for a second so we could chat. He cashed out the remaining customers, met me off to the side and proceeded to answer all the things I had wondered all these years since Kom Jug closed.
He told me every so often he gets old Kom Jug fans who roll through Yip’s asking about Kom Jug. He took out his phone and showed me some pictures of things different customers had brought to his attention. One was of a Kom Jug postcard that someone found for sale online and another was an illustration inspired by the old restaurant. It seemed I wasn’t the only freak that was left hung up on this restaurant.
He told me that Yip’s Kitchen had been open for 20 years now and that Kom Jug had been open for 30 years when it finally closed its doors. It truly was a historic part of Chinatown.
He then explained the events that led to Kom Jug demise.
It started on Chinese New Year he told me - The busiest day of the year for Kom Jug. The restaurant would get swamped with Chinese families looking to celebrate the holiday with some BBQ pork.
Ping got started doing his usual job chopping pork in the window when something felt off. A pain in his shoulder emerged. It was an important day so he tried to work through it until shortly thereafter when it totally gave out. His shoulder just stopped working, rendering unable to operate his cleaver with a packed dining room.
Thirty years of the same repetitive motion, chopping pork, had blown out Ping's shoulder. And it didn’t improve after Chinese New Year. In the months that followed he was left with an unusable arm. With this, Ryan said that his father decided this was his time to pack it in and he sold Kom Jug.
Good news is, Ryan said after the place sold and a few months of trying to relax and focus on his health - Ping’s shoulder fully recovered back to normal.
From there the family focused on Yip’s kitchen. Ryan even pointed out one of the lady’s behind the counter who I hadn’t noticed at first. It was his mom - a very familiar face from Kom Jug who used to work the cash register and take orders at Kom Jug back in the day.
After we finished talking, I decided to head back in quickly to grab a picture of the storefront to show my friends and give my compliments to Ryan on the meal.
I told him it hit the spot and brought back some good memories. He told me to wait a second and he called out to someone behind the counter in an apron. Sure enough the man who turned around was none other than the man of the hour. Grand master Ping himself.
Ryan told him I was the guy who came in earlier asking about Kom Jug. I got a smirk and a good handshake and he said hi and asked me the same question he had asked so many time before. "You in school?"
He seemed happy to see an old fan and customer. He offered me a free meal (I declined), gave me a free spring roll and water and I left happy on my way.
For me, Kom Jug represents the gritty side of a city that is increasingly filled with shiny new restaurants that go in and out of business. Kom Jug was a real family business run by good people adding to Toronto's cultural smorgasbord. A place with no-bullshit character that’s hard to find. Chinatown has resisted the gentrification of modern Toronto development better than other neighbourhoods but it’s unlikely to last forever. SO make sure you enjoy and support these types places if there’s one you connect with.
And while you're at it, go try the pork on rice at Yip’s Kitchen.
Yip's Kitchen is located in the basement of St. Lawrence Market.