Donkey Burgers, one of China's first fast foods, have arrived in North America and offbeat meat mavens have pricked up their ears, put down their cash, and picked up their forks.
“Donkey King” may sound like a Shrek meets The Lion King movie mashup and although that would be awesome, in reality it's a cozy little restaurant whose specialty is Donkey Burgers. Yes, burgers – more like sandwiches if we're gonna nitpick – made from marinated & chopped lean donkey meat stuffed into flaky roasted huoshao buns. Yum!
The restaurant is located near the intersection of Midland & Sheppard in Scarborough – not the trendiest area of suburban Toronto by any means – and it's the third eatery to occupy the premises in the past couple of years. That, and the fact that “donkey” isn't a word Torontonians normally expect to find on a menu, means time may be of the essence should your mealtime motivation be munching da mule.
First, some backstory. Donkey burgers date back to the early years of the twentieth century. The newly-completed Beijing-Hankou railway put countless freight-carrying donkeys out of a job... and onto a platter. The Hebei-province towns of Baoding and Hejian were most seriously affected, and each town gradually developed local versions of what soon became a popular street food treat. Baoding-style (hot meat) uses round huoshao (a roasted, semi-flaky bread pocket) while Hejian-style (cold meat) uses rectangular huoshao. Donkey King's version is a little of both, employing a rectangular huoshao and warm, seasoned donkey meat.
Now that the history lesson is over, let's get back to the restaurant. Previous to its current incarnation, Donkey King operated out of a small supermarket food court and donkey was only served on weekends. Success spurred the owners to expand, so it was farewell to the food court and hello to donkey burgers on demand at a stand-alone location. According to the waitress, they get their donkey meat "from a farm”... and that's good enough for me, anything more is just TMI.
Although other meats such as pork, lamb and chicken are on offal, er, on offer at Donkey King, requesting any of those dishes would be akin to ordering kappa-maki (cucumber with rice) rolls at a sushi place. Donkey: it's what's for dinner (or lunch; the place is open daily from 11:30am to 10pm), and the only decision that matters involves how you'd like your burro baked.
A casual glance at the menu reveals some of the many ways Donkey King serves up the ol' “noble steed” (sorry, Shrekkies). To paraphrase Bubba from Forrest Gump, donkey is the fruit of the farmyard. You can have a Classic Donkey Burger, an All Meat Donkey Burger, Dumplings with Donkey Meat, Braised Donkey Meat, Braised Donkey Shank, Spicy Donkey Meat, Pan-fried Spicy Donkey Liver, Pan-fried Spicy Donkey Offal, Donkey Offal Soup. That – that's about it.
Not being much of an offal aficionado, I figured I'd go with the signature dish at the top of the menu: the Classic Donkey Burger, priced at C$6.99 (US$5.30). The meat was delicately spiced and slightly sweet & salty; the flavor profile is enhanced with chopped sweet green pepper and cilantro. The warm and flaky huoshao bun was the icing on the equine cake – my only regret was that the whole ensemble wasn't larger.
Will I be back for another ride? You betcha! Hopefully enough native foodies out for the Next Big Thing and Chinese transplants nostalgic for authentic Hebei street food will discover Donkey King before it kicks the bucket. (all images ©Creature Features, 2019)