Siu To is known as the Green Onion Cake Man. Like his moniker implies, he specializes in making green onion cakes and has become a bit of a legend throughout the city. But when he began his career, he did not set out to be known for his green onion cakes.
In 1978, at the age of 34, he moved to Edmonton from Hong Kong at the urging of his brother. “I have two kids. Immediately I was thinking about where is the best place to educate my kids,” To explained. “Me and my wife took a look and we loved this city.” So, they stayed.
He needed a job. “You are also looking for an opportunity. At that time, I was looking around, and there’s no Chinese restaurant food that satisfies me,” To said. “I was kind of a foodie in Hong Kong, too. I like to eat different things. So, I think, hmm..that would be nice. There looks like I have an opportunity. So we opened a restaurant.”
In 1979, To and his wife opened Happy Garden in Parkallen. The restaurant featured green onion cakes as an appetizer. “We had dumplings, we had spring rolls, those kinds of things. But, the green onion cake was the first appetizer,” he said. Without any formal training, he made and served food that he wanted to eat, figuring that if he liked it, others would too. “That’s why I started Happy Garden. It’s my own recipe, my own food.”
In the 1980s, To opened a couple of Mongolian-style barbecue restaurants downtown. At the time, Edmonton was becoming a festival city. “All the celebrations, they have a concessions area. So [the organizers] invited us to join the festivals,” To said. He and his wife brought many items to serve, but the most popular item was the green onion cakes.
To said there are two reasons why his green onion cakes stand out.
“When [other cooks] make the green onion cake, they are not thinking simplicity. They are thinking that I am doing something in the green onion cake to make it so tasty. They think about it in a complicated way. They overthink it,” To explained. The green onion cakes are also fresh. “[Cooks] have a kitchen habit. Before going into the lunch hour, dinner hour, the cook will be thinking about what to do if there is a rush.” Cooks prepare more food ahead of time. To’s cakes are made fresh when ordered.
Due to financial issues, To and his wife had to move out of their dream home and into a rental. In the early 1990s, they stumbled upon a pleasant surprise in Alberta Avenue. “One day I look at the classified advertising. There are some houses, at that time, that are under $30,000.” Although his wife was skeptical, he convinced her to go take a look. “I said the proof is the best way. Let’s go there at midnight. Let’s go there in the bright morning. Let’s go at lunch hour. See how it feels. Walk through the neighbourhood. Talk to the people.”
They have been in the neighbourhood ever since.
For years, To sold his cakes at farmers markets. Due to publicity, media support, and interest in how he makes his cakes, he thought there must be a bigger demand for them.
On Sept. 15, during the Kaleido Family Arts Festival, he opened the Green Onion Cake Man. On top of green onion cakes, they serve hot and sour soup, spring rolls, samosa rolls, and chai tea. In the future, they plan to sell Siberian perogies, which are filled with meat and sauerkraut.
With his green onion cakes known throughout the city, why did he choose to open shop on 118 Ave?
“I want to have a restaurant very close to the neighbourhood. I tell myself, ‘If I am not successful to draw the neighbourhood into my restaurant, I do not call myself a success. If I go to South Common, or something, that would be for the whole Edmonton market kind of thing. But if we are working in this area, we have to have the neighbourhood support. If the neighbourhood does not support [us], then this business is not needed.’ ”
Seeing how busy the restaurant is, it appears he has the neighbourhood’s support.
And Edmontonians can rest easy; he has no plans to change the recipe.
“Green onion cake itself is satisfying the people. You don’t need anything to add to it. It’s a favourite.”
GREEN ONION CAKE MAN
9132 118 Ave
11 am to 7 pm, Tues-Sat
Closed Sun & Mon
Featured Image: Siu To at his new restaurant on Alberta Avenue. | Stephen Strand