New York Times’ Frugal Traveler trekked to the Toronto suburbs for Chinese food and I got nervous that next visit our will find long lines of hipsters outside our favorite spots. (Hint: if everyone in line is not Chinese, *cough* Manhattan’s Joe’s Crab Shack *cough*, that sends a message lost on everyone in line Instragramming the wait.)
We vote Toronto as the best Chinese food in the world outside China.
Toronto’s northern suburbs of Richmond Hill and Markham are replete with options that locals’ favorite lists can have little overlap. We owe many of our Cantonese favorites to Stephanie, an actuary and classical musician now in New York, and her father still living in Markham, who send updates such as “This was my family’s dinner spot tonight, Vince Seafood Restaurant (now closed). The featured dishes were pre-ordered by a day, winter melon bowl (冬瓜盅) and the not pre-ordered ‘gold sand’ lobster (金沙龙虾) which was chopped lobster encrusted with salt egg (咸蛋). Knowing what to preorder is hardcore. Cantonese soups are serious. Recent picks we have not yet sampled are Sika Deer Chinese Cuisine and Yang’s Fine Chinese Cuisine.
First shrimpy kiss.
When you drive in from Toronto Pearson Airport, and you’ll want to drive in the suburbs, our first stop is shrimp dumplings at Jim Chai Kee, greeted by the always smiling owner and his family. Their homemade spicy sauce and seafood sauce (“It has scallops in it,” he proudly announces) are taken home by locals. Tip: eschew Toll Route 407 unless you want your rental to attract big toll fees.
The Frugal Traveler focused on the eastern end of Markham, which has generally older establishments and malls. Congee Queen is a good choice. Pacific Mall is mentioned which has a massive upper level food court bewildering in action and variety, though hot and poorly ventilated. New Kennedy Square has an outlet of T&T Supermarket to sample their takeout and try awesome fruits such as mangosteen (山竹).
The Din Tai Fung rule.
My rule of Chinese restaurant articles is if Din Tai Fung is recommended, and the piece is not about Taiwan, read no further. The Taiwanese chain famous for steamed soup dumplings (小笼包), a snack course in Chinese culinary hierarchy, is tasty and worth a visit in its homeland. Recommending it anywhere the chain happens to set up shop is journalistic laziness akin to writing a piece on the local food scene in a US city citing chain steakhouses such as Morton’s. The Frugal Traveler’s tongue-in-cheek recommendation for a Ding Tai Fung is a great example of Chinese shanzhai (imitation/knockoff 山寨) that I take it as an inside joke by the author.
Richmond Court Restaurant is a cha can ting (茶餐厅), the round-the-clock restaurants found throughout Hong Kong. They have a bewildering array of menus handed out, attached to the table surface, and stuck on the wall. There are breakfast sets, mid-morning sets, lunch sets, mid-afternoon sets, and late night sets for the daily parade of Cantonese eating times. Richmond Court is huge, is always busy, and has all the staples. Christen your first visit with a simple delight: pineapple bun with butter (菠萝油) and rich, bitter hot Hong Kong milk tea (港式奶茶) sweetened at the table with spoons of sugar. The Hong Kong take on French toast also must be sampled: two slices of bread, peanut butter in the middle, fried, served with a melting pat of butter and golden syrup.
La Mere Beijing food is in the same strip mall as Richmond Court. The Beijing accents are so thick you expect the crew cut male customers to roll up their shirts on a hot day. The hearty food is a rare find outside China. Staples such as fried shredded pancakes (炒饼) and fried geda (炒疙瘩) recalled my years in Beijing and are foreign to my wife, who is from Shanghai. She loves the delicate mixed celery dried bean thread & agarics salad (西芹腐竹拌木耳) which I chomp on the house signature pork backbone with soy sauce (老妈家酱腔骨). Wash down with a soy milk (豆浆), sweet or salty.
Dessert time and were are still in the same mall. Pun Cao Tong has the full range of Hong Kong and Taiwan desserts. Steamed double skin milk (双皮奶) is my wife’s go-to. There are various versions such as with durian. Try the fruit desserts with sago and ice cream or a healthy herbal concoction. The AC is turned up crazy high and the owner cannot get the building landlord to lower it. Bring your pullover.
You read all this way in the hope of a dim sum recommendation. Here it is: Skyview Fusion Cuisine. The huge place holds wedding banquets at night but it is a knife fight for a weekend dim sum table. Across the parking lot is a Costco. If you think Costcos in the US are busy, visit one in a Canadian Chinese suburb. Out in Vancouver, the neighbors of Richmond’s Costco are tormented with customers parking for blocks around.
My wife used to scoff at the coarse cuisine of the north so in her afternoon naps I would sneak over to Shaanxi Restaurant for a pork or cumin beef burger (肉夹馍). Her first sitdown meal she asked in puzzlement at many of the dish names. The next time she was a pro and the next table had a Shanghainese family of two adult daughters and their parents, with the elderly mother exclaiming in Shanghainese, “What are these? I don’t know what any of this is!” Try a hearty bowl of misleadingly named pickled bun with beef or mutton in Shaanxi style which is a hearty broth of diced bun, vermicelli and more (泡馍). For noodles start with special hand made noodles (油泼扯面) or Qishan noodles (岐山臊子面). Meat the mild boiled lamb with special sauce (手抓羊肉) or spicey cumin lamb (孜然炒羊肉). All are classics of Xi’an and the Silk Road.
Ocean Seafood is another cha can ting that is especially skilled at seafood. While my wife works through a crab (I am allergic) or clam stew, I have the grouper with eggs and agarics.
Across the parking lot is Saigon Star, Chinese-style Vietnamese. My history professor from Vietnam, now in Toronto, is cringing that I recommend a fake Vietnamese place. What is Chinese-style Vietnamese? Curry crab by the boatload. Their fruit drinks are awesome. If you have not had a jackfruit shake, try one here. I go for the grilled honey pork neck meat.
Those who want traditional Shanghai dishes can find Shanghai Dim Sum around the building. We have had mixed experiences and need to revisit before pronouncing up or down. Try A-1 and A-6 on the pictured menu for a real intro to Shanghai.
We started with Cantonese and return to end with a classic. Sam Woo BBQ. Try a roast meat platter.
We can’t eat all the time, can we?
If you do as the Cantonese do, the answer is yes.
While you are acclimating to the lifestyle, head over to the next suburb, historic Unionville and abutting Topnotch Park. In June we saw animals from skunk to muskrat.
Where to Stay?
But We’re in Downtown Toronto. Help!
We have one to spare you the 45-60 minute drive. House of Gourmet in Chinatown. I adore the beef brisket and tendon noodles (with or without soup, 牛腩筋捞面/牛腩筋汤面). In the morning the lobster congee (龙虾粥) is a meal for a family. Every trip my wife convinces me to make the drive down from Markham once. Beware: Toronto traffic is awful, awful, awful.
Readers, there is a chance we will lead a food group for a Toronto weekend. Most likely Spring 2017. Contact me if interested and serious. (Update April 2017: we are moving to Seattle and my wife is not going to have generous vacation time, so we will need to postpone planning until Fall 2017 or later. Sorry.)