I was trudging through calf-high grass in an industrial zone just a couple of miles north of Toronto’s city limits. Having crossed through a car dealership, I sprinted across a highway and traversed a seemingly endless mall parking lot. There were now large swaths along the road where the sidewalk completely disappeared; construction was constant, and new buildings appeared to be popping up everywhere. I made a mental note to drive next time.
Why would I bother to spend time in Markham and Richmond Hill, when Toronto and its wonderful restaurants, welcoming public spaces and extraordinary cultural diversity were so nearby? Because I was looking for good — really good — Chinese food. And everyone I spoke to told me that the classic Toronto Chinatown, with the intersection of Spadina Avenue and Dundas Street West as its nucleus, while charming, had begun to decline in terms of quality. And so I was headed to the suburbs, to the corridor along Highway 7, an unscenic but pulsing artery of high quality, delicious and inexpensive regional Chinese cuisine.
Back to my trek through the weeds: I finally made it to my destination, an enormous, generic-looking strip mall called First Markham Place. I wanted dumplings, and xiao long bao were prominent in my mind. I walked into Ding Tai Fung (not Din Tai Fung, the famous Taiwanese chain) for an order of the soup dumplings, which are shaped a bit like a flattened onion and pinched together at the top, and come steaming hot in a bamboo basket. The dried scallop and pork version (8.49 Canadian dollars, or about $6.40), served with a red-tinged vinegar and slivers of ginger, were small explosions of flavor.
Peaktop restaurant, in the same mall as Ding Tai Fung, specializes in Cantonese cuisine, particularly barbecued meats. I paid 11.50 dollars for a half duck that was covered in crispy skin, glistening and deep brown. I don’t love the fattier meats, but this duck was quite flavorful, if heavy. My dining companions and I were licking fat off our fingers on the way back to the car.
One companion was Suresh Doss, a local food writer and journalist who had directed me to a number of the places I visited. “Over the last 10 or 15 years, uptown Markham has quickly become the best place for Chinese food,” he said. Rising costs led business owners in the downtown core to spread out toward the suburbs. “The result — you have a large cluster regionally specific restaurants that use the commuting conduit of Highway 7 as home base,” he said. Additionally, he said, families coveted the larger, newer homes that were being built in northern Toronto suburbs.
Or as my Aunt Grace Kwan joked, “Chinese people like new things.” (It is a traditional Chinese belief that old houses, used cars and the like have the potential to be contaminated with bad history or disagreeable spirits.) She lives in Toronto and we shared a meal one evening at Congee Queen, which sounds like something you might read on a sash at a county fair. Regardless, the southern Chinese cuisine there is excellent, particularly the namesake congee, a hearty rice porridge to which any number of toppings can be added. We ordered the House Super Bowl Congee and received an enormous bowl packed with surf clams, shrimp, scallops, salmon, grouper and other sliced fish. It was a dish to bring tears to the eyes of any seafood lover, and, at 12.95 dollars, a fantastic bargain.
Nearby in the same complex was Fortune Star, a stand serving Hong Kong-style small bites. I ordered a small plate of spicy grilled squid, both tender and satisfyingly chewy, for 5.95 dollars that caused beads of sweat to form on my temples. I drank an ice-cold Hong Kong milk tea (2.75 dollars) to quench the fire on my tongue.
Enjoying familiar old standbys is great, but it’s always a pleasure to be introduced to a type of cuisine you’ve never tried before. At the Federick restaurant in the New Delhi Plaza I experienced a mash-up of Indian and Chinese cuisine. (They call it Hakka Chinese, though that term usually just refers to an ethnic group in China. The origins of the term in relation to Indian food may lie with Kolkata-born Chinese chefs.) The combo pakora (11.50 dollars) contains the items to get — big chunks of chicken, scallops and shrimp rolled in chickpea flour and deep fried. They go fantastically with soy sauce and black vinegar.
Southern Chinese cuisine is fairly well represented in the area, but there are some good Northern joints, as well. Northern Dumpling Kitchen, or NDK as it is known, serves some cheap and high-quality northern fare. Leek and pork dumplings (4.99 dollars) are savory and teeming with natural juices. The onion pancake (2.99 dollars) is a crispy, oily, reliably delicious stalwart. The cold dishes are where Northern cuisine really shines, though: cold, spicy and garlicky diced cucumbers (4.99 dollars) as well as slivers of savory, sour potato (4.99 dollars).
There’s no better place to cap off a day of eating than with a visit to the outstanding Lucullus Bakery in Richmond Hill. My companions and I enjoyed a Chinese smorgasbord, if you will, of fresh baked goods: a coconut bearclaw and a buttery and crunchy pineapple bun (1.35 dollars each), chestnut bao with chestnut purée (2 dollars), and an almost comically bright yellow egg tart (1.35 dollars).
The most enjoyable item, though, was the iced Ovaltine. I’m biased because I drank Ovaltine as a kid. If you didn’t, you may find chocolate milk preferable to the sweet, slightly grainy, almost minerally drink. But if you drank Ovaltine as a child, it’s a must-try. The 2.95 dollars cost will provide you with a cold, syrupy blast of nostalgia worth 10 times the price.