Where Toronto’s Chowhound King, who’s been to over 100 Michelin-starred restaurants, eats in Markham and Richmond Hill
We're going on the road with some of the city's top chefs and restaurateurs to explore their favourite suburban restaurants. Charles Yu tells us what's good along Highway 7
Hong Kong–born Charles Yu is not a chef or restaurateur, but the man known to message board regulars as the King of Chowhound is a walking encyclopedia of the GTA’s Chinese food scene. In the ’90s, Yu was stationed in Paris while working for Hibernia oil. His boss was a big fan of the Michelin guide and took Yu with him as he ate his way through the country. “He lived and died by the red book,” Yu says. Over the course of two years, Yu ate his way from Reims to Rhone, accumulating close to 150 Michelin stars. “It was my fine dining education,” Yu says.
Following his travels, Yu settled in Richmond Hill, where he started to document all his food experiences on Chowhound. He quickly gained a following for his knowledge of regional Chinese food. Yu’s retired now, but regularly hosts food meet-ups and spends a good chunk of his time discovering new restaurants in the GTA. Here are Yu’s top spots on his favourite food street, Highway 7.
Northern Dumpling Kitchen
550 York Regional Rd. 7, Richmond Hill, 905-881-3818
Yu frequents this Northern-style Chinese restaurant for its signature dumplings, dim sum and one particular pork dish.
Go-to item #1: Pork with garlic and Szechuan peppercorn sauce.
Tasting notes: This thinly sliced leg of pork coated in a spicy garlic sauce is Yu’s favourite dish here. “It’s so addictive. The chili oil and spices really add so many nuances to the dish—no one else does it this way.”
Go-to item #2: Onion pancake and slices of smoked pork.
Tasting notes: Yu says the best way to enjoy this plate is to find an opening in the pancake and stuff it with a slice of pork belly and scallion, then top it with hoisin sauce. “Like a little sandwich, you get the perfect balance between smoky pork belly and savoury pancake,” Yu says.
Go-to item #3: Braised pig’s trotters cooked in soy sauce.
Tasting notes: “The pork is blanched in boiling water and then dunked in a huge pot until its nice and tender,” Yu says of the umami-rich dish.
3760 Highway 7 E., Markham, 905-604-9060
Situated in a nondescript strip mall at the Markham Town Square, this mom-and-pop operation specializes in noodle soup. “Trendy noodles tend to be either Japanese ramen, Vietnamese pho or Chinese hand-pulled noodles,” Yu says. “However, as an aficionado of the Cantonese won ton noodle, this is—and has always been—my go-to noodle soup.”
Go-to item: Shrimp won ton noodle soup.
Tasting notes: “The chef takes the time to use ground sun-dried flounder, shrimp shells and eggs in making the delicious broth,” Yu says. “The silver thread noodles are really fine and cooked perfectly al dente, and the won ton morsels are stuffed with nicely seasoned crunchy shrimp.”
550 Highway 7 E., Richmond Hill, 905-762-1888
While Yu regularly eats his way along the Highway 7 strip, there’s only one restaurant that he visits for its Hong Kong-style dishes. “This is probably one of my all-time favourite restaurants,” he says of the decades-old kitchen.
Go-to item #1: House special sticky rice.
Tasting notes: Yu orders this whenever he introduces Judy Cuisine to a friend. “There’s so much finesse in this dish with the seasoning. Every dim sum restaurant has this dish but none of them do it like this,” Yu says. He suggests enjoying the rice on its own to really savour the shredded scallop and lap cheong (Chinese sausage).
Go-to item #2: Fried oyster with sweet honey glaze.
Tasting notes: The gargantuan Fanny Bay bivalve has a crisp coating from the fry, with a custard-like center. “It can fill you up quick, so share it with a few people,” Yu says.
Go-to item #3: Fried bone-in chicken with black bean sauce.
Tasting notes: “I like this dish because the sauce is so reduced it clings to the chicken. It takes the chef a lot of time and work to reduce the sauce in the wok to get this consistency. It’s unlike any other black bean dish,” Yu says.
Go-to item #4: Stir-fried beef with Chinese broccoli.
Tasting notes: “The beef has a gentle coating of sauce, and it’s very tender.”
Go-to item #5: Coconut and bean cake.
Tasting notes: Yu’s favourite dessert at the restaurant is a creamy cake made from coconut milk and red bean. “It’s not heavy, it’s light and refreshing,” he says.
Go-to item #6: Deep-fried milk with sugar.
Tasting notes: “The custardy centre is the main draw,” Yu says of the signature sweet.
Go-to item #7: House-made XO sauce.
Tasting notes: “It’s a chili sauce kicked up with a potpourri of spices, dried scallop and Chinese ham. It’s some of the best I’ve had. You can buy bottles of it here,” Yu says.
8601 Warden Ave. #4, Markham, 905-948-1618, casavictoria.ca
Locals (and the occasional downtowners) visit Casa Victoria for its Cantonese dim sum. Also popular are the set menus, where groups can feast on everything from Peking duck to a whole roasted suckling pig.
Go-to item: Wok-fried lobster with a coating of salted duck egg yolk.
Tasting notes: “It’s sticky, savoury and full of umami goodness—a great example of a ‘finger-licking good’ dish,” Yu says.
Sweet Note Desserts
505 Highway 7, Richmond Hill, 905-877-9338, sweetnote.ca
Yu discovered the French-inspired bakery one afternoon while he was exploring. “I have a sweet tooth, and I love Parisian desserts,” he says. Owner Candy Lee mixes French, Japanese and Chinese influences to create her line of soufflés and cakes. Her signature line of “milk bottles,” layered custard and fruit desserts, sell out daily.
Go-to item: Lemon soufflé.
Tasting notes: “This is some of the best soufflé I have found in Toronto—it’s beautifully airy every time. It usually takes 30 minutes to prepare, so I suggest you order it as soon as you walk in. The lemon version is so delicate; its lemon flavour, so subtle. I hate desserts that are too sweet, so this is perfect.”
2101 Lawrence Ave., E., Scarborough, 416-288-9286, dianasseafood.com
Yu recommends that everyone acquaint themselves with Scarborough’s premiere seafood shop. “It’s my go-to place for oysters—I’m a big bivalve addict,” Yu says. “My first exposure to Diana’s happened years ago, and it was actually through an advertisement placed in the food magazine of the daily Chinese newspaper Ming Pao.”
Go-to item: Oysters.
Tasting notes: “Be they English, Colchester, Irish, Galway Flats or French Belons, Diana’s gets so many great varieties from coast to coast. I love the west coast Virginicas. If I can get my hands on some, the jumbo Taylor’s Special oysters are awesome. They’re so huge, only a couple will fill your stomach.”