Where Big E’s Hawaiian Grinds chef Erwin Joaquin eats in the burbs
We're going on the road with some of the city's top chefs and restaurateurs to explore their favourite suburban restaurants. Erwin Joaquin tells us what's good at First Markham Place
Filipino chef Erwin Joaquin grew up in Markham, back when Filipino cuisine wasn’t readily accessible. Instead he fell in love with the Chinese, Malaysian and Indian takeout spots in the city’s food courts. “I met my wife in high school,” Joaquin says. “Our marriage was built on our love of eating.” The couple spent their honeymoon in Hawaii and fell in love with the food culture there.
A few years later, after much deliberation, Joaquin decided to open a Hawaiian pop-up in Toronto. In 2012, he brought Big E’s Hawaiian Grinds, to the Toronto Underground Market (way before the Polynesian poke trend started), and then branched out to other festivals and events in the GTA. In his circle of friends, Joaquin is the go-to resource when it comes to Markham’s food scene, and his favourite place to eat in the city is First Markham Place. “It’s food heaven to me,” Joaquin says.
Firefly Seafood and Steakhouse
3229 Highway 7 E., Markham, 905-479-6188
Tucked at the corner of the FMP plaza, Firefly has two menus. For breakfast, there are classic American dishes and a selection of noodle soups, and at night, it’s all about the different cuts of steak. (The most expensive item on the menu is the Angus steak with two eggs for $8.99.) “I randomly discovered this spot one Sunday morning,” Joaquin says. “I was a little hungover from a night out, and I was craving beef noodle soup.”
Go-to item #1: Satay beef with vermicelli in soup.
Tasting notes: It may not look like much—thin noodles and chunks of meat sitting in liquid—but there’s a good amount of umami in each spoonful.
Ding Tai Fung
3235 Highway 7, Unit 18b, Markham, 905-943-9880
This is Joaquin’s favourite spot for dumplings. “We come here all the time, it’s a great family spot. It gets very, very busy at lunch.” Ding Tai Fung is known for its house-made dumplings, particularly the xiao long bao, hot soup dumplings filled with a mix of meat, vegetables and broth.
Go-to item #1: Xiao long bao filled with crab and pork.
Tasting notes: The key to eating these is to gently lift a dumpling onto a spoon, drizzle some vinegar on top and finish it with a few strands of ginger. Then, put the entire spoon into your mouth and gently bite down. (If you’re worried about the temperature, bite the top off the dumpling first to let out the steam.)
Go-to item #2: Wontons in spicy sauce.
Tasting notes: These delicate dumpling parcels bathe in a spicy soy sauce topped with green onions.
Yan Can Cook
First Markham Place, 3255 Highway 7 E., Markham, 905-943-9864
With the strip mall outside getting all the attention, the food court in First Markham Place is often overlooked. What it lacks in aesthetics, it makes up for with great regional South Asian street food—you just have to know where to look. “There are many barbecue vendors and dim sum spots, but they’re not all great,” Joaquin says. “After a while, you realize who does what dish best.” Longtime vendor Yan Can Cook serves a wide variety of Chinese delicacies but Joaquin only gets the shu mai.
Go-to item: Fish shu mai loaded with spicy soy sauce.
Tasting notes: These are at least twice the size of typical shu mai, and they’re super cheap: five dumplings cost only $3.50. Cut the shu mai open and leave them alone for a minute before digging in.
First Markham Place, 3255 Highway 7 E., Markham, 905-948-1628
This is Joaquin’s go-to spot for Hainanese chicken, a Singaporean/Malay dish that is rarely found in the GTA.
Go-to item 1: Hainanese chicken rice.
Tasting notes: “There’s something so comforting about this dish, yet its so simple. Look at it—there’s not much to it except boiled chicken and rice cooked in chicken broth. That’s it.”
Go-to item 2: Curry laksa, made with two types of noodles, chicken, shrimp, tofu and vegetables.
Tasting notes: “It’s so hearty, and it hits you in the face with its spice and different textures.”
3235 Highway 7 E., Markham, 905-604-4880
“This place is fairly new, and their teppanyaki combos are very good so its always busy,” Joaquin says. Aka has a diverse menu but customers come here for the teppanyaki, a combination of rice, raw veggies and raw meat served on hot metal griddles and cooked table side. A few seconds after the griddles are placed on the table, diners start mixing the meat and rice. (Diners that prefer extra-crispy rice should mix extra slowly.) “I love my rice crispy,” Joaquin says. “It reminds me of good paella.”
Go-to item: Mushroom beef teppanyaki.
Tasting notes: When mixed properly, it tastes like a good stir fry. Chunks of slightly undercooked meat, mixed with tangy and spicy sauces, are highlighted by the corn’s sweetness. The teriyaki sauce it comes with ties the ingredients together nicely.
Go-to item: Atlantic salmon teppanyaki.
Tasting notes: The fish brings a buttery flavour to every spoonful of this dish.
3255 Highway 7 E., Unit 29, Markham, 905-470-2222
“We always try to end at Tracy Desserts,” Joaquin says. “They have great Chinese desserts.” Even after lunchtime, Tracy fills up with diners ordering the house specialties: tapioca fruit desserts.
Go-to item: Tapioca mixed with coconut jelly and fruit.
Tasting notes: Served soup-style, the bowl is filled with tapioca pearls and chunks of fruit. It’s not overly sweet, with plenty of fruit flavour. The coconut adds a nice creaminess to the dish.