Where chef Braden Chong eats Chinese food in Markham and Richmond Hill

Where chef Braden Chong eats Chinese food in Markham and Richmond Hill

The Sunnys and Mimi Chinese chef shares his go-to spots for mapo tofu, Shaoxing-marinated cold chicken and pan-fried pork buns

Chef Braden Chong uses chopsticks to eat some food

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Braden Chong spends most of his time bouncing between Mimi Chinese and its sister restaurant, Sunnys Chinese, but when he has a free afternoon, the chef and self-proclaimed homebody will travel from his place downtown to Richmond Hill and Markham in search of Chinese food. “I always make the effort if it means eating at some good restaurants,” says Chong, who has an affinity for the suburbs thanks to his parents. “I grew up in Etobicoke, where there wasn’t a great selection of Chinese restaurants, so we often visited family and friends in the Richmond Hill, North York and Markham areas on weekends.” (Full disclosure: speaking of family, Chong’s brother happens to be Toronto Life associate editor Barry Jordan Chong.)

Chong says these trips became a cherished family tradition: they would go to his grandparents’ favourite restaurants or try new ones together. “I remember my mom explaining the cultural significance of certain ingredients and dishes or telling me that food could be so different and unique depending on the region where it originated.” As a kid, Chong says, all of that information went in one ear and out the other. However, after years of working in the restaurant industry, he has a newfound appreciation for his mom’s teachings.

Chong and David Schwartz, the co-owner and chef of Mimi and Sunnys, often head to Richmond Hill and Markham together in search of inspiration. “It’s where you’ll find some of the best Chinese food in the country,” says Chong. “Every time we go, we learn more about the cuisine’s nuances. I’ve always believed that eating is just as important as someone teaching you to make the food. Tasting is like studying.” Below, he takes us to some of his favourite Chinese restaurants—and, as a bonus, a supermarket—in the area.

Related: Where chef David Schwartz eats Chinese food in Scarborough and North York

Nian Yi Kuai Zi

328 Highway 7, Richmond Hill, 905-597-1766, @nianyikuaizi

Chef Braden Chong reads the menu at a Chinese restaurant in Markham

The first time I ate here was with the Mimi team. My friend Eddie, who now works at Mhel, said I should try this Sichuan restaurant he liked. We went together, and I was instantly convinced. At the time, there were no English menus, which many will tell you is a very good sign—anyway, that’s what translation apps are for. As soon as the food hit the table, I was hit with the vibrant colours of chilies and the buzzing aroma of Sichuan peppercorn. I’ve been back a number of times, and it tops my list of saved restaurants on Google Maps, which comes in handy when I can’t decide what to eat—instead of opening a delivery app, I can just look at the restaurants I’ve starred that are nearby.

A Chinese dish of fish boiled in a broth heavy with chilies

Go-to item #1: Boiled fish in chili

The name of this dish gets a bit muddled when it’s translated to English. To clarify, think of it like fish in a broth infused with aromatics. A long time ago, wine was frequently used in these kinds of dishes in case the protein wasn’t fresh: the wine would neutralize any bad odours and decrease the chance of people getting sick if the meat was off. Even though we can now source fresh fish and we don’t have to use wine in the recipe, this dish has survived the test of time—it’s a cultural treasure. It’s so flavourful and visually appealing, with all the chilis bobbing on top. Here, they use a freshwater fish, like carp, which is neutral in flavour, so it absorbs all the aromatics. In addition to hot chilies, salt and doubanjiang (fermented bean paste) form the base. Crunchy soybean sprouts provide textural contrast to the soft fish. And you don’t actually have to eat the chilies—at this point, their flavour has seeped out, and they’re left in for presentation. I will usually ladle out some fish and sprouts, putting any extra chilies off to the side.

A dish of stir-fried rabbit and vegetables at a Chinese restaurant

Go-to item #2: Bone-in rabbit

For this dish, the protein is par-cooked in oil, so when it’s finally placed in the wok, it cooks quickly and evenly. The meat is super tender, which is indicative of velveting, a technique where the chef tosses the protein in cornstarch, egg whites and baking soda before cooking, which keeps it plump and juicy. The flavour of this dish is very bold thanks to the ma la, a spicy and numbing seasoning made from Sichuan peppercorns and chilies. For me, ma la gives a tingling, cooling, almost minty sensation, which makes it so addictive. I also appreciate the refreshing addition of ginger slivers and refreshing melon cubes, which balance out the spice.

Banbudian Bistro

505 Highway 7, unit 68, Markham, 437-880-5561, no website

Chef Braden Chong reads the menu at Banbudian Bistro, a Chinese restaurant

Banbudian is one of my more recent discoveries. Last year, we hosted chef Eva Chin at Mimi for a collaborative dinner event. Since then, we often talk about food and places to eat. She mentioned that I had to try this spot, which incidentally has a new second location on Spadina. Their bone marrow mapo tofu is one of my favourite dishes in the city right now.

A closeup of a bowl of mapo tofu

Go- to item #1: Mapo tofu with bone marrow

This is a massive, decadent dish. It’s perfect for cold winter days, but I can enjoy it any time of year. The tofu is swimming in hunks of bone marrow, along with beef fat, for umami overload. With all the beefy essence, it’s perfect paired with a big bowl of steamed rice. I should also say that my spice tolerance is quite high, so this would hit around a 3/10 spice level for me. But anyone who hasn’t built up that kind of tolerance for heat might rate this 7/10.

A closeup of a bowl of stir-fried beef throat at Banbudian Bistro, a Chinese restaurant

Go-to item #2: Stir-fried beef throat

There’s so much going on here, but the first thing that hits you is the aroma of the infused oil and the chilies. Also, because the beef throat is cut into thin slices to resemble bean curd, the flavourful oil really coats it. As a result, you get this silky coating on your tongue when you eat it— which I personally enjoy. The offal itself is very neutral in taste, so you pick up mostly the spice and savoury notes from the doubanjiang sauce. Texturally, it’s very springy and snappy.

Chef Braden Chong uses chopsticks to eat stir-fried beef throat, a Chinese dish

Shanghai Shikumen Fine Cuisine

3225 Highway 7, unit 1A, Markham, 905-604-7166, shanghaishikumen.ca

Chef Braden Chong uses his phone to take a picture of a chicken dish

When I was growing up, my family ate mostly southern Cantonese food, so I was curious about Shanghai-style dishes. This is actually the restaurant Dave and I were at when he told me that he wanted to open his own Chinese restaurant. Coincidentally, my mom was in the area that day, so she joined us for lunch. To her surprise, this guy she’s never met before starts telling her about his ambitious plans. Fast-forward seven or eight years and Dave’s dream has been realized—who would have thought!

A closeup of cold boiled chicken, a Chinese delicacy

Go to item #1: Shaoxing-style cold chicken

This dish is indicative of the cultural differences between Canadian Chinese food and regional Chinese food. My Canadian friends are turned off by cold chicken skin because they’re not used to what they call a “slimy” texture. They usually prefer something like deep-fried chicken, which has crispy skin. But, in China, cold chicken is a delicacy, especially the natural gelatin that forms under the skin. So that’s why I’m passionate about sharing this dish with others, so we can appreciate the differences. No one type of chicken—cold or hot and crispy—is better than the other; they each have their own strengths. In a departure from the spicy dishes on our sojourn thus far, we have now ventured into Shanghai cuisine territory, with hallmark flavours that are more delicate, sweet and mild. This chicken is a perfect example: it’s best complemented by the dipping sauce it comes with, a mixture of soy, vinegar and sugar.

A closeup of a whole fried fish covered in a sweet-and-sour sauce

Go-to item #2: Sweet-and-sour Mandarin fish

This dish is a show-stopper. Presenting a whole fish at the table looks amazing, but it’s also culturally significant because it symbolizes abundance. This dish speaks to the chef’s talent in breaking down the fish and frying it so precisely that you can pick off the pieces and eat them kind of like fish fingers. It’s also the perfect blend of textures: the soft and tender flesh, the crispy exterior, all layered with that signature tangy-sweet sauce. It can be so easy to over-fry this kind of dish—but, here, it’s cooked perfectly.

A person uses chopsticks and a spoon to pick up a pan-fried pork bun

Go-to item #3: Sheng jian bao (pan-fried pork bun)

I consider these a superior version of soup dumplings: you still have some soup and juicy meat inside, but each bao also has an ultra-crispy golden bottom. The only danger here is attempting to eat them while they’re still screaming hot. My pro tip is to poke a hole in the top—which allows the steam to escape—then tuck in. To counteract all the richness of the bun, it’s served with a black vinegar dipping sauce.

Fresh Way Foodmart

First Markham Place, 3275 Highway 7, Markham, 905-305-7776, freshwayfoodmart.com

Chef Braden Chong stands outside of Fresh Way Foodmart, an Asian supermarket in Markham, Ontario

This is my favourite Asian grocery store. In my opinion, it’s far better than T&T. Whenever I’m able to visit, I stock up. I can easily spend an hour here, just wandering around and looking at all the fresh imported produce. They bring in high-quality fruit from Taiwan, Japan and Thailand. I have to exercise restraint here, otherwise I could easily spend $200 on fruit alone.

A man inspects a mango at Fresh Way Foodmart in Markham

A closeup of a Thai golden mango

Braden Chong inspects some green grapes at Fresh Way Foodmart

Fancy boxed fruit at Fresh Way Foodmart in Markham

Chef Braden Chong points to the selection of instant noodles in a supermarket