Where chef David Schwartz eats Chinese food in Scarborough and North York
David Schwartz, the executive chef and co-owner of Mimi Chinese and Sunnys Chinese, is hitting his stride. “Things have never been better, with both places shining in their respective lights,” he says. And Sunnys, his Kensington Market kitchen that’s nearing its first anniversary, is about to get even busier. “We’re opening up our patio in about a month, and we just added a new service for Mondays with a set menu,” he says. “For us, that takes things a step further and allows us another fun outlet to try new recipes.”
The unifying force between the sister spots is the spirit of collaboration, which has always been paramount to the team’s success: ultimately, everyone cares deeply about what they put on plates. Often, Schwartz’s inspiration is further fuelled by his sojourns through the suburbs. “I spend almost every moment of my downtime simply driving and eating through different neighbourhoods,” he says. “Scarborough is probably one of my favourite areas to explore. It has one of the deepest food landscapes in North America—the finds here are unparalleled.” Below, Schwartz takes us on a tour of his favourite spots beyond the downtown core.
Related: Where to find the best meals for $10 or less in Scarborough’s Wexford neighbourhood
Taste of Qin Yun
23 Bonis Ave., 416-839-6998, tasteofqinyun.com
My favourite thing about Toronto is how you can go to so many pockets in the city and discover distinct regional food. The best Jamaican, Turkish, Sichuan—the options are endless. I’ll usually just drive through different neighbourhoods and try whatever I’m curious about. This was one of those spots. I had driven by before, then my wok cook Eddie recommended it. He said they make the best liangpi—cold skin noodles—in the city, and I completely agree. (Note: credit cards are accepted, but cash is preferred.)
Go-to dish #1: Traditional liangpi
These noodles are very labour-intensive to make, so this spot is definitely a gem. In a nutshell, dough is submerged in water. During this time, the wheat starch separates from the gluten and settles to the bottom. Then, the water is discarded and the gluten starch is stretched and steamed to make noodles. Meanwhile, the leftover solids become seitan, which has become pretty popular as a meat substitute. Here, the seitan is served with the noodles. I love that there’s no waste.
Tasting notes: I add all the sauces—the house-made chili oil and liangpi sauce—then mix. Sometimes I feel like I need a bib to eat this. Right away, you get a hit of Shanxi vinegar, a fine aged vinegar that’s so important to the local food culture that it’s actually protected by the Chinese government. What follows is a bit of heat from the chili oil. And finally the noodles, which are pleasingly chewy, followed by a bite of the seitan, which is nice and springy.
Go-to dish #2: Wide-cut liangpi in spicy oil sauce
Tasting notes: This is a broader noodle, so it’s a bit trickier to eat. It’s very chewy because of how wide it is, and it’s intensely savoury. If I had to pick a favourite between the two styles, it would be this one. It’s so satisfying and very addictive. The gai lan with fresh chili on top adds an extra hit of spice.
Go-to dish #3: Pulled pork mo
Mo bread is something you see in Shaanxi province, and it’s traditionally eaten with chopped meat. Here, it’s served with pork—I think they use a combination of shoulder and hock cuts for the filling. Think of this dish like a street food—their version of a hamburger.
Tasting notes: It’s like the best pulled pork you’ve ever eaten. It’s so pure: there’s literally nothing else between the bread except rich and fatty pork. The flavour is very porky, so if you’re not into that kind of thing, don’t eat this. There’s also no sauce—just bread and meat. Talk about being a purist.
Go-to item #4: Lamb mo
Lamb is a big part of Shaanxi food culture because the province once marked the end of the Silk Road, which meant that a lot of Middle Eastern influences came through and affected daily life, such as cooking. Additionally, with the religious connotations of that influence—including pork not being a preferred part of the diet—there was a lot of lamb along with potatoes and wheat. This means you won’t see a lot of rice on our food crawl: it’s just not a thing in this region of China.
Tasting notes: It’s straight-up lamb. I like intense gamey lamb, which is what this tastes like. It’s interesting because I’m not a fan of other gamey proteins, like duck. But this lamb is intense, and I love it.
Tang Home Style Lamb and Beef
Midland Court Plaza, 3380 Midland Ave., 647-430-0188, no website
This entire stretch of Silver Star Boulevard is filled with so many plazas and dining options. This is another spot I just stumbled upon while running errands. It’s been open since 2008. But here’s the thing—there are no English menus. I unfortunately don’t speak or read any Chinese, so my hack is to use Google Translate on the menu, which gets me far enough. I’ve become a familiar face to one of the co-owners, Jian Jian Zhang.
I love Tang’s because—as cheesy as it may sound—it’s steeped in food culture and history. It offers a clear picture of ingenuity and creativity, especially when cooking with offcuts. Fermented vegetables, cured and salted meats, hearty stews before you work a long day—the dishes look simple and homey, but they are actually complex. If anything, it just makes me appreciate this kind of cuisine even more: something born out of hardship, patience and dedication. (Note: cash and debit only.)
Go-to dish #1: Pita bread soaked in lamb soup (item A1A)
This is one of their signature dishes. It isn’t exactly a summer dish, but I would personally eat this any time of year. The key is to ask for their fermented garlic and chili sauce—they’re must-have items to eat this. Then what you do is kind of like layering: take a bite of the garlic, the chili sauce, then a slurp of the soup.
Tasting notes: The first thing I get is the pungency of pickled fermented garlic, then the bite of the chili, the rich broth and the really natural flavour of the sweet lamb. Lastly, the texture of the chopped-up pita bread, which is chewy and springy. There’s also vermicelli in here, but it’s a bit of an afterthought. In this case, the star is the pita.
Go-to dish #2: Beef with cucumber (item D6)
Tasting notes: For this cold dish, the cucumber is slapped or smacked. This is done to open up the pores of the vegetable, and it works brilliantly to help it absorb whatever flavours or seasonings are added to it. But the really interesting thing for me is the salted cured beef and its preservation, which draws a few parallels with my own Jewish Polish food culture. Another thing to note is that everyone thinks this style—where meat is a secondary component in a dish—stemmed from modern Nordic cuisine. In fact, it’s a huge thing in Chinese cuisine. It’s not about the protein here. I really enjoy this dish for its ability to kind of reset the palate.
Go-to dish #3: Auricularia with cabbage (item D1)
Tasting notes: This dish is a mishmash of vegetables that are meant to refresh the taste buds. There are some barely cooked crunchy potatoes, essentially raw potatoes that have been pickled and fermented. The same treatment has been given to the cabbage, which in my opinion is the star of the dish. There’s also some auricularia—a type of fungus—red onion and raw garlic. I enjoy the sweetness, fermented notes and acidity. It’s texture overload in a good way.
Go-to dish #4: Oil spill noodles (item A8)
Tasting notes: These are basically biang biang noodles, a very popular dish from Shaanxi province. The sauce is mostly a chili blend (with vinegar, minced garlic, green onion and soy sauce) that is made on top of the noodles. Then they take scalding-hot oil and ladle it over the dish—that’s where the name comes from. It’s so flavourful. On the tongue, you get the dried chili and the savouriness from MSG, which is essential. And despite how red and fiery the dish is, it’s not as spicy as it looks—I’d say it’s pretty mild.
Go-to dish #5: Stir-fried lamb tripe
Tasting notes: Barnyard notes–which I’m really sensitive to in a bad way—are very prominent in this dish. This is as far as I’ll go, taste-wise, when it comes to barnyard. That said, it’s really hard to do tripe well, and they pull it off here, so I wanted to highlight this dish. But I need to add a disclaimer: it’s not for the faint of heart. There’s a strong back note of funk. It could be tempered with a nice bowl of steamed rice, though.
Hot Spicy Spicy Chinese Restaurant
Finch and Leslie Square Plaza, 173 Ravel Rd., 416-491-8988, hotspicyspicychineserestaurant.com
This place has been open since 2005. I first visited in 2008, when some friends who live nearby brought me. Since then, I’ve spent an incredible amount of time in this plaza. There are so many options here that include regional Chinese cuisine and Chinese halal. There’s also Congee Wong, a Hong Kong barbecue shop, Petit Potato—which is Taiwanese—Sunny’s Supermarket, and more. To be honest, when I first came to Hot Spicy Spicy, it wasn’t that good. But, under its new owner, Simon Chen, it’s great. It offers both home-style and innovative Sichuan dishes, meaning that they’re not trapped in time. What they serve is the same as what’s offered in their homeland, so to speak. (Note: debit or cash only.)
Go-to dish #1: Dan dan noodles
Everyone identifies this as classic Sichuan fare in Toronto—and while it is enjoyed in China, it’s not something that’s eaten there every day. People who immigrate bring over these dishes, which kind of act as a time capsule of their food culture in that moment. Because, if you travel there now, the dish has evolved. But that’s why I like this restaurant: you get the best of both worlds here, current and classic.
Tasting notes: There’s sauce underneath, so make sure you give it a good mix. The first thing I get right away is the roasted sesame, then Sichuan peppercorn, chili oil, dried chili and scallions. Lastly, an often underrated but essential ingredient: ya cai, Sichuan pickled mustard greens. They can’t just be substituted with any other style of mustard green as it will drastically change the flavour profile. This is a classic example of how Simon and his team are attentive to these key details—that’s the difference between a good dish and a great dish. I should also note that, in China, the portion is much smaller and more portable—it’s supposed to be a street snack.
Go-to dish #2: Braised pig trotters
Tasting notes: This is so good. You kind of need to get handsy with it to extract all of the good bits. It’s basically gelatin and skin. It’s really porky in flavour and so rich, with a very desirable chew—a little bit like jerky.
Go-to dish #3: Water-boiled beef
Tasting notes: It comes sitting in a bit of broth and oil, so you need to use a slotted spoon to drain a bit of the excess liquid. There’s beef, soybeans, cabbage, and a smattering of Sichuan chili, garlic and whole peppercorn. It’s intense, and you need to weave through the peppercorns to get some—but not too many of—these landmines. If you’re not used to the heat, it can obliterate your palate. The meat itself is very tender, sweet and salty. Overall, it’s a very addictive dish.
Go-to dish #4: Dry Sichuan-style sausage
Tasting notes: This dish really shows the kitchen’s talent—it’s very hard to make from scratch. The lap cheung (cured pork) is sweet, salty and chewy. It makes for a great appetizer or snack, especially when paired with some cheap light beer.
Go-to dish #5: Chili chicken
Tasting notes: This is a very traditional take on a classic Chongqing dish. I like how the pieces of chicken in this version are just the right size and perfectly seasoned. It keeps you continually digging through the aromatic heaven-facing chilies to find the juicy and flavourful chicken. This is a dish that calls for beer—or peanut milk.
Go-to dish #6: Bamboo shoots
Tasting notes: This is so refreshing to eat, especially to help provide relief from the more assertive dishes on offer here. It’s a simple and pleasing dish that features salted pork and red chilis, but the star is the crunchy bamboo.
Go-to dish #7: Farmer-style pork belly
Tasting notes: This is an old-school stir-fried pork belly dish with douchi (fermented black bean) tossed in for added savouriness. Unlike the other dishes, it has little to no heat. In fact, the douchi almost has chocolate notes, which is due to the interesting complexity that comes from the fermentation process. As a result, it’s deep and earthy.
Fuji Lamb House
3330 Pharmacy Ave., 647-830-0666, fujilambhouse.ca
This was another situation where I just happened to be in the area, saw the restaurant, looked it up and immediately wanted to try it. I was blown away by how much I liked it. I thought I had discovered a bit of a hidden gem, but it’s actually quite a popular spot. It gets super crowded after 7 p.m. and is also open late. I’ve been coming for the past five or six years, and I still haven’t even eaten my way through half of the menu—there are that many options. It’s such a special spot for me that I chose to celebrate my 30th birthday here with friends, family and our staff. I’ll drive anywhere for great food, and Fuji is no exception. Pro tip: you can call in advance to have fresh lamb prepared whichever way you want. It’s sort of a cool off-menu feature. (Note: cash and debit only.)
Go-to dish #1: Chicken carcass frame BBQ (item 4004)
Tasting notes: Bones and off-bits are a chef’s favourite snack in the kitchen. The best part is the “pope’s nose“—it’s a flavour bomb full of fat, skin and juice. You certainly need to work at the carcasses to extract the meat, but you’re rewarded for your effort. Also, the way they cook it here is effective and delicious. They season the meat with their shao kao—otherwise known as a multipurpose seasoning made with chili flakes, cumin, MSG, fennel and other spices—then they flash-fry and grill it.
Go-to dish #2: Chicken wing skewers (item 4012)
Tasting notes: For those who want more meat on the bones, the chicken wing skewers are a must. First, you separate the drum from the wing, then push the protein backward while sliding out the bone. It’s efficient, and there’s no time to waste. As for the flavour and texture, it’s northern street-style barbecue. They use that same multipurpose seasoning for this dish. The meat is plump, tender and very juicy.
Go-to dish #3: BBQ roasted gluten skewers (item 4038)
Tasting notes: It looks like those spiralized potatoes you get at the CNE, but here they use gluten instead of potatoes. It gives you this chewy interior that’s coupled with a crusty exterior bite.
Go-to dish #4: BBQ green chili pepper skewers (item 4031)
Tasting notes: These are just a great counterpart to the fattier stuff on the table. They offer some fresh heat to cut through all the richness.
Go-to dish #5: Gluten noodles with lamb (item 5005)
Tasting notes: This dish is actually served cold, and I prefer it that way because it preserves the integrity and texture of the noodles. You can tell they’re handmade because of their rustic and ragged shapes. On first taste, you get the chewiness from the noodle, then the nutty sesame paste. This is followed up with the chili oil and a touch of soy. The lamb plays so well with this thanks to its sweetness and slightly gamey flavour.
Go-to dish #6: Northern cabbage plate (item 4028)
Tasting notes: Shao kao spice is used on these vegetables too. Their purpose is similar to the pepper skewers: they offer a break from all the rich dishes on the table. The cabbage, which has been flash-fried, is crunchy, sweet and spicy.
Go-to dish #7: Scallion pancake (item 5003)
Tasting notes: It takes skill to make this well, and they’re very skilled here. The final product should have crispy edges and a chewy, doughy interior. But doughy doesn’t mean it’s undercooked—it just tastes homemade. This is actually a specific style of scallion pancake that’s different from the flaky one most people may recognize. You can eat this plain, but I like to dip it in chili oil and vinegar.