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30. Relearning to Crawl
After a two-year hiatus, the return of a delicious tradition
It’s the time of the year when writers and publication are compiling their “Best of” and “Top 10” lists. Google and Vox put together retrospective videos for the year that never fail to make me choke up. But I’ve been working on a different kind of list. More of a map, really, plotting new candidates for inclusion in a daylong food crawl of Markham and Richmond Hill (and this year a small bit of Scarborough) that has become a post-Christmas and pre-New Year’s tradition.It seemed to me that his list would make for a great day of eating, so after Christmas that year, Beth, my friend Chris, and I decided to do just that. And thus began a tradition, with new stops (and participants) added and subtracted as years passed.
With vaccines just rolling out in a limited number of places, we did not crawl in 2020. In 2021, the Omicron surge again scuttled our plans. But in 2022, fully vaxxed, masked, and hopeful, we determined to crawl again. In the days leading up to the crawl, Chris, his partner Mei, and I started trading ideas for other places we could try and eventually created a map so we could see all our options as we moved around and play things by ear if necessary.
We started the crawl a little differently this year. Every other year, we started with a bowl of noodles and a cup of soy milkat Sun’s Kitchen in the Pacific Mall and continued through mostly Chinese and some Southeast Asian spots. This year we started farther south, at New Quality Bakery for some Sri Lankan “short eats” (snacks). I had never been, but it came highly recommended by many, including Southern Ontario’s guru of mom-and-pop restaurants, Suresh Doss, so it seemed like a strong candidate.
Strong is an understatement. The samosas and fish patty were terrific, with just enough heat to remind you that Sri Lankan food can really bring it, but not enough to drown out all of the other spices. The standout, however, was the meat roll, a thick cigar of spiced meat that has been breaded and fried. Simply spectacular. A great new start to the journey. And the flavour stayed with me as we drove north to our next stop.
The parking lot at the Pacific Mall can be… let’s say “competitive,” but Mei’s keen eyes spotted an open space right away and we were spared a long, meandering search that is always a possibility. Our lucky streak ended when we saw that Sun’s Kitchen is closed on Wednesdays. (This would soon become something of a motif for this year’s crawl.) We had two other new places in the PacMall food court we wanted to try, so we split up to see what we could bring back to the table.
While Beth went in search of that table, I headed to Prairie Lamb Kabob for… some lamb kabobs—thin skewers of lamb grilled with an intense amount of flipping and adjusting, and then dusted with a mixture of crushed chile and cumin. They were very juicy and flavourful and I was glad to have gotten us a large order of seven skewers over the small order of three.
Chris and Mei returned from The Fish Ball Place (seriously, that’s its name) with more skewers, but in this case Hong Kong-style fish balls, squid balls, honeycomb tripe, and chicken giblets. The fish and squid were both blended into a very emulsified paste that, when cooked, has a wonderfully spongy texture. They’re both lightly basted in a curry sauce. I am generally not a fan of honeycomb tripe, but this version was pretty much tolerable. The giblets were fantastic, as all chicken innards generally are. Not wanting to fill up too early, we packed up a few leftovers and made our way back to the car.
Our next stop was a new one for us. Chris had floated the idea of adding some Uighur food to the mix. We had a few options available to us, but the closest (and most open) was Xin Jiang, a short drive across Steeles in another mall called Metro Square.The lunch rush was just ending and we were able to get a table after a few minutes’ wait. Scoping out the dishes on other tables, we all remarked that everything looked good and, somewhat intimidatingly, extremely large. They did, however, have a section of Xinjiang-style barbecue we could order by the skewer, so we ordered a single skewer of lamb (not unlike the ones at the PacMall) and four chicken wings that arrived crispy and lightly flavoured with cumin. We ordered some smashed cucumbers to introduce the first vegetable of the day, as well as some lamb and dill dumplings and a small order of braised lamb ribs served on a crispy (at least the part of it what wasn’t submerged in braised lamb) pancake. The lamb was very tender and the braising liquid was shot through with chunks of green chiles and garlic, allowing you to control just how pungent and hot you wanted your experience to be.
At this point in the crawl, we usually give our stomachs a break to reclaim some of our appetite. Some years we'll see whatever Star Wars is playing nearby. This year there weren’t any movies that really excited usso we continued to a non-eating stop that we visit every year: J-Town.
J-Town, if you haven’t been, is a collection of Japanese food shops all in a single plaza (and mostly under one roof). There are several bakeries with milk bread, pastries, and more. A butcher sells very pricy Wagyu beef and Berkshire pork. Sushi-grade fish and takeout sushi is available next door. There are a variety of casual restaurants and a few shops selling housewares, beauty products, and books and knickknacks. Beth picked up some nori sheets for sushi and Chris got some plastic baskets for organizing his kitchen cupboards.
In the two years since my last visit, Heisei Mart, J-Town’s largest shop, had moved from its location inside the main building to a large space just across the courtyard. Given how the lineup for the cashier stretched all the way to the back of the store, it looked like a lot of people were getting back to the Japanese tradition of entertaining on New Year’s Day. I had already bought chow mein noodles before Christmas, so the only thing I really wanted was a can of C.C. Lemon for old time’s sake. I put it back on the shelf when I saw how long I’d have to wait.
Having walked off a few calories poking around J-Town, we headed next to First Markham Place, another mall that has been constant on all of our crawls. The parking situation at First Markham makes finding a spot at PacMall seem about as easy as making toast. Even when you finally find a vehicle about to leave and pull over to wait, as we did, you can’t let your guard down; another driver might try to steal the newly open spot from the other direction. Happily, Mei was able to fend off the poacher with a mysterious sequence of hand gestures and the spot was ours.
First Markham's food court has to be the best food court in the Greater Toronto Area.Of the 20-plus vendors serving Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Malaysian, Thai, Hong Kong-style café food and more, there's not a dud in the bunch. Malay Thai serves great curry laksa. Both barbecue places have long lines. The pan-fried (as opposed to the standard steamed) Xiao Long Bao (or XLB or soup dumplings) place was closed because, of course, it was Wednesday. But we decided to skip the food court in favour of Ding Tai Fung, where we could also get XLB. And more importantly, we could enjoy the one dish that has been a fixture of every crawl we've done, item #11—Shanghai wontons in spicy sauce.
Shanghai wontons are small, wrinkled pouches of pork and green onion (possibly chive) in a thin wrapper. The spicy sauce, the true star of the show, is somewhat spicy, but also tart and packed with umami and comes poured over the wontons. Taking big sips of just the sauce, the four of us were able to identify soy sauce, black vinegar, chile oil (possibly Sichuan peppercorn), and sesame paste, which contributed some body to the sauce as well. I’ll have to try to recreate it at home, but it’s possible we still haven’t identified another ingredient or two.
It was around three o’clock when we arrived, so the lunch rush was well and truly over. Normally when on the crawl, we never order much at any one place to avoid filling up too quickly. But I’m always wary of taking up a table at peak hours that would otherwise be ordering four full meals and we try to hit proper sit-down places in the gap between lunch and dinner. Ding Tai Fung was half empty as we ate our wontons, as well as very good XLB of both the pork and pork with crab varieties, and Shanghai-style pan-fried pork buns. This gave us a chance to take our time, chat about things other than food, and then plot our next destination.
Between the short eats, the fish balls, and the many iterations of lamb, both on a skewer and off, this year’s crawl had seen a lot of new and welcome additions. And a few stalwarts that we couldn’t fit in. Jim Chai Kee,great for wonton noodle soup, was yet another spot closed on Wednesdays. We decided to keep the novelty ball rolling with a visit to Nian Yi Kuai Zi, a Szechuan place that had opened up in the same mall as one of our all-time favourite stops of the crawl, Shanghai Dim Sum.
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Arriving at the mall, we made a horrifying discovery—Shanghai Dim Sum was gone! OK, maybe not gone entirely, but most of its tables and chairs had been replaced by a row of arcade claw machines.In place of its once lengthy menu, there were just a few options for XLB and other snacks, but not their fantastic "silk skin" soup dumplings that were the best I've had. No more cauliflower hot pot—cauliflower, chiles, and thin slices of pork belly in a spicy broth—for us either, ever again. Boo.
Double boo when we learned it would be a one-hour wait for a table at Nian Yi Kuai Zi. It was definitely the hippest-looking place we’d been to and every table was filled with diners younger than us (or most of us) so it seemed we had stumbled not on a hot pot, but instead on a hot spot. We decided to instead try our luck at Northern Dumpling Kitchen in the nearby Times Square mall.
Looking over the menu at NDK, we all realized that even though we were about to eat for the sixth time that day, none of us were as full as we’d been by this point on other crawls. We soon figured out why—every other crawl had started with noodles, either at Sun’s Kitchen or Wonton Hut. Having a big bowl of broth and carbs as our first mealmade that overly-full feeling inevitable. This time we had had neither noodles nor rice and were much the better for it. But we were nearing the end of the crawl and figured now was as good a time as any for some noodles. We opted for square-cut and slightly thick Shanghai noodles stir fried, with soy sauce, onion, and small bits of beef and shrimp. It wasn't the most spectacular dish of the day, but it was still very good. We also ordered some beef rolled up in an onion pancake, green beans dry-fried with pork and Sichuan peppercorns, and, because we were at a restaurant with the word "Dumpling" in its name, some classic fried pork and leek dumplings. Everything was spot on but the dumpling was another high point of the entire crawl. It may be on its way to "must have" status. The wrapper had a pleasant chew to it and the filling was porky and brightly pungent from the leek.
Feeling contentedly full, we decided that it was time to call it quits for the eating part of the day.Which meant that it was now time for the "finding some barbecue" part. Every year before heading home, we stop to pick up some pork and duck barbecue to see us through the next few days. As it's usually just about closing time for most BBQ shops, they are often running low or sold out of most items. The first few years we tried John's BBQ, who would either serve us grudgingly, or announce they were sold out, even though there was still lots of food in their display. Barbecue countermen are typically pretty gruff, so the grumbling receptions we got at Ho Ho BBQ and the neighbouring Kong Kee were to be expected (and fine—their job is to turn out great food and they do it excellently.). They were in the opposite direction from home, so we looked for a closer option.
Mei had been to Kum Hong BBQ before. It was one mall over from NDK but, she warned, it was closing soon so we should be prepared to either get nothing or somewhat unfriendly service. And indeed, when we arrived at Kum Hong, the case was almost empty, with just a lonely slab of roast pork on a hanger. The bottom of the case had already been wiped down. Things were not looking good. When a woman emerged from the back we asked if she had anything left. Very cheerfully, she replied that she still had some of all the things we were looking for. After we ordered another woman emerged from the back to ask us, again very cheerily, if we needed rice or any sauces, and then whisked the sliced barbecue pork into the back to brush it with some honey, something that had never happened at any other place.
Meanwhile, the first woman carefully arranged the slices of roast pork in the styrofoam clamshell, making sure each piece was topped by its own square of light and wonderfully crisp skin. I had never seen a barbecue place take any time to fuss with the presentation of an order like she did. We paid up, said goodbye, and left, truly amazed at how nice the women had been. Before getting in the car, we popped open one clamshell and tried the pork. It was fantastic. The crawl was over and we’d stuck the landing. After a day with so many new places, we’d definitely found our barbecue stop on next year’s route.
Between the gift guides and this issue, the newsletter lately has been a little too long to include the usual “What am I consuming?" and “What’s on the menu?” features. My first post of 2023 will be a quick recap of both.
Do you have any food traditions that you and your friends or family have created? Do you known an area that would make a great place for a food crawl? Is there a place you think we should hit next time? Let me know in the comments below or by replying to this email.
Markham and Richmond Hill are suburbs just to the north of the municipality of Toronto. Scarborough is Toronto’s easternmost region. Even in a diverse city like Toronto, their diversity (and the diversity of their restaurants) can be stunning.
Subsequent tours of where to eat in the suburbs were written by Suresh Doss, of whom more later.
That often went un-drunk.
If a Sri Lankan ever tells you that something is very hot, believe them. I learned this when ordering something at Saffron Spice Kitchen (The eggplant curry would be a first-round pick for a downtown food crawl.) that Johnne Phinehas, the chef and owner, warned me was particularly spicy. I said I would be fine and regretted it for days.
If finding a PacMall parking space can be competitive, finding a table at the food court can be downright cutthroat. While Beth was standing beside a table that was getting up to leave, clearly indicating that she had dibs on it, a woman brazenly plunked her belongings down on one of the seats.
Either because of the plot or the length.
It would be easy to do a series of food crawls in Markham and Richmond Hill that stick to a single food court or mall. We may have to start doing those as well.
No relation to Din (with no g) Tai Fung, the famous Taiwanese XLB shop with branches around the world.
Their website says they are open Wednesday. Website? More like web of lies.
Mei has a theory that the cabal of GTA wonton makers has a secret conclave they are required to attend on Wednesdays.
It was also pointed out that when we went to movies as a break from eating, I always got popcorn.
It was 7:45, so it was actually the night.
(I’m adding this footnote after I’ve already published this post, so if you’re reading it, hi there!) Francis Lam wrote a terrific piece in the last years of Gourmet about what it takes to create great Chinese barbecue. And, as it happens, it’s set at Ho Ho BBQ.