Evelyn Wu owns Boralia in Toronto, along with her husband, chef Wayne Morris. They let MUNCHIES tag along on a day trip to the 'burbs to eat at Wu's favourite strip mall Chinese restaurants, along with their baby boy as well as photographer Johnny CY Lam.
Once you hit Highway 7, it's just strip mall after strip mall after strip mall of Chinese shops and restaurants.
Storefronts are in Chinese and it's Chinese people everywhere. There is so much more space there compared to downtown, where everything is getting gentrified. A lot of Chinese people got pushed out of the city and that's why there are so many massive dim sum and banquet halls with like 500 covers. Also, many chefs immigrated from Hong Kong to Toronto, and a lot of families were already living near Highway 7, so it just made sense for them to set up shop there.
It's a lot like New York, where a lot of city chefs were driven out of downtown and ended up in Flushing. I was told that the Triads pushed them out of Toronto, but who knows.
I haven't eaten Chinese food in downtown Toronto in a long time. My dad used to have a downtown office on Spadina and go to places like King's Noodle and Dragon City, but for the most part we ate at the strip malls.
If you're opening a Chinese restaurant on Queen and Spadina, you have to make Chinese food for people who don't know traditional Chinese food as well. But out in neighbourhoods like Markham, Richmond Hill, or North York, there isn't a need to cater to white people, so they just keep serving the stuff that they want to serve.
Narrowing down these restaurants to just two or three places and trying to showcase everything that Toronto has to offer is impossible; you could never sum it up in a day or a week or a month. There's the place that's amazing for Shanghainese dumplings, and the other amazing place for barbecue pork, or crab towers, or whatever. It's impossible to capture it all, but it's so cool at the same time.
Our first stop was ABC Bakery & Coffee Shop, in North York. We got there at around 11 o'clock in the morning and they were just bringing out fresh egg tarts that are made with lard as opposed to butter pastries. Every 45 minutes they bring out fresh trays, from 8AM until closing, so it's fresh all day. It was originally a doughnut shop but one of their employees— from Hong Kong—eventually took it over.
Then we headed over to Crown Prince Fine Dining & Banquet. I've been going there since I was little. My family lives nearby and my eye doctor was there, so we would eat there all the time. It's Chinese dim sum and banquet food. It used to be called New World and we would rent out the private room for huge multi-course family dinners.
It was a lot of steamed fish and lobster and sweet-and-sour pork. Now, we go specifically for the crispy chicken knuckles, which is something I've rarely seen in other restaurants. There's a little bit of meat and a lot of cartilage and a lot of fat. I also like the deep-fried pork dumplings called ham siu gok, which is ground pork wrapped in chewy, glutinous, rice-based dough that then gets deep fried. It's a great combination of crispy and chewy.
Din Tai Fung was the last stop, which is known mostly for their Shanghainese classics like soup dumplings. You can tell they're well made because the dough is really thin and the soup still stays inside.
For some kids, super hot dumplings, chicken knuckles, and ham siu gok might taste or look weird, but my son eats everything: the knuckles, the chilled beef tendon and chillies, tripes, green onion pancakes, even the curried cuttlefish we ordered. My husband is also a chef, so we don't really give our kid the choice, and these restaurants provide a bit of an education for him.
It's the food I'm most comfortable with. You could eat a different Chinese cuisine every day of the week and nothing would be the same. You never really get sick of Chinese food because there are so many different regions you can try food from. I co-own Boralia with my husband Wayne and we're constantly thinking about how these meals might inspire food at the restaurant, but whether or not that comes to fruition is a very different thing.
I would like to inject more Chinese flavors into our food, but at what point do you say, "OK, Toronto has enough amazing Chinese restaurants"? You don't want to bastardize the stuff you grew up with just to make it kitschy. It's like Italian food; there are Italian immigrants who came to Canada, do I want to mess with that? No, because so many people to do it so well. There's no point in putting a twist on it just to seem gimmicky.
For me, with Chinese food it just has to make sense. Like our deviled tea eggs and chop suey croquettes, it really has to fit the bill. Otherwise, it cheapens our concept and the inspiration as well. We haven't been able to find that perfect combo yet. This food is so good the way it is that you really don't want to fuck with it.
As told to Nick Rose.