Category Archives: Toronto

Ten Places to Taste Hong Kong in North America

It was 5 years ago this weekend that my mom passed away. While there were a number of delicious foods and restaurants she introduced my siblings and me to, the one that stood out the most in our memories were the cha chaan tengs (茶餐廳), also known as a Hong Kong style cafes. In fact, to this day my brother wistfully remembers the times and food we had at a now-closed cha chaan teng near the college he attended. So while I love all the dim sum, Korean BBQ, and pho we had, our meals at cha chaan tengs are what I miss the most.

And arguably, I think it’s the best type of restaurant to experience the culture and food of Hong Kong. Sure, dim sum is delicious, seafood palaces are sumptuous, and Cantonese BBQ purveyors deliver morsels of lip-smacking goodness, but nothing represents the East meets West, fast paced lifestyle that is quintessentially Hong Kong like a cha chaan teng.

After all, cha chaan tengs are essentially Hong Kong’s version of a diner, and honestly what is a more quintessential American restaurant than a diner? Like a diner, cha chaan tengs may not have the best food, but the food is reliable and comfortable. And of course, they are ubiquitous in Hong Kong. A block could have a few cha chaan tengs, all doing brisk business with lines waiting for a seat.

Thus, here’s a guide to ten decent cha chaan tengs where you can sip a good cup of Hong Kong style milk tea, eat a steak with black pepper sauce and rice, and take a bite of a pineapple bun across North America (restaurants sorted by metro area by state/province. There are other metros with decent cha chaan tengs, this is just a selection):

Vancouver/Richmond, BC

Cafe Gloucester (3338 Cambie St, Vancouver) – Not the most glamorous cha chaan teng (though most are rarely glamorous), but they serve reasonably good takes on classic Hong Kong diner dishes with larger portions and reasonable prices. I loved their Hong Kong style Russian borscht in particular.

Silver Tower Cafe Restaurant (100-8500 Alexandra Road, Richmond) – There are a few cha chaan tengs in this couple block stretch of Alexandra Road in Richmond alone, but I find Silver Tower Cafe to be one of the better ones. Whether you want steak on top of a bed of french fries and peas or a bowl of beef brisket noodle soup, they have it all and almost everything I’ve had there in the couple times I’ve been have been very satisfying. Best of all for a traveler, it’s just relatively short walk from the Landsdowne Canada Line station.

Los Angeles, CA (inc. the San Gabriel Valley and Orange County)

JJ Cafe (447 Garvey Ave, Monterey Park) – One of the first popular cha chaan tengs in the San Gabriel Valley, JJ Cafe has been dishing out solid, if not spectacular food for a couple decades. The baked pork chop dishes and milk tea here are fairly representative of the east-west fusion you would find back in Hong Kong.

Tasty Garden 2

Tasty Garden (288 W Valley Blvd, Alhambra; also in Irvine, Monterey Park, and Westminster) – This mini chain in SoCal executes almost all its dishes well. I prefer the Alhambra location for excellent execution of the Cantonese comfort dishes on the menu in addition to excellent Hong Kong milk tea and egg waffles done right (unlike at some other branches).

San Francisco Bay Area, CA

Cooking Papa 1

Dumpling and wonton noodle soup at Cooking Papa

Cooking Papa (949A Edgewater Blvd, Foster City; also in Mountain View and Santa Clara) – Not a true cha chaan teng as they do not have the ubiquitous Hong Kong style western food that’s endemic and definitive of a cha chaan teng, but they do a solid serving of classic Cantonese food with pretty decent milk tea. Foster City used to be the standard to beat, but I’ve had better food at their Santa Clara location more recently.

Hong Kong Chef (46356 Warm Springs Blvd in Fremont) – I came here on a whim during the first day of service at the Warm Springs/South Fremont station and it didn’t disappoint. I really liked their preserved meat claypot rice dish as well as their various stir-fried vegetables including Chinese broccoli and tong choy.

Kowloon Tong Dessert Cafe (393 7th Ave, San Francisco) – Some of the best milk tea and egg waffles I’ve had in the Bay Area have been at this tucked in restaurant on 7th Ave in the Richmond neighborhood of San Francisco. While their entree plates are fairly mediocre (which you can tell by their name), their snacks and desserts are pretty good, including their curry fishballs that definitely tasted like home.

Hong Kong Style Milk Tea at Shooting Star Cafe

Hong Kong Style Milk Tea at Shooting Star Cafe

Shooting Star Cafe (1022 Webster St, Oakland) – Glitzy decor and modern-ish furnishings set this cha chaan teng apart from most others. But this restaurant isn’t just about the looks. I find it has the best milk tea I have tasted in the Bay Area and they shine very bright in their desserts, including their egg waffles. Their savory food leaves a little more to be desired but there are some gems there too, including their Hainanese Chicken Rice, Wonton Noodle Soup, and Black Pepper Short Ribs.

New York, NY

Cha Chan Tang (45 Mott St, New York) – Their menu sides more with the instant ramen, sandwiches, and macaroni soups that are popular in Hong Kong and they do them fairly well. Those are not my favorite cha chaan teng dishes, but it definitely gives you another side of Hong Kong cuisine where they make “western” foods uniquely their own.

Toronto, ON

Phoenix Restaurant (7155 Woodbine Ave., Markham; also on McCowan in Markham, Scarborough, and Thorhill) – This place excels the most at baked rice dishes, Hainanese Chicken Rice, and their Hong Kong style twist on Southeast Asian food, but other dishes seem to be solid as well. 

Of course, most of these cha chaan tengs also have “authentically” Hong Kong style service, where turning tables is of the upmost importance. So sit down, look at the menu quickly (yes, even with all the options!), order, and eat. If you need something, just wave your hands. Yes, this perfunctory service is part of the ambience. It’s not necessarily rude, just ruthlessly efficient and an integral part of Hong Kong’s go-go-go culture.

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Toronto & Markham

Last week I spent some quality vacation time in Montreal and Toronto for the 4th of July Canada Day weekend. It was a fun filled few days that included some exciting food adventures. While I did eat one Chinese meal in Montreal, it was decidedly mediocre. So if you’re planning a trip to Montreal, I would stick to classic French fare and local specialties like bagels and poutine than going on an Asian food adventure (Vietnamese food possible excepted).

The hub of fantastic Asian food is, instead, located west in Anglophone Canada. In the 2011 census Toronto was 49.1% ‘visible minority’, the Canadian term equivalent to ‘people of color’ excepting First Nations folk. And of the nearly half of Toronto that are people of color, nearly two-thirds of those are either of South Asian, East Asian, or Southeast Asian descent. These numbers increase when you go out to a number of Toronto suburbs, like Brampton, Richmond Hill, and Markham.

Needless to say, my Asian eating adventures dramatically improved when I hit Canada’s largest city. Below are just three of the limited samples of Asian food I was able to try on my brief 2 day stay in Toronto.

Sansotei Ramen
650 Yonge Street
Toronto, ON M4Y 2A6

Toronto 1

Tonkotsu Black at Sansotei Ramen

A friend from high school lives in Toronto and we decided to meet up and grab a bite at the Church and Wellesley (Toronto’s gayborhood) adjacent location of this well regarded local ramen chain.

With only 5-6 options, the menu was pretty simple. My friend and I both went with the Tonkotsu Black, which is a Tonkotsu broth with roasted garlic oil. The broth was fatty with a nice hint of garlic oil, but also managed not to be too heavy or overwhelming. I also got the thin ramen noodles which still had a nice bite even after being the the broth for a while. The eggs were perhaps slightly overcooked over soft boiled, but nonetheless still had good texture and flavor. And finally, the pork was thinly sliced, nice, and tender.

Overall, this was my best bowl of ramen in a while, after consistently disappointing bowls in the Bay Area.

Yang’s Chinese Cuisine
8432 Leslie St., Unit 110
Markham, ON L3T 7M6

Toronto’s suburbs of Markham and Richmond Hill are lined with suburban Chinese strip malls similar to LA’s San Gabriel Valley and Vancouver’s Richmond. It’s no surprise then that these are the places to go to get great Chinese food. In fact, suburban Toronto’s Chinese food is so good, it is considered 2nd best in North America, even better than the San Gabriel Valley.

To test how good the scene was, I decided to go to one of the newer restaurants reputed to have some of the best dim sum in the area: Yang’s Chinese Cuisine. After renting a car in downtown Toronto at 1PM, I made the mad dash to get to the restaurant before dim sum hours closed. Despite the later hour, the restaurant was still pretty busy and they managed to squeeze me at a small table in the side VIP room. I sat down, ordered my tea, and ticked off the menu for the following items:

  • Steamed Dumpling in Homestyle (家鄉蒸粉粿) – Given the rather vague name of the dish, I decided to take my chances with this only knowing that the menu said it contained peanuts. What ended up at my table was a very nicely made Cantonese style ‘sticky rice tamale’ that had some pork, Chinese sausage, and peanuts. It was pretty well executed but I was disappointed that it wasn’t quite a dumpling.
Steamed House Special Shrimp Dumpling at Yang's Chinese Cuisine

Steamed House Special Shrimp Dumpling at Yang’s Chinese Cuisine

  • Steamed House Special Shrimp Dumpling (順峰蝦餃皇) – These shrimp dumplings were pretty good with a wrapper that was thinner but pulled well. The filling was also nice, with fresh shrimp added by just a little salt and pepper.
  • Steamed Beef Stomach and Turnip with Chu Hau Sauce (柱候蘿蔔金錢肚) – On the flip side, this dish was just okay. Because this dish generally relies on the strength of the sauce to infuse into the otherwise bland-ish tasting honeycomb tripe and daikon, the flavors were a bit mild and lacked a little heat and spice.
Steamed Rice Roll with Egg Tofu and Pea Sprout Leaves at Yang's Chinese Cuisine

Steamed Rice Roll with Egg Tofu and Pea Sprout Leaves at Yang’s Chinese Cuisine

  • Steamed Rice Roll with Egg Tofu and Pea Sprout Leaves (鹽酥子豆苗腸) – The last item to come to the table also happened to be my favorite. I was fascinated on this take of the rice noodle roll and it didn’t disappoint. The delecate but well made rice noodle rolls held up perfectly bite sized morsels of fried bean curd and pea sprouts. The sweet soy sauce balanced the fresh, savory taste of the pea sprouts making every one of these bites really heavenly.

All in all the food was really good and on par with some of the best places in LA, even if it fell short of Vancouver. I was definitely very impressed by my first Chinese meal in metro Toronto.

Pacific Mall
4300 Steeles Ave E.
Markham, ON L3R 0Y5

My last stop on my Asian tour of Toronto was the locally famous Pacific Mall. The Pacific Mall is a mall about the size of a Costco with 2 floors and 100+ shops. Given the number of different shops and food stalls at the mall, I am fairly confident that this is the most Hong Kong style mall in all of North America.

Given the number of vendors, it was impossible to try them all so I went to a couple, one for lunch and one for dinner.

For lunch I settled on Kam Hing and got a deep fried chicken noodle soup. Originally I wanted the roast duck noodle soup, but they were already sold out. The chicken was okay, though in the broth the skin predictably became far too soggy. The noodles were nice however and the broth was decent and not too salty. Overall it was a satisfying, if not exactly sensational, lunch.

Afterward I headed straight over the the egg waffle vendor to get a fresh 鷄蛋仔 with the rest of my Canadian cash. The 鷄蛋仔 vendor had a steady stream of customers, which meant that the 鷄蛋仔 came out fresh and hot, but unfortunately a little undercooked as they rushed to get them out rather than waiting slightly longer to get the outside crispier.

All in all, my Toronto Asian food adventures were fantastic. Unfortunately, it was just not enough time. I didn’t even really make a dent at all in Markham, with its other big Chinese strip malls, and I never even made it to Brampton, Richmond Hill, or Scarborough. However that just means one thing: I’ll need to book another Canadian vacation soon.