The adage that Toronto's best Chinese food is uptown and not downtown is never more true than along Highway 7 in Richmond Hill.
The thoroughfare has seen a rapid growth of restaurants and new waves of cuisine that reflect the area's increasingly diverse and growing population. Diners are seeking out their version of "authentic" and are willing to spend money on it, from $6 bowls of noodle soups to banquet-style set dinners that can cost upwards of $1,500. While all corners of Asia are represented in the dozens of tightly packed strip malls that line the highway, regional Chinese food is a standout attraction.
"In the past, all you saw was Hong Kong-style food, but now you're seeing everything" a woman remarked as she waited in line at a small noodle shop. "There are so many different styles of Chinese cuisine up here, you won't find any of this downtown."
Minutes later, before diving in to a bowl of hot noodles and dumplings, she leaned over from her table and exclaimed, "Have you had anything authentic like this in Chinatown Spadina?"
Here are seven Richmond Hill restaurants worth the trip.
Jim Chai Kee
270 West Beaver Creek Rd., 905-881-8778Highway 7 is home to many tiny wonton shops that specialize in slow-cooked meat broths dressed with Cantonese noodles and stuffed dumplings. Every noodle aficionado has their favourite shop for $10 meals, and although most places stick to the classic dishes, it all comes down to the slight variances. Here, soups are feathery light with the subtlest of meat flavour, topped to the rim with thin noodles (choose from egg, rice, vermicelli) and your choice of protein. The house's most popular combination is a bowl of egg noodles with large velvety pillows of shrimp wontons, with small creases in the dumpling that give it the look of tiny brains. A meatier version is available with beef and fish ball.
Northern Dumpling Kitchen
550 Highway 7 E., 905-881-3818
Enjoying a properly executed Xiaolongbao can be an illuminating experience. When the cover is lifted off the bamboo basket at the table, the contents look like your average dumplings, but need to be handled with care. The popular dim sum dish is a soup contained within a rice-flour dumpling, trapping in liquid and minced pork. It is usually served with vinegar and ginger slivers. Pour a little vinegar into your spoon and dress it with a few slivers of ginger. Then, gently lift the soup dumpling with your chopstick, grabbing it by the twist top and rest it on your spoon. Let it soak for a few seconds. Bite off the twist top to let out the steam and then, in one scoop, empty the contents of the spoon into your mouth.
550 Highway 7 E., 905-762-1888
A Michelin-star chef cooks at this Hong Kong-style restaurant, where large groups gather around mounds of stir-fried sticky rice and XO sauced pork necks. The restaurant's specialty is wok hei stir-fry cooking, often referred to as "breath of the wok." Dishes are cooked over high heat in large round-bottomed carbon-steel vessels with small amounts of oil. Perfecting the wok hei technique gives the food a kiss of smoke and char with the right amount of crunch on the exterior of meat and vegetables. Get the chicken in black bean sauce. A vigorous flipping motion coats chunks of chicken with vegetables and a thin coating of black bean sauce. When it arrives at the table, the sauce clings to the charred bits of vegetables and meat, offering sweet and smoky notes with each bite.
Szechuan Legend Restaurant
505 Highway 7 E., #91-92, 905-889-7883The explosion of Richmond Hill's restaurant culture has given way to an army of restaurants that highlight the provincial variations of cooking styles in China. Restaurants such as Szechuan Legend feature a menu that is nearly entirely inspired by the province of Sichuan and its signature mouth-numbing peppercorn. Coincidentally located in the strip mall that houses the largest number of bubble tea shops, the restaurant is a popular spot for lunches and late-night dinners. Mapo tofu is a popular Sichuan dish where perfectly cubed tofu bathe in a pool of black bean sauce and spicy chili. The wave of heat and numb first hit your olfactory organs and then your mouth. The creamy custard-like texture of the tofu softens the blow of the chili and accents it at the same time.
White Orchid Restaurant
360 Highway 7 E., #5, 905-709-4660The iconic chicken-and-rice dish that originated in the southern Chinese province of Hainan, has been gaining steam quickly in this city. There are many versions of the Southeast Asian dish, showing variations from Malaysia to Thailand, and notably Singapore where the dish is often touted as a national representation of the island city-state. Whole chicken is poached with ginger, garlic and served with a mound of rice cooked in the same stock and dipping sauces. It's a dish that is superbly delicate and subtle. White Orchid's Singaporean-style poached chicken and oily rice is served with a minced garlic and scallion oil and house hot sauce.
420 Highway 7 E., 647-559-9067
No restaurant in Richmond Hill does a seafood feast quite like Omei. The restaurant's menu floats between Peking and Chongqing specialties, but the seafood options are the real draw. Lobster and crab are ordered by the number of preparation styles you want to see from steamed with garlic and onions to deep fried or wok hei-style with chilis and onions.
Dragon Boat Fusion Cuisine
160 East Beaver Creek Rd., 905-731-3718Dragon Boat is an example of a Chinese restaurant that brings a level of opulence and refined dining experience that is lacking in downtown Toronto. By day, the restaurant has a line out the door for dim sum, barbecue pork buns, har gow (shrimp dumplings) and deep-fried taro with quail egg. At night, Dragon Boat truly shines with menus shifting to banquet-style set dinners that bring everything table-side – from carved Peking duck to steamed bass finished in soy sauce. Best enjoyed in medium-sized groups.