MasterChef Canada winner Eric Chong got his culinary education by eating his way through Toronto’s extensive Chinese food scene, a background that spurred him to co-found modern-Asian restaurant, R&D. Here are 14 great Chinese restaurants in Toronto that Chong loves.
Chinese food was first established in Toronto’s culinary landscape in the 1970s when waves of Hong Kong immigrants brought Cantonese cooking to Canada. Operating out of Chinatowns, they sold perfectly wrapped parcels of dim sum, succulent slabs of barbecued pork and bowlfuls of springy wonton noodles. Torontonians were soon hooked, and Guangdong cuisine quickly became a mainstay.
Nowadays, some of the best Cantonese food in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) lies farther afield in the suburbs, such as Richmond Hill and Mississauga, where Eric Chong – winner of MasterChef Canada – grew up. Following in the footsteps of his grandfather, who was a dim sum chef in Richmond Hill, Chong went on to open R&D, a modern Asian restaurant in Chinatown co-founded with Alvin Leung, who also moonlights as a judge on MasterChef Canada. Here are Eric Chong’s top 14 restaurants in Chinatown and the GTA.
“You have to go before you die,” says Chong of Fishman Lobster Clubhouse in North Toronto. “That’s a must. It’s a spectacle.” He admits that lobster is his favorite food, so he’s likely biased. But he’s not wrong about the fanfare. Giant tanks teem with larger-than-life lobsters, and selected crustaceans are wheeled out tableside before cooking. “You can pick it up, pet it, take photos with it – a lot of people take photos.” Afterward, the lobster is chopped, deep-fried and stacked into an impressive tower to serve.
Don’t let Gourmet Malaysia’s name deceive you. While there are some Singaporean and Malaysian dishes on the menu, this Scarborough restaurant serves up traditional Chinese options that have made a repeat customer out of Eric Chong. “It does a fantastic whole deep-fried fish with sweet-and-sour sauce,” he says. “But what makes it so good is that it’s still juicy and crispy with the sauce coating.” The restaurant has even earned top points from Alvin Leung. “Usually when he’s in town filming MasterChef, we’ll go out for a meal. We took him there, him and his wife, and they thoroughly enjoyed it.”
After winning the first MasterChef Canada title, Chong joined forces with judge Alvin Leung to open R&D in Chinatown in 2015. It’s one of the few contemporary, polished and more upscale eateries serving modern Chinese fare in the city. “We still have traditional Chinese dishes – we just take the extra step to do it our way,” says Chong. For example, the restaurant’s peking duck is brined, blanched and then dry-aged for two weeks. “It concentrates the flavor, tenderizes it and creates the actual umami.”
Lobster-lovers like Eric Chong (his Instagram handle is @wok_lobster) will appreciate this Richmond Hill restaurant’s treatment of the revered crustacean. Omei Restaurant serves it four ways in a multi-course meal: steamed and served cold in the shell, cooked in a soup, stir-fried in black bean or Maggi sauce, and its tomalley (crab fat) stir-fried with e-fu noodles. Chong says, “When my grandpa used to live in Richmond Hill, this was our go-to. For a birthday or any celebration, we go to Omei.”
Jim Chai Kee serves Chong’s grandfather’s favorite dish – wonton noodles. And while he’s not sure if the noodles are made in-house (his guess is they’re not), it’s the shrimp wontons that keep him and his grandfather coming back. “Its wontons are super plump and super big.” While he admits it might not be worth the trek up north just for the noodles, he recommends it if you’re ever in the area.
Toronto doesn’t have a Din Tai Fung yet, but it does have a Ding Tai Fung (note the additional ‘g’). The Taiwanese chain may have popularised the Shanghainese soup dumpling, but Toronto’s unofficial copycat gives it a good run for its money. “It’s quite difficult to find xiao long bao anywhere in GTA,” says Chong. “Ding Tai Fung does it very, very well. The skin is perfect. You can bite into it. You get that nice hot soup, and it’s very tasty.” Similar to the official Din Tai Fung, a display window into the kitchen allows guests to watch as chefs prepare these intricately made dumplings.
This casual Shanghainese joint in Chinatown puts a spin on the traditional xiao long bao by offering a pan-seared variety. “The reason why you don’t pan sear soup dumplings is because the skin is supposed to be super thin,” says Chong. “[Juicy Dumpling] has completely reversed it. It has it a bit thicker. But it’s crispy on the bottom, and the inside is still full of piping hot soup.” Chong also goes here for the sheng jian bao – thicker puck-like dumplings seared on both sides. “Everyone from work always brings it in before starting their shift,” he says of his staff at R&D.
The sound of a noodle master smacking mounds of dough on his prep counter provides an unexpected welcome to this Chinatown joint. “You walk in there, and the guy is banging the noodles,” says Chong. He commends the texture of Homemade Ramen’s fresh-pulled noodles, along with its selection of Northern Chinese dishes, such as stir-fried lamb noodles and scallion pancakes.
Chong has fond memories from a young age of visiting this barbecue joint – located in an unfussy dai pai dong, a Chinese food court, in Mississauga. “[The owner] always gave me extra pork and drippings, like the gravy from the roast pork, because she thought I was cute,” he remembers with a laugh. “They’re so stingy with the gravy if you don’t know them.” The roast pork and barbecued pork come recommended, but Luen Hing also serves duck and chicken.
When money is no object, Chong heads here for reliably consistent and delicious dim sum. Located just east of Chinatown, Lai Wah Heen is one of the few traditional places with a more upscale environment. “Some of its dim sum is very creative and cute. Its lai wong bao, milk custard bun – it looks like a panda.” The Instagrammable dim sum comes at a price, however, with bill totals costing up to 50 Canadian dollars ($38) per person. “If budget is not an issue and if somebody else is treating you, then you should definitely go here.”
Hong Fatt BBQ is a top pick for the best value in the downtown core. “For 5.65 [Canadian dollars ($4.30)] with tax, you can get a large plate of rice, two choices of barbecued meat, soup, braised cabbage and unlimited tea,” says Chong. In traditional, casual Hong Kong dining fashion, you may end up sharing a table with 60-year-old men reading newspapers or watching TV when this Chinatown restaurant is busy, but it’s all part of the experience.
As its name might suggest, King’s Noodle Restaurant is renowned for its bowls of noodle soup. With almost 50 varieties to choose from, options range from barbecued pork to pig’s feet and wonton for the more avid Chinatown diner. Even in the packed storefronts of Spadina Avenue, you cannot miss the restaurant’s exterior thanks to the authentic fried and barbecued ducks hanging in the window.
Open from early in the morning until 2am, Rol San Restaurant is a great choice whatever time of day you find yourself craving Chinese food. Authentic dim sum is served fresh all day and attracts a large crowd of customers, who are thankfully accommodated by the restaurant’s large double seating area. For the uninitiated, service can appear a little frantic, with the staff constantly bringing out new bamboo containers of food. However, this ensures that the dishes are always piping hot, and servers are happy to offer menu advice if asked.
Chong’s fiancée’s family members are hotpot fans, so they often head to this all-you-can-eat joint in Chinatown to get their spice fix. Patrons can choose from a wide selection of soup bases, including a fiery, numbing spice base characteristic of Sichuanese hotpot, alongside milder options. There’s also an all-you-can-drink soy milk fountain and a sauce station for diners to assemble their own dipping bowl with soy sauce, satay sauce, chili oil and scallions in their preferred proportions.