First Markham Place is Markham's "other" Chinese mall
When people think about Asian/Chinese malls in the GTA, chances are the first place that comes to mind is Pacific Mall. This instant connection unfortunately overshadows the fact that there is another relatively large mall to the north (and west) called First Markham Place. Built in the late 1990's, located in the main area of Markham, and boasting over 150 non-chain retail stores with 20-plus restaurants, this shopping centre is a favourite among locals who want to get their Asian fix but don't want to travel to the much further (and much more chaotic-parking wise) Pacific Mall.
An interesting aspect about the mall is its overall physical layout and location. First, it's located adjacent to a big box mall known as the Woodside Centre, which houses a Home Depot, Kelsey's, Chapters, and other Western merchants. With only a small local road separating the two shopping centre's parking lots, this results in a literal East meets West scenario.
Second, the mall is comprised of two types of retail form: an indoor mall and a strip plaza. Most of the merchants that sell goods and services, along with the food court, are located in the indoor section, whereas most of the major restaurants are dotted along the strip plaza. Not only do we have a juxtaposition of cultures, but also one in terms of shopping centre typology.
Here are some interesting places to check out (or eat in) at First Markham Place.
The food court (indoor mall)
One of the undisputed highlights of First Markham Place is the food court. It's a spacious and sprawling space of 20+ stalls eagerly wanting to fill your stomach with an extremely diverse array of Asian goodies. Thai food? Check. Korean? They got two of those. Malay? Got it. Chinese? Don't even get me started. Combined with the opportunity to watch Chinese seniors performing tai chi in the morning, it's practically dinner and a show. Some highlights are the delicious yet cheap shu mai dumplings at Yan's Cook or the juicy pork chops at Wah Lam Food Expert.
Oriental Recipes (indoor mall)
No trip to Singapore is complete without trying out their famous bakkwa, which are ultra-moist and tender beef jerkies. This little stall located at the very end of First Markham Place now brings you a taste of that amazing Singaporean specialty to the GTA without the high cost of an airplane ticket.
Spellbound (indoor mall)
If you ever wanted to get your hair to look like those quirky J-Pop or Cantopop artists with their anime-gravity-defying looks and multicoloured dyes, then try this salon out. It has been open for as long as the mall has, and 15+ years in a retail complex with high turnover speaks volumes for the place's popularity and quality. With reasonable prices and funky interior, this is a place where the young, or at least the young at heart, can let their hair down (quite literally) and get creative.
Shun Lee Herbs (indoor mall)
No trip to a major Chinese mall would be complete without a stop at a Chinese herbal store, and this unit is arguably one of the most impressive ones in First Markham. Featuring a very large open store with bright lights, you can easily get lost in your thoughts as you examine the various herbs made up of animal and plant parts that you've never heard of, for help on everything from the more mundane-sounding hair loss to the more exotic -sounding "clearing of qi from toxins".
Fruit Jungle (indoor mall)
Despite the fact that the York Region landscape is full of many excellent bubble tea stalls, this modest-looking establishment sets itself apart by offering real fruit juices in their drinks, as opposed to the powdered flavour variety found in most other places. Bonus points are given to the well-meaning but overly-excited and comical sign on the front of the store ("pearls not rocky or delicate soil, but chewy and yummei!" in reference to the texture of their tapioca balls) and the fact that they can't seem to make up their mind if the store's name is Fruit Jungle (as seen on their store signage) or Food Jungle (as seen on their wall decorations).
Ding Tai Fung (strip plaza)
Offering soup-filled dumplings (xiao long bao) and other Shanghainese specialties, the dim sum dishes here are not of your typical Cantonese variety. It's priced relatively higher than most other dim sum places in the GTA, but the portion size and the quality of the ingredients make it worthwhile. There's even a glass window through which you can see the chefs hand-making your delicate dumplings. Try the crab xiao long bao, which has been praised by many to be the best in Canada (no, seriously).
Peaktop Restaurant (strip plaza)
Another long-standing mainstay of First Markham Place, this Cantonese restaurant opened its doors in 1997 and has had several renovations to keep the interior fresh and current, even expanding its reach by opening a second location in Vaughan. Offering Cantonese staples like BBQ meats and roast sucking pig, this place is a staple for Chinese food lovers who want something a little more upscale. The newest addition to their menu is their collection of delicious hot pot rice dishes.
Szechuan Garden (strip plaza)
Part of the spicy Ban Mu Yuan family of restaurants, this location offers your taste buds a tasty and spicy experience. They specialize in hot Szechuan favourites such as the spicy fish (sui zhu yu) and the spicy beef (fu qi fei pian). While it doesn't offer the regular dim sum dishes that many of the other locations have, this location does offer two specials: a large variety of handmade dumplings and a collection of hot pot dishes, both with their own special menus, so make sure you ask for them.
VIP Vietnamese Cuisine (strip plaza)
If you're not a purist and therefore don't mind a Vietnamese restaurant completely operated by Chinese people, then you should visit this place. The beef slices in each of their pho dishes are by far some of the freshest in the GTA. In addition, their lemongrass chicken/porkchops have bold flavours and are better than similar varieties offered at other establishments.
Nak Won (strip plaza)
Quickly becoming a favourite among Korean food fans, this restaurant chain is well-known for its large variety of Korean and Korean- Chinese dishes. This particular location feels a lot brighter and more spacious than the others, while the food quality is as solid as you would expect from this chain. Try the dolsot bibimbap, which is a rice, egg and meat dish served in a hot stone bowl complete with spicy sauce. It tastes as lovely as it sounds and comes to your table sizzling hot.