6 places to eat Szechuan-style Chinese food in the GTA
Definitely not one for the faint of heart or cowardly taste buds, Szechuan food is one of the spiciest cuisines that I know of. And I love it. Growing up in Southeast Asia, I have become extremely accustomed to having a little (OK, maybe a lot) of added zing to my food, and this is predominantly the starting point for my love of Szechuan spiciness. And I'm not talking hot the way most Western restaurants define hot. No sirree, we're talking about complex and savoury spices, that often reach tongue-numbing levels (more on that later).
The thing is, most "Western" Canadian places define hot in that tart-yet-burning taste you get when you bite into your suicide wings coated with Frank's Red Hot sauce. While I admit that this type of spicy has its own merits, it has unfortunately led many to believe that this is how one defines "hot". Trust me, there's quite a bit more than that.
Szechuan Chinese food comes from the Sichuan province (surprise!), located around the southwestern part of China, and is well known for its strong and spicy flavours. The term has also, unfortunately in many places, become something of a catch-all phrase that Chinese restaurant owners just slap on to the name of any food that is considered spicy. Hence why you see "Szechuan Chicken" in almost all Asian and pan-Asian restaurants in the GTA, even though the taste is not remotely close to those of more authentic Szechuan places.
The type of spice characteristic of this cuisine is one called "ma la", which in Mandarin means numbingly hot. This is because the flavours are rich and strong, but the heat of the spice can feel tongue-numbing afterwards. Of course, many places can tone this heat down on request, so don't feel that Szechuan food is only for those who enjoy self-flagellation and other painful activities.
In my never-ending crusade for truth, justice, and setting the record straight for everyone out there, I have compiled a short listing (psstt....it's not meant to be a comprehensive list...) of some authentic Szechuan-style Chinese food restaurants around the northern part of the GTA and York Region. In other words, my neck of the woods. Let your foreheads be forewarned though, there will be sweat tonight.
Here are 6 places to eat Szechuan-style Chinese food in the GTA.
Hot Spicy Spicy (173 Ravel Rd. North York)
I never can stop LOL'ing whenever I read the English name for this restaurant. I just love it to pieces because it tells you pretty much what to expect, and then repeats it twice to make sure you get the message. The decor is very simple but the food is very good and service is usually quite fast. Highly recommended is the cumin beef and the spicy fish soup, both my go-to dishes at this joint. Bonus points as the restaurant is located in the same plaza as a Chinese dessert place called Kitchen 31 (formerly called The Sugar), so you can immediately cool those burning taste buds after a good meal.
Chili Secrets (9021 Leslie St., Richmond Hill)
The second and last of the Ban Mu Yuan restaurants to make it on my list, this place tries very very hard to create an upscale experience with its murals, high ceilings, and frou-frou interior, but then ruins it by having the stereotypical chaotic Chinese placements of cheaply shot food photos all over the walls. Not to mention the trays and boxes of cutlery propped up against the walls everywhere....oh dear God what a wasted effort. However, this should not detract from the fact that the food is very decent. My favourite here is the four season fried beans (gan bian si ji dou), which is wonderfully spiced and flavoured. Not too spicy and not too salty. Another dish that is very popular there is the cold beef tripe (also known as fuqi feipian, which is pronounced as foo-chee-fay-pea-and. Thank me later for the cheat sheet). Bonus points that this place serves very good dim sum in the mornings.
New Greatime Corp. (3875 Don Mills Rd, North York)
The number one winner in confusing and embarrassingly bad English names definitely goes to this little joint. Confusingly going by the name "Hot World" on its business card, this restaurant serves up a ton of the everyday Szechuan favourites. Fortunately, all of the ones I have tried are excellent. From the deep fried chili chicken to the spicy fish soup, everything is indeed very spicy, but most importantly also very tasty. The flavours don't just bombard your tongue with fiery heat but have a rich complexity. A particular favourite of mine is their crab roe tofu. Its smooth taste and lack of spice is a very nice contrast to the other dishes here. Another must-try is the Szechuan cold chicken, which is basically a cold spicy chicken dish, and is a lot tastier than it sounds. Fast service but cash only.
Szechuan Legend Restaurant (505 Hwy 7 East,Unit 91&92, Richmond Hill)
Located inside Commerce Gate, a plaza that essentially consists of what feels like row after row of Chinese restaurants, this little-known restaurant does not disappoint in providing authentic Szechuan food for a very low price. The most amazing thing that people need to check out here are their lunch specials, which are only around $6 at last check. Some of the highlights include the cumin lamb (must be tried to be believed) and the twice-cooked pork, both Szechuan specialties. The decor is a bit bare but kudos to its marketing team that has put this restaurant on Facebook (something very uncommon for places this size) and on the world wide web, featuring an online menu so your mouth can start to water before you even get there.
Bashu Sichuan (4771 Steeles Ave East, Scarborough)
This restaurant is located very close to the hulking Asianophile headquarters known as Pacific Mall, and offers quite a bit of non-spicy alternatives in addition to their Szechuan favourites. Most of the dishes offered are similar to the ones I mentioned previously, but their specialty is the dan dan noodles. The noodles have a sharp strong flavour, and the texture is just right - not too hard and not too soft. Other dishes on the menu are OK (good quality but nothing special). Another cash-only restaurant, so make sure you go here first before you spend the rest of it at P-Mall (that's what we hip locals call it).
Szechuan Garden (3225 Hwy 7, Markham) CLOSED
Szechuan Garden is one of four (I think?) restaurants which share an interesting quirk: their Chinese names are the same (Ban Mu Yuan), but their English names are all different, which I guess helps to quickly identify which location you just had your meal at, even if it doesn't do much wonders from a marketing standpoint as it gets really confusing for those who speak both languages. The spicy fish soup here (otherwise known as sui zhu yu) is pretty much the hottest out of all the places I've had to date. It's fantastic for sweating buckets but the spiciness blocks out everything else. Also, oddly, they offer excellent Beijing roast duck here.
Top photo by Precilla Cheung
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