7 great (but under-the-radar) Asian restaurants in the GTA
I have it, you have it, we all have it: a personal list of places that we love to eat at that we believe are underrated. Admittedly, many of these places do have a steady stream of customers going into them. On closer inspection, they're usually the same people day in and day out. In other words, the restaurant may have a core group of loyal followers, but not many outside of that circle know about it. And that, my friends, is the motivation for me coming up with this list: to give some of these lesser-known places their time in the limelight.
I should also note that I don't believe hidden gems need to be defined as small and inexpensive restaurants. While my wallet and I have a particular love for unassuming places that serve magnificent and cheap food, there are definitely lots of nicer places which represent good value for money that many people may not be familiar with. As such, those restaurants make this list as well.
Finally, in a slight break from my usual Chinese food-centric posts, I felt this list should include other Asian restaurants as well. And that's why you'll find slightly more than just Chinese joints in this article, although they still represent the majority of the list. Give 'em a try, and tell 'em I sent you. I'm sure you'll be met with blank stares and awkward silences.
Here are my top seven lesser-known gems around Toronto and its suburban neighbours, in no particular order:
Rol Jui Seafood Restaurant (472 Dundas St West)
Despite its ridiculous name (my girlfriend's entire family is from China and they have no idea how this is a Chinese name), this place serves up delicious, no-nonsense Chinese food brought to your disposable tablecloth-covered tables. It's glorious. No money was wasted on frivolities such as interior design as this restaurant doesn't look pretty. But, man, is the food fantastic. The absolute must-try is their lobster with green onion and ginger. A Chinese classic, it's by far the best version that I've ever tasted in Toronto. Also, their prices are very reasonable and the portions are large. A nice touch is that the ever-friendly staff often greet incoming patrons as "lang jai" or "lang lui" which are approximate Cantonese translations for "handsome guy" or "pretty girl".
New Greatime Corp. (3875 Don Mills Rd.)
Another ridiculously named restaurant that showed up previously on my Szechuan list, New Greatime (sic) serves up authentic uber-spicy and ultra-tasty Szechuan food in a lightning-quick manner. Located at the very end of an old and tired-looking strip plaza right off of Don Mills Road, 15 minutes bus ride from Don Mills station (see, there's good stuff close to the Sheppard line after all!), this place's main specialty is the spicy boiled fish, also known as sui zhu yu, as well as the spicy chili chicken. All pack a nice hot kick with a beautifully seasoned aftertaste. Don't forget to order a can of "wang lao ji", a Chinese tea-like soft drink of sorts, to cool down your palate afterwards. Also, make sure to order the crab roe tofu, which is so brightly orange you'd think it contains vitamin C. The only downside? They only take cash.
Bali Restaurant (10 East Wilmot St, Richmond Hill)
This restaurant serves up Southeast Asian-style food in a plaza that's a little difficult to be seen off of the main street due to its slightly sunken topography. Located across from the big World Bowl alley popular with suburbanites in Richmond Hill, Bali's main highlight is its ridiculously great value to be found in its dinner combos. A combo for two, for example, contains two soups, some satay skewers, a curry dish with rice, a noodle dish (their pad thai is lovely and not ketchup-y!), and dessert, all for under $25. The ambiance is also nice with white-clean furnishings and soft traditional music playing in the background. Be forewarned though, despite its name (and the names of many of its dishes), this is NOT an Indonesian restaurant. The absolute must-try dish here is the coconut chicken soup, which you actually get as part of the combo. Smooth and spicy, its taste has wowed a lot of my more skeptical friends. Also, make sure you try the interestingly-named volcano chicken if you get the chance.
Empire Court (8500 Warden Ave, Markham)
This grand restaurant is a classic example that lesser-known gems do not necessarily equal budget places. Located inside the Hilton Hotel at Warden and Highway 7, very few people know that this place exists (as I suspect not many plan their weekend dinner outing based on hotel restaurants) and even fewer have tried it. If you decide to help your wallet lose its weight, may I suggest you try one of their many wonderful lobster dishes. The Malay style is particularly tasty, with rich complex flavours bursting through every bite. Also, this place serves extremely good dim sum. The service is great and the ambiance is superb but that is to be expected from an upscale joint. In all seriousness though, the cost here is not like what you would spend at Yorkville places, so while it is pricey, it's still very reasonable for the quality you get.
RT Japanese Cafe (3623 Hwy 7 E, Markham)
The grand champion of obscure restaurants, this place doesn't even have its English name located anywhere within its premises. The only reason I know about it is because that name is stamped onto their food bill, along with their tax registration number (go figure). There are only three Chinese characters that make up this cafe's name, which can roughly be Romanized as Dan Dan Wu. That's it, no further description. Making the whole experience even more unbelievably obscure is that it's located in the corner of the parking lot that's located behind Gal's Sushi, rendering it completely invisible from the main road, and the fact that the place is so small you'll feel that you just wandered into someone's supersized walk-in closet. It's completely Chinese-run, but serves Japanese-style bento boxes and burgers. The menu is a strange hybrid of modern takes on Japanese food along with old classics such as ramen or udon. Try the Japanese fish burger, an unbelievably tasty delight for under $5, and their assortment of bento boxes. Also, they serve the yummiest complementary tea there. It tastes a bit like lemon tea to me, but I've been told it's a type of plum tea. Regardless, it's fantastic.
Shiso Tree Cafe (3160 Steeles Ave E, Markham)
If RT Japanese CafĂŠ takes the prize for the most obscure location on this list of little-known places, then Shiso Tree CafĂŠ takes second place. Firstly, it's located within the J-Town shopping complex. Second, it's also placed in a separate building from the main supermarket/bakery itself, so that even those who stumble to J-Town accidentally may miss this place. Sigh. In any case, the restaurant specializes in Japanese-style pasta. Internationally, there are chains that serve this food, most notably Pasta de Waraku which is insanely popular in Asia, but since none of these large mega-restaurants seem remotely interested in opening a location in Toronto, this little place will have to suffice. And boy does it ever do a good job. Serving heaps of Italian pasta wrapped in creamy Japanese-inspired sauces (try the sukiyaki pasta or the unagi pasta - they are simply wonderful, light, and smooth-tasting) along with Asian pastry such as red bean or green tea cakes, this place really does deserve more recognition than it currently has.
C'est Bon (2685 Yonge Street, Toronto)
Located close to the original Sporting Life building on Yonge Street, this place is best known by many that pass by it as "that Chinese restaurant with the French name, what's up with that"? and nothing more. That's a shame as it's an underrated restaurant which provides excellent Chinese food (albeit a little Westernized, but that doesn't mean it's not delicious!) and very friendly service. It's not the most authentic Chinese restaurant, but good food is still good food right? The seating can be a bit awkward due to the rather small space but the entire dining experience always feels comfortable. There are two dishes that you must try when you come here. The first is C'est Bon Spicy Chicken (it's not really that spicy, honest) which is very flavourful and goes great with some steamed rice. The second is the fried Mars bar for dessert. Yep, you read that right. The carnival/CNE favourite is absolutely present here, of all places, in a little Chinese restaurant. I rest my case.
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