The Ethnic Flare of the 905: Taking the Burger out of Suburgatory

After a longer than normal (and probably not noticeable) absence, I figure it’s time to jump on the blogging band wagon again.  Part of my absence can be explained by the unbelievable amount of time it takes to move and the post-relocation stress disorder (PRSD) that lingers for months after. Although this resulted in many days with a spoiled appetite, I have managed to work my way out to a few places during this period.

It seems I’ve been eating in Toronto’s burbs a little more recently lately. Maybe it’s correlated to the fact that,  although I didn’t move far in London, I am on a quieter “suburban” crescent now as opposed to the busy “urban” street I used to live on.  More likely, I’ve just been in hanging more in the 905 area. As part of these experiences, I have noticed that there are advantages to eating outside of the city.

1. Hipsters are few and far between. Sure, there are suburban hipsters (substers) which pop up here and there but for the most part they are an easier breed to deal with.  Substers usually possess less angst and are more likely to have mom tattooed on their upper arms as opposed to roman numerals or  a recreation of Joseph’s Amazing Technicolour dreamcoat all over them.

2. Parking is a much easier and cheaper. This may be an issue, however, if the main reason for the night out is to get sloppy drunk. Uber may be a little scattered and transit is a lot less predictable so and expensive cab ride home may be in the works. That said, the price of a cocktail seems to drop by about $5 once you are north of the 401 so it may justify the extra $15 you’ll need to spend to get home.

3. There are amazing pockets of ethnic food in many of Toronto’s suburbs which luckily offset the numerous chains which populate the major streets and commercial areas within the 905. I apologize in advance if there is any disappointment in the fact that there won’t be a Jack Astor’s review as part of this post although I do hear their chicken fingers made in-house are divine and pair beautifully with a barefoot chardonnay.

In particular, I have recently spend some time in the Markham area and hit a quadruple eateries none of which are owned by Cara foods:

1. Tapagria

While the industrial themed small plate movement was taking over the 416, Tapagria quietly opened in the 905 focusing on Spanish tapas with a Markham twist (ie. located in a strip mall).  The menu was surprisingly authentic, complete with traditional favorites such as paella, pintxo and Iberian ham. We stuck with an array of bites including pan con tomate, smoked eggplant pintxo, mushroom croquettes, skirt steak, grilled calamari and a cheese board (including a bit of manchego) which we washed down with a decent Tempranillo. Generally speaking, the dishes were acceptably true to form, attempting to focus on quality ingredients whenever possible. Sure, it’s not la rambla, but despite a bit of suburban modification, I’m not sure it’s much less authentic than some of the other tapas joints that have popped up all over downtown. Plus, it would save a trip if you are in the area anyway and don’t want to venture down the always crowded highways.

2. Congee Queen

Congee queen is well-established Chinese eatery with half a dozen locations scattered across the north of the GTA. Unlike Tapagria, the authenticity does not lie in the food alone, but in the overall experience especially given the fact I was the token white guy in the whole place. Trolleys busily trek back and forth carrying piles of food from the extensive menu. I’ve been a couple of times. The first time I went for an early lunch so one of the 40 plus options of the namesake dish made sense. I opted for the abalone clam and chicken which I  paired with some rice rolls; a combination would could easily replace an oral glucose tolerance test for the diagnosis of diabetes. That said, there is something about a simple bowl of rice porridge that was more mystical than it should be. The second time I went for dinner and sampled an array of dishes including the shrimp wonton soup, tiger shrimp and mango salad and snowpea leaf with king mushroom. The food is good, the portions are huge and the prices are reasonable.

3. Ding Tai Fung

Dim sum and dumplings are music to my ears and another assault on my beta cell capacity. If you’re not on the Spadina strip in urban Toronto, then Ding Tai Fung is super suburban surrogate. It’s located in the First Markham place, which is the epitome of Toronto’s 905 experience. Where else can you can circle for 20 minutes looking for a parking spot, pop into the Home Outfitters for some bed sheets and finish the experience with a bubble tea or some stinky tofu from the Mei Nung Beef Noodle House. Back to Ding Tai Fung: the food was above average highlighted by the incredible Shanghai wontons with spicy sauce and soup dumplings. The only minor disappointment were the gyoza dumplings which were enormous but a little too doughy as opposed to crispy.

4. Shanghai Shikumen Fine Cuisine

Also located in the First Markham place complex, I went not only as the token white guy at the table, but the token white guy in the whole restaurant. I luckily had some help trying to decipher the hundreds of available items and ended up with a variety of dishes which represented a Shanghai experience and pushed the envelope just a little. Menu items included braised wheat gluten (which is somewhat satisfying for reasons other than taste),xiaolongbao (dumplings), jellyfish (which I’ve concluded I’m not fond of), ribs and a few soups. In particular, the spicy soup (similar to mapo doufu) was an interesting experience. It’s characterized by tongue numbing peppercorns which seemed a bit of an initiation but my Asian table mates (little did they know I own not one but two buffalo wild wings champions shirts for eating 10 blazin’ wings in less than 5 minutes…insert evil laugh). I must admit it was a bit euphoric to have one of your senses temporarily removed. The other soup was Jiu Niang (or maybe a variation) which is a fermented rice soup with a level of booze that may just fall short of inducing red faces in those with alcohol dehydrogenase deficiencies (which clearing a phenotypically does not include me).

My Take

Ok, I really didn’t move to the burbs but I can still draw parallels between busy street chaos/calm crescent living and urban vs suburban dining. Yes, the latter can be a little slow and boring but there are elements of excitement (and perhaps modernization) here and there. It’s true enough that many of the aforementioned Asian eateries are nothing new but in some cases there is an overall shift towards having restaurants in the 905 reflecting a multitude of cultures in ways more than shrimp tacos at Kelsey’s. Perhaps one advantage is these places don’t have to pretend or feel pressure to adhering to authenticity dictated by foodie culture. One can enjoy an authentic dumpling without being draped in silk tapestries or having to listen to some spiel about the chef’s inspiration while on a pilgrimage along the Great Wall. Instead, you just get decent food unapologetically thrown down like on the table like a suburban parent running late for hockey practice or piano class.

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Touhenboku Ramen: It’s Chicken Broth…knot Pork!

It’s been a while since I’ve indulged in a bowl of ramen and I figured nothing was better than a snow storm to dive back into a bowl.  I have scratched a few places off the list but hadn’t had the chance to try Touhenboku ramen on Queen Street. Spearheaded by owner Zuimei Okuyama,  it has all the hallmarks of the trendy Toronto noodle houses.  First, it has a name a white guy has a hard time remembering (Touhenboku means “blockhead” in Japanese).  Second, it has a cute mascot (in this case a smiling tree stump named Tomo who is a half breed consisting of a Canadian and Japanese maple).  Third, it has a small menu, modest interior and they sing you a farewell tune on the way out.  The big difference is that they use chicken instead of pork as the base for their broth.  From what I understand, this may be a “bone” of contention among ramen purists, but I approached it purely from a taste perspective.  They also adhere to the “vegetarians need love too” philospohy and offer a vegetarian broth which is not the case for some of the other ramen houses in the area.

That said, I ordered my regular fare; shio ramen (thin noodles) and an order of gyoza.   Since I was breaking the pork broth doctrine anyway, I decided to go spicy since I was intrigued by the addition of the “special chili oil”.  The soup arrived quickly and I immediately noticed the distinct smell of chicken emanating from the bowl . Any fears of a dainty broth were quickly extinguished after the first few sips.  As promised, it was rich and creamy and the oil added a modest amount of heat to the broth. The noodles and egg were cooked to near perfection (the noodles were firm and the egg was not quite hard boiled). The other ingredients were in good proportion to the broth and noodles.

Spicy Shio Ramen $10.50
Spicy Shio Ramen $10.50

Despite the fact the place was rather empty, the gyoza, despite being called an appetizer, didn’t arrive until I was almost finished the soup. With this annoyance aside, I was treated to a good plate of dumplings.  They were seasoned well and nicely pan-finished, keeping the integrity of the dumpling while adding the right amount of crispiness.

Gyoza $5.50
Gyoza $5.50

My Take

I wanted to insert some witty banter into this post  but I was left stumped.  Once you’ve branched out to a number of ramen places, you run out of ideas.  Touhenboku turns over a new leaf by having the gall to focus on mizutaki (chicken broth) and knot the traditional tonkotsu (pork broth) as the base to its hearty soups. The flavours are quite rich which might help justify the fact that boles are a bit smaller than other ramen joints.  In the case of the spicy ramen, it’s bark was worse than it’s bite although the chili did add a nice flavour.  I’m going to go out on a limb and say that the gyoza, despite having a filling a little less poppy than others, were some of the better I’ve had since they were pan-fried to near perfection. In the end, Touhenboku has blossomed into good competition with other ramen houses in the area in regards to both service and more importantly, a decent bowl of soup.  Domo arigato Zuimei Okuyama…wood you please take a bough?

Touhenboku Ramen on Urbanspoon

Review:Toronto:Downtown:Ramen Raijin

I was at a conference at a nearby hospital and decided to sneak out in order to avoid the generic wraps which graced the lunch table.  It was a frigid day, so a bowl of ramen sounded divine.  I trekked to the Corner of Yonge and Gerrard, hoping I could get a prime time seat at Ramen Raijin.  It was about 80% to capacity so I didn’t have to wait in line.

The first thing I noticed was the set-up.  I found it a lot roomier than some of the other ramen houses nearby.  I was seated along a counter facing away from the kitchen with a side view of a large and attractive sculpture of what I perceived to be some sort of mythical Japanese idol. On the counter sat a menu held together by a clipboard.  One part of the menu was a lunch combo flyer which presented like a grade 8 art project, complete with pictures of a disproportionate chicken and a pig that kind of looked like a cat.  Of greater interest was the offering a small bowl of one of 5 types of ramen and 4 types of rice with a salad for $11.95.  I tend to gravitate toward Shio Ramen and an order of Gyoza and today was no different.  I chose the Soboro Don as the rice dish as part of the combo.

Menu which got an A in art class
Menu which got an A in art class

The starter salad was fresh and well dressed.

Starter Salad
Starter Salad

The gyoza was terrific.  The dough was tender and fried to perfection and the filling with robust with flavour. The dipping sauce was pleasant. They lacked both the greasy or watery nature that I’ve experienced with these dumplings elsewhere.  They were also priced well at less than $3 for 5 dumplings.

Gyoza (less than $3)
Gyoza (less than $3)

I kind of expected a very small bowl of ramen as part of the special but both the soup and rice were quite a reasonable size.  Raijin’s interpretation of the shio included pork shoulder, green onion, Kikurage mushroom, cabbage, egg and black garlic oil.   The shoulder was tender, the egg cooked to a perfect soft boil, the broth was rich and tasty and the noodles were firm and delicious.  This is likely one of the more polar bowls of ramen I’ve tasted mainly because of the distinct flavour of black garlic oil. It has a strong and distinct flavour which could easily take over some of the delicate flavours of the soup itself.  If you love it..great.  If not, you may be a bit disappointed.

As for the rice dish,  The nori was a nice touch but for some reason the bowl was missing the green onions advertised on the lunch combo flyer. As a result,  it was a safe dish with no contrasting taste or contrast.  It was missing any soft and sweet, missing  the crunch and bites the onions would have provided.

Shio Ramen and Soboro Don (part of $11.95 lunch special)
Shio Ramen and Soboro Don (part of $11.95 lunch special)

My Take

Ramen Raijin offers a roomy and comfortable environment with good service and good food. It has a simple yet attractive decor (I like the sculpture) and lots of room to think or eat or people watch…whatever your fancy.  The lunch special is a good value and allows somebody to try an array of flavours whether a fan of pork or chicken. The gyoza are among the best I’ve had at a ramen house. As mentioned, all the components of the ramen were well executed but the liberal use of the Mayu black garlic oil may not appeal to the masses. I wouldn’t hesitate to return on a cold winter day, but I may bring a bunch of green onions just in case.

Ramen Raijin on Urbanspoon

Review:Toronto:Downtown:Sansotei Ramen

I dropped into this Ramen house around 11 am on a Tuesday morning, taking advantage of the fact that there wasn’t a crowd huddled around the door like you’d see during a Sylvester Stallone sighting.  The reasons for the mass crowds are threefold:

1.  It’s ramen and it’s Toronto.

2.  The place only holds about 30 people.

3.  The policy is wait outside because there’s no room inside.

The decor is plain.  The tables are bare.  The menu is a small laminated, folded card.  The tiny kitchen is barely visible in the back. No cliffhanger here…I followed my standard routine and ordered shio ramen with a side of gyoza dumplings.

The Ramen

It was quite a simple presentation, including green onion, noodles, a few bamboo shoots, pork belly and a softish boiled egg. It ignored the bells and whistles such as nori, pickled plums and goji berries. The broth was rich and full of pork flavor.  On one hand, it was not oversalted. On the other, it was a bit greasy which wasn’t  helped by the really fatty pork cut submerged in the broth.  The egg was cooked and seasoned well, the amount of onion and shoots were not enough and the noodles (ordered thick) were a bit starchy. In the end, it was a decent bowl and less than $9.

Shio Ramen
Shio Ramen

The Gyoza

The lipophilic  nature of Sansotei was evident again when I ordered the gyoza.  Four pieces  for $4.50 (I ate one before I remembered I didn’t take a picture) arrived Stallone style (slightly tanned and glistening with oil) and served with a tasty dipping sauce.   Despite being a bit greasy, the dough had a great texture (unlike Stallone  post Judge Dredd) in that it was not too chewy nor too crispy.  The filling was well seasoned and not watered down in a fashion similar to the plot of Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot.

Gyoza
Gyoza

My Take

Sansotei is a small, simple eatery with an equally simple menu.  It doesn’t have the bells and whistles of other ramens, but despite being a bit greasy,  the rich broth is flavorful enough and is not oversalted.  None of the broths are vegetarian. The gyoza were terrific although a quick wipe with a napkin wouldn’t hurt.  I really need to do a ramen power  ranking but as it stands Sansotei comes in Stallone style again (an underdog who  proves to be a serious contender).  In the end, it may not the be the Rocky of all ramen, but it sure isn’t  the Rhinestone  either.

Sansotei Ramen on Urbanspoon

Review:Toronto:Downtown:Santouka Ramen

Toronto is one of a  number of  North American cities in which Santouka Ramen, a Japanese-based restaurant chain, has set up shop in hopes of capturing the growing base of noodle fans.  Santouka promises quick and efficient service but tries  to deviate from the notion that all ramen soups are created equal.  It steers away from rich pork belly, eggs and nori offered by others in lieu of  a somewhat cleaner bowl of salty broth.  I arrived at 1210 and got the last seat, which was at the bar with a clear view of the kitchen. I was a bit memorized by the long stove holding up 8 large vats  of bubbling broth presumably prepared by a methodical and somewhat mystical  process. Otherwise, it had the feel of a karaoke bar set up in a subway station, with orders sung in Japanese melodies muffling the continuous sound of clanking soup bowls. I had my meal and was out in about  30 minutes, receiving  envious stares from the 12-15 onlookers in line when I left.

Maybe

It’s apparent that each interpretation of this traditional dish is in the eye of the beholder.   In this case, the Shio Ramen  was a mellow, salty broth with a firm, tasty noodle and adorned with green onion, crisp bamboo shoots, fish cake, ribbons of kikurage (mushrooms), fatty back rib pork and a signature pickled plum.  If I were a soup architect constructing the perfect bowl, I’d say the foundation (broth) was a bit oversalted, the walls (noodles)  were solid and the accents spiced up the decor reasonably well. Both the plum and the spiral fishcake were a cute finish; a delicate  reminder of the artistic importance put on  Japanese food.  The shoots and shrooms were mainly for taste and texture and somewhat succeeded at both but more so the latter.  The pork was scarce. Perhaps my biggest disappointment was the lack of an egg.  It’s like building  a house without a pool; it works but you’re left feeling like there’s something missing.

Shio Ramen
Shio Ramen

The gyoza were satisfying. Not doughy or soggy,  they had a nicely seasoned and fairly abundant filling and were served with a carousel of condiments which included chili oil, rice vinegar and soy sauce. At a little more than a buck a dumpling, they hit the spot.  I would equate them to a nicely manicured but not spectacular lawn sitting outside the previously described  ramen house.

Shio Ramen with Gyoza
Shio Ramen with Gyoza
Gyoza Condiments
Gyoza Condiments

Mundane

I find something sacred about green tea and somewhat expect a little ceremony when I visit a Japanese restaurant.  What I don’t expect is a generic tea bag (I think I can get a 100 bags of this brand for a buck or two at any teashop)  in a cup for $2.50.  At least bring me a good quality loose leaf tea and/or put it in a  pot.  Otherwise, don’t charge me a ridiculous price for an average product that maybe costs a cent or two.

My $2.50 tea.
My $2.50 tea.

My Take

Once again, no two soups are created equal.  The seemingly infinite number of ramen houses mean an infinite number of ramen dishes and an infinite number of opinions. Santouka offered a reasonable competitor with a well flavoured but salt heavy broth (I drove home with the feeling that I had a chalice of water from the dead sea).  The pork was a nice cut but the portion was minimal. The remaining additions were just ok.   In summary,  it’s a worthy, well-calculated  addition to the neighbourhood of ramen soups, offering a house with a strong foundation, a few frills and a nice front yard (gyoza), although I still do miss the pool.

Santouka Ramen on Urbanspoon