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The show put on by the cooks at Sun’ Kitchen on the second floor of Pacific Mall is every bit as excellent as the food.Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

All respect to downtown Toronto's east and west Chinatowns, but for the best Chinese food, you need to head north. Chris Nuttall-Smith combed through Markham, Thornhill and Richmond Hill in search of great Chinese eating, and from glorious noodle soups to the GTA's best Peking duck, to strange, but exquisite sweets, he found it in abundance. Here are his top picks.

Dayali Beijing Roast Duck

If you thought that only flannel-clad and bewhiskered downtowners would subject themselves to crazy lineups at hot new restaurants, you haven't been to Dayali, the five-month-old, first international outpost of a respected Peking duck empire from Beijing. By 6 p.m., the line typically spills out the banquet room's front door. For $38.88 you get the Gold Medal Roast Duck: a party-sized platter of crisp, dark-golden skin that Beijingers typically dip in white sugar and hoisin, followed by a heaping plate of sliced meat and skin that you roll up with chopped scallion, cucumber and condiments into paper-thin crepes. This isn't the usual Cantonese barbecued duck that's common in Chinatown windows; the Peking version is crispier and far more subtly flavoured – much less about the meat than the texture and full-fat glory of that burnished mahogany skin. There's plenty else beyond the main attraction. The shrimp and eggs scramble is runny and superb, studded with fat, coral-coloured seafood. There's whole, Vancouver-style crab, noodles, excellent vegetable plates, meat dishes and bullfrog. Chinese pears are available for dessert. 20 Gibson Dr., Markham, 905-604-8680

Northern Dumpling Kitchen

You won't find a live-fish tank here, proper tablecloths (they use white plastic, thank you) or the foie gras and abalone pastries that have become commonplace in many nouveau South Chinese restaurants. Northern Dumpling traffics in the hearty, ruddy-cheeked and huge-flavoured cooking of cold-weather China: fat pork wontons smothered with hot chili, peanut sauce and scallions, deliciously gamy steamed lamb dumplings that you douse in tart-sweet red rice vinegar, pan fried dumplings filled with leeks and pork. The onion pancake roll and sliced beef (number 120) is a mustn't miss – the roll is hot and flaky and the beef is fantastic. The deep-fried silver roll (number 123) is a loaf of lily-white bread that pulls away in diaphanous strands that are meant to be drenched in condensed milk; it's sweet hillbilly decadence, China-style. Unit 52A, 550 Highway 7 E. (at Leslie Street), Richmond Hill, 905-881-3818

Yang's Fine Chinese Cuisine

The GTA's Southern Chinese dim sum restaurants come in three categories, generally: cheap and cheerful steam-cart joints, better-quality midrange rooms, and high-end places where ceremony (did you see how many pleats they got into that dumpling wrapper?), luxury ingredients (they're often buried under mayonnaise) and gloopy architecture (see: The Crown Princess, Toronto) often reign. Yang's does high-end dim sum with a measure of restraint. The room is spare and modern, the atmosphere relaxed, the cooking generally excellent. The rice rolls with scallops and XO sauce are a good bet, as are the barbecue pork and pineapple pastries and the fat har gow dumplings. The steamed soft egg-custard buns combine sweet, salty, oozy egg yolk and white-bread softness. The fried turnip cakes are also great. The "crispy foie gras and mango rolls" seem more about status ingredients than tasting good; they come smothered in mayo. 9665 Bayview Ave., Richmond Hill, 905-884-3388

Phoenix Restaurant

Phoenix is a cleaned-up take on Hong Kong's curious diner-food tradition. Some of my Chinese friends love it; another disparagingly calls it "Spring Rolls," after downtown's pseudo "Pan-Asian Zensation" chain. (She's a devotee of New City Restaurant, a keepin'-it-real Hong Kong diner at Kennedy Road and Highway 7.) Phoenix's menu is massive, running from comfort standards like Horlick's and Ribena to grass jelly teas, to fried spaghetti, to luncheon meat (read: Spam) and eggs on rice. But the go-to dish is the Hainanese chicken and rice: bone-in chicken pieces poached in amber poultry broth, then served with rice that's been steamed in broth and fat. It's simple, homey stuff; amazing, too – juicy, fragrant and deep-down comforting, particularly when you dip it in the ginger sauce. Be warned: chicken and rice is massively contested; for every Chinese or Singaporean or Malaysian who loves the rendition at Phoenix, you can find another four who say the rice isn't quite right, or that the chicken should be pinker. Whatever. It's delicious. 8190 Bayview Ave., Thornhill (and two other locations), 905-886-1113

369 Shanghai Dim Sum

While nearby Ding Tai Fung, a knockoff of a famous Taiwan-based restaurant chain, still claims plenty of visitors in search of xiaolongbao, or soup-filled steamed buns, the smart money heads to 369 – a friendly, well-run spot in the Peach Tree plaza. Xiaolongbao are typically thin-skinned, purse-shaped, wheat dough wrappers filled with collagen-rich stock and meat or seafood. At 369 they're called "juicy buns," and come stuffed with conpoy (dried scallop), crab, or pork. Pick one up by the top with your chopsticks and hold it over a spoon, being careful not to pierce it. Dip it in red rice vinegar, dress it with ginger, nip the side, quickly slurp out the broth (careful, it's hot!), then eat the dumpling. Another must-try: the "steamed rice glue with salted stuffing." (The English language is not the menu's strong suit.) It's sticky rice rolled around a deep-fried, cruller-style pastry, wispy threads of pork floss (exactly what it sounds like) and pickled radish. To recap, that's white starch, vegetables, pork candy and doughnut, all in one irresistible bite-size package. Or as I like to think of it, reason No. 4,439 for why China will soon take over the entire world. 8380 Kennedy Rd., Markham, 905-305-7713

John's Chinese BBQ Restaurant

To my mind there is just one great reason to come here: for the King of Kings pork, which is not on the menu, which you should call ahead to order, and which also risks ruining other barbecue pork dishes for all eternity. The King of Kings is tender belly, sweet-lacquered, gently candied, mildly burnt in places. It's sliced thick and served over firm, sweet-braised soy beans. It's one of the greatest pork dishes anywhere, made even better with a round of Tsing Tao beer and a dish of steamed green vegetables. Order rice on the side and the sweet, red-bean soup kissed with orange peel to finish. There are other dishes, of course – jiggly fish maw, whole steamed bass (I could have sworn it was tilapia), decent if workaday barbecue duck. But the pork is the killer dish. 328 Hwy 7 E., Richmond Hill, 905-881-3333

Bowl Kee

If you grew up, as I did, squeezing packets of Lee Kum Kee plum sauce over deep-fried egg rolls in red-carpeted rooms with names like "Golden Dragon," you'll recognize the feel of Bowl Kee. It's cheap, cheerful, thick in the air with the smell of wok hei – the breath of the wok – and just a little bit dingy. It's every bit an old-school Canadian-Chinese egg roll joint, except the cooking isn't Canadian-Chinese. Bowl Kee specializes in unfussy Cantonese cooking, piled high for multigeneration families gathered tight around lazy susans. You get three dishes plus soup and half a chicken for $39 here. Towering feasts for eight to 10 – gargantuan platters of spicy sautéed crab, hot-pot rice with Chinese sausage, prawns, fish fillets – start at $168. I loved the rice pots, the fuzzy gourd with minced meat and noodles, the pork and chicken soup, the just-set egg custard, the free half-chicken on the bed of pickled carrot and daikon. An absolute standout: the battered, deep-fried capelin. (They're advertised on the wall, in Chinese only; ask for the fried silver fish.) In a rare departure, there's sweet and sour pork, also, with orange sauce that tastes like it just might not have come from a 10-gallon bucket. Is it a sop for non-Chinese customers? "Everybody orders it," a server said. 8360 Kennedy Rd., Unit B3, 905-948-1249

Sun's Kitchen

In a metropolitan region that's suddenly overrun with noodle-soup joints, this time-tested little shop in a food court on the Pacific Mall's second floor remains a standout. The soup itself is original gangster, as the local mallrats might call it: chopped barbecue duck, char siu pork, wobbly-tender brisket, spare ribs or just plain vegetables and a tangle of dense, chewy, elementally comforting northwestern Chinese wheat noodles in golden-toned poultry broth. (The peanut and chili-laden dan dan version is also great.) But the show at the counter is every bit as excellent. In a blur of flour and forearm muscle, Sun or his young apprentice stretch balls of dough into thick ropes, which they flip up above their heads, then down with a thwack to counter, then up again, and down again, folding and stretching until the rope of dough becomes dozens of those noodles, called la mian, which they drop, every minute or so, into an enormous pot of hissing water. It's a mesmerizing show, the admission just $6; the soup is really free when you think about it. Pacific Mall, 4300 Steeles Ave. E., Markham, 905-947-8463

Ten Ren's Tea Time

This warehouse-sized branch of Ten Ren Group, the Taiwan-based tea juggernaut, is a living room for much of Markham's twenty-something set; it's a scene as much as a place to buy a (non-alcoholic) drink. Those drinks are fantastic, though! Start with something simple if you're new to Taiwanese tea culture: Iron goddess tea shaken with watermelon and aloe jelly, maybe (the bubbles caused by shaking are what give bubble tea its name; not the tapioca pearls that are often included), or a strawberry and jasmine green tea. If you've got kids in tow, the "horoscope drinks" come with mixed with tapioca balls and ice cream (Aquarius gets coconut and banana; Libra gets red beans and coconut). Traditionalists will find a smart selection of plain, old-fashioned hot tea, too. There are meat and noodle dishes available, though the brick toast is the go-to order. It's a slice of white bread as thick as a box-spring mattress (or thereabouts), drenched with sweetened condensed milk and broiled. 111 Times Ave. #101, Markham, 905-881-8896

Full House Desserts

Even from 10 yards' distance, Full House smells of durian, the hyper-odiferous southeast Asian fruit; if you don't already love the stuff, you're bound to pick up your pace as you walk on by. But Full House's Hong Kong-style desserts – hot and cold soups made from nuts or fresh fruit; crêpes wrapped around Chantilly cream and fruit – are exquisite. The "Full House Sago" is a fruit-lover's fantasy: a puree of creamy, rich-tasting mango (they use Asian mangoes here, not Mexican ones; it's like comparing Marion Cotillard to Snooki), with tart, juicy pomelo pulp, hunks of chopped mango and glassine little pearls made from tapioca flour. The black-sesame sweet balls are smooth and white on the outside, dark and earthy in their centres, a beautiful counterpoint to hot ginger soup. I'm also a fan of the black-sesame and walnut soup, which is available with or without nutty, black glutinous rice. And even the durian is worth a try if you're adventurous. Your best bet if you're new to the fruit is to get a hunk of it with whipped cream in a pancake. It smells rank to the unaccustomed, like someone mixed rotting bananas with unwashed feet and baby poop, but tastes quite a bit better. There are mango-filled pancakes instead if you must. Unit #12 – 9425 Leslie St., Richmond Hill, 905-737-2300

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