Country 057 – Kyrgyzstan (Chaihana)


Location
: 1000 Finch Avenue West, North York
Websitehttp://chaihana.ca/

Chaihana is tucked away in a fairly anonymous office building; though there’s a small sign outside, it’s very easy to miss.  My dining companion and I had the entire restaurant to ourselves — outside of the staff, the place was deserted.  It’s pretty much the definition of a hidden gem.

A lot of hole-in-the-wall joints like this can be dingy and unwelcoming, but Chaihana is clean and colourful; they’re definitely trying to attract more than just the grizzled regulars you’d expect in a place like this.

They specialize in the ‘stans: the website mentions Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan.  The dish I ordered is actually the national dish of Kyrgyzstan, so that’s a fourth ‘stan to add to the roster.

I ordered beshbarmak, which a pretty simple dish — boiled beef (which is sliced), topped with sauteed onions and served on a bed of very broad noodles.   There’s really not much more going on than that — there’s some green onions, dill, cracked pepper… and that’s about it.  It’s basic, hearty comfort food.

The pasta was a bit mushy and it was incredibly greasy (you know when you’re eating something really greasy, and your lips get grease-slicked with every bite?  Yeah), but it was pretty satisfying.  The tender beef, the noodles and the onions all go quite well together.

It’s served with an equally simple bowl of soup — basically just broth (mutton, according to Google) with a little bit of dill and some green onions for colour.

Chaihana - the beshbarmak Chaihana - the soup

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Country 034 – Myanmar (Royal Myanmar)

royal
Location
: 483 Horner Avenue, Etobicoke
Websitehttp://theroyalmyanmar.com/

Sometimes it’s hard to figure out what to order for this blog; how do you distill a nation’s cuisine into one dish?  I mean, you can’t.  But it’s always nice to get something that can at least give a partial view of what a country’s food has to offer.

In the case of Myanmar, there doesn’t seem to be much debate over their national dish: it’s mohinga, Myanmar’s take on Asia’s ubiquitous noodle soup.

So, that’s easy.  Mohinga it is.

Though Royal Myanmar’s version of this dish features noodles that are overcooked and somewhat mushy, and flavours that are more muted than you’d expect (for something that is ostensibly a fish soup, there is an odd lack of anything even resembling a seafood flavour), I still quite enjoyed this.  It’s subtle, but a squirt of lime and a sprinkling from the jar of fiery-hot crushed chilis helps to kick it up several notches.  It also has a nice garlicky hum, an added richness thanks to the sliced hard-boiled egg, and a vibrancy from the abundant fresh cilantro.

The broth has been thickened, but subtly so — some thickened Asian soups can be a bit gelatinous for my tastes, but here it’s just thick enough to to give it substance without going overboard.

It’s topped with crunchy chickpea fritters; it’s kind of like topping a soup with crackers, only with a million times more personality.

Royal Myanmar - mohinga Royal Myanmar - fritters

Country 022 – Thailand (Sukhothai)

sukho
Location
: 1442 Dundas Street West, Toronto
Websitehttp://www.sukhothaifood.ca/

Pad Thai isn’t typically my go-to order at a Thai joint, but after reading this article about its intriguingly bizarre history (which involves a military coup and a governmental decree that everyone wear hats), I felt oddly compelled to order it.

Sukhothai’s version comes with your choice of chicken, beef, or tofu.  I went with chicken, which turned out to be a bad choice — the pieces were dry, tough, and thoroughly leftovery.

It was otherwise fine, I guess.  It had a slightly more complex flavour than average and wasn’t as cloyingly sweet as some versions of this dish tend to be, but Pad Thai is never going to be my favourite.  I think the story behind it is probably more interesting than the dish itself.

I had the cassava cake for dessert, which was the highlight.  Though the slightly gummy texture was a bit off-putting at first, its sweet, coconut-infused flavour and rich dulce-de-leche-esque topping thoroughly won me over.

Sukhothai - the restaurant Sukhothai - the Pad Thai Sukhothai - the Cassava Cake

Country 019 – Vietnam (Pho King Fabulous!)

pho
Location
: 2411 Yonge Street, Toronto
Websitehttp://www.phokingfabulous.com/

Let’s get the obvious out of the way first: the name of this restaurant is probably going to make you cringe.  It’s an unfortunate bit of frat-boy humour that belies the legitimately tasty food that can be found inside.

You’d also expect an authentic Vietnamese joint to be a bit more bare-bones in its decor; the best Vietnamese restaurants in the city tend to have an endearingly run-down vibe that’s a bit at odds with the slickly appointed dining room you’ll find here.  Again: don’t judge this book by its cover.

I ordered the Fabulous Beef Noodle Soup, which the menu describes as being filled with a cornucopia of meats: “Rare eye round, well-done flank, soft tendon, tripe, and beef meatballs.”

You have the choice of a medium or large bowl; the medium is absolutely crammed with noodles and meat, so unless you have a particularly voracious appetite, it’ll do.

A bowl of pho like this lives and dies by its broth, and this one has one of the most richly flavourful broths that I’ve tried (but then I’ve had maybe ten bowls of pho in my entire life, so don’t get too impressed).  Kicked up with a couple of spoons of chili sauce and a squeeze of lime, and you’ve got a really satisfying bowl of soup.

The noodles are perfectly cooked and abundant, and the variety of meats gives the dish an appealing mix of flavours and textures: there’s the tender combination of rare and well done beef, the distinctively chewy/crunchy bite of the tripe, the unctuous richness of the almost melt-in-your-mouth tendon, and the hearty meatballs.  There wasn’t a weak link here, which was nice.

Pho King Fabulous - the restaurant Pho King Fabulous - the pho

Country 010 – China (Magic Noodle)

magic
Location
1383 16th Ave, Unit 4, Richmond Hill
Websitehttp://www.magicnoodle.ca/

I’m going to paraphrase a quote from The Social Network here: you know what’s better than noodles?  Hand-pulled noodles.

There’s something about the addictively chewy texture of freshly-made noodles that really can’t be beat.

That’s not to mention the novelty of seeing them get made, which is on full display at Magic Noodle: stretching the dough, slamming it on the table, more stretching, more slamming, and the final, impressive act of noodlification.   The dough is pulled, folded over, and then pulled again and again, until a fat lump of dough has been turned into one long noodle strand, seemingly by magic.

This makes hand-pulled noodles impossible to eat daintily; because you’re essentially dealing with one absurdly long noodle bunched up in a bowl, the only thing you can do is bring a bunch of noodles to your face, cram as much as you can into your mouth, and then bite down to allow the rest to fall back into the bowl.  It’s a mess, but a delicious mess.

I ordered the House Special Hand Pulled Noodles, which featured a tasty, not overly salty broth (which was made even better when kicked up with the provided chili oil), a really generous amount of meat (a couple of different cuts of beef — both quite tender — as well as some tripe), cilantro and green onion, and a fried egg (which was way overcooked and easily the weak spot of the bowl).

And of course, those amazingly chewy noodles.  You can tell they’re made by hand because they’re not quite uniformly thick throughout, which only adds to their unique texture and intensifies their appeal.

Expect to wait, too; I came on a Friday night, and the wait was long enough to necessitate one of those pagers that buzzes and lights up when your table is ready, like at a chain restaurant.  I think it was about a twenty minute wait, which seems like a long time until you get your first taste of those noodles.

Magic Noodle - House Special Noodles Magic Noodle - Lamb Kebab