Two of my favorite areas of Toronto cling together like conjoined fraternal twins with completely different personalities. Chinatown and Kensington Market, however, are both equally worthy of your time as it is rich in history, food, irony, and self-expression.
The History and Irony of Toronto’s Chinatown
In the early 1900s, the area was a mix of Jews and Chinese immigrants. At one time, the Jewish community, 30,000 strong, had established the garment district and filled 30 synagogues, which had been crammed into a five block radius. It was where people came for Switzer’s Bubbie Burger or a hat at Rothman’s Haberdashery. But when Rothman’s closed in 2009 (after the owner died) the area lost its Jewish life and converted completely into Chinatown.
But Judaism has left its mark. Our Korean tour guide, John Lee, who had been provided for us by TBEX and the Toronto Tourist Board, pointed out the giant metal thimble as we drove north on Spadina. “That is a symbol of the shmates the Jews produced.” He chuckled at his decent Yiddish pronunciation. “It’s a mitzvah,” he said about something else later on. “How many Jewish grandchildren does it take to screw in a lightbulb?” He answered the question in his best Jewish grandmother voice: “Don’t bother. I’ll sit in the dark.” Another huge laugh. “I can make these jokes. We Koreans are the Jews of the Asians.”
Chinatown Toronto: The Food
John Lee took us to the restaurant he had dubbed the best in Chinatown: King’s Noodle on Spadina. The modern interior seemed a bit deceiving, but the Chinese BBQ proved authentic, with ducks and ribs dripping their glaze from the front window. The lean, slow-roasted, crispy pork and barbecue pork were equally succulent. What impressed me most was that a dish arrived to the table and I had never tried it before. And I’ve been to many Chinatowns. Essentially, it was a plain Chinese doughnut wrapped in noodle. But what made it great was dunking it in sweet hoisin-like sauce.
If you’re still hungry after King’s or want a cheaper bite, try the shops just to the north. You can get a $2.00 Vietnamese sandwich at Nguyen Huong Food Co., which comes stuffed with carrots, dicon, cilantro, and blends of sliced meat or for $8.00, you can get nine crepe dumplings at the Dumpling House.
Kensington Market: Self Expression, Stories, and More Food
After strolling the small Chinatown, we turned left down St. Andrews for the Kensington Market. If you’ve ever gone from New York’s Chinatown into Little Italy and found that strange, this Toronto-transition is even more bizarre. Kensington Market is where protesters forced businesses like Nike and Starbucks to abandon their attempts at opening up shop on these streets. The stores permitted to exist are mainly mixed residential and commercial, filled with a combination of goods that a Craigslist dreamer might envision, the crafts sold in a Tibetan store, and the oddities displayed at a New Orleans Voodoo shop.
I’m not much of a shopper, so I enjoyed the simpler things that the area had to offer: more Toronto beer on the outdoor patio at the Last Temptation Bar, street art, and a lamb patty from the Patty King, which is a Jamaican bakery run by Asian ladies.
While the other bloggers shopped, John Lee kept the stories rolling. My two favorite involved Tom’s Place and Zimmerman’s. Tom’s burnt down in the early ’60s and because people in the area were unable to purchase insurance, all of the Jewish families decided to chip in and rebuild the shop. According to John Lee, it’s still the best place to find Feragammo suits for a third the price. Down the street from Tom’s stands the original Zimmerman’s. After a falling out among family members, one Zimmerman took his business elsewhere. Directly across the street. The new shop is also called Zimmerman’s.
Sundays in Chinatown and Kensington Market
What I didn’t get to experience and what you should definitely try to coordinate on your Toronto trip, is to visit Kensington Market on the last Sunday of the month from May to October. The entire area is pedestrian only. Street musicians and food vendors fill the lane.
Where I Stayed
A convenient place to stay, which is a ten minute walk from Chinatown and Kensington Market, but which is also central to many of the city’s other attractions, is the Toronto Marriott Downtown Eaton Centre Hotel. The rooms were spacious and comfortable, and the restaurant down in the lobby, Trios Bistro, served delicious appetizers. Try the kale chips and meaty crab cakes.
Note: The tour was provided by TBEX and the Toronto tourist board and accommodations were hosted by the Marriott, but all the words here are honest.