Usually, I have no shame when it comes to asking people for directions, but asking people in Kensington Market if they knew "where Kensington Mall is?" made me seethe with embarrassment.
I had exposed myself as an outsider, fumbling through the streets, perpetually uncool and sweaty. But all of that faded away when I did indeed find Kensington Mall, walked down a nearly forgotten hallway (the former Cold Tea spot) and discovered the canary yellow door to Sunnys Chinese.
Sunnys Chinese: What’s the vibe
The antithesis of the outside hallway's cracked floors and fluorescent lights, Sunnys is intentionally designed with a subtle old-school diner aesthetic, but dimly lit and windowless like a theatre.
The strongest light source is the open kitchen, a stage for the upcoming performance, where the wok and pungent chilies steal the show and give life to regional Chinese food that leans heavily into the flavours of Sichuan, Shaanxi and Guangdong.
Retro sea-foam blue cafeteria tables may evoke flashbacks of high school, except it's way sexier here with better smells and music — and, deep breath in, there is a seat for you (if you can snag a reso).
Sunnys Chinese: What’s on the menu
Our meal commenced with a selection of small plates from the menu's 'cold' section. We picked up our smooth plastic chopsticks, balancing gently on the belly of a ridiculously cute panda chopstick holder, and tucked into a bowl of chrysanthemum and spinach. It was floral — too floral? — with a bit of tang from the Shaanxi vinegar.
The Tiger Salad with a small bushel of cilantro resting over a medley of cucumber, chopped onion and hot long pepper had more of the bright, satisfying bite I crave in a palate-cleansing side salad that makes you wish it were a main.
However, room must be saved for the Husband + Wife Beef, which is shaping up to be one of Sunnys’ signature dishes — as long as diners give it a chance. “It was invented by a husband and wife in Chengdu, [Sichuan],” David Schwartz, co-owner, executive chef and walking encyclopedia of Chinese cuisine explains.
“Ours is three beef components: shank, tripe and tendon. Tripe and tendon are two of my absolute favourite cuts of beef and something that I really hope people who aren’t always excited by those things will get excited about after eating the dish,” he says.
It’s one of his frequent orders at Sichuan restaurants, which he uses as a sort of litmus test. “It’s a really hard dish to do properly. It’s a lot of work, so if it’s really good, you know everything after that is going to be great.”
I have to admit, I was not excited about it at first. Tripe has a distinct chew that’s sometimes hard to see past — but the whole point of the dish is to show off these often overlooked cuts and embrace them for the flavour absorbers and texture party that they are. It’s bold and numbing, tossed in a house-made Sichuan chili oil, and makes no apologies or modifications for the North American palate — a sign of more good things to come.
Vegetables like the hot and sour potato and green beans sing with crunch and zingy heat. We couldn’t decide between the Silver Needle Noodle or the Yibin Burning Noodle, so we got both. The two dishes are wildly different from each other — just like Mimi Chinese and Sunnys.
Yibin burning noodles are long and thin, silver needle noodles are short and stubby. Yibin burning noodles come doused in chili pork oil and fragrant ya cai — dried fermented mustard greens that are as salty and as addictive as potato chips. Silver needle noodles are dressed with three types of soy, and their inconspicuous stir-fried black mushrooms are meaty, tender treasures.
We ended our feast with the whole sea bass, which is deboned (except for the head and neck) brined, butterflied and steamed. Head chef Joseph Ysmael finishes it with roasted chicken oil for a deep, comforting flavour.
The fish sits in a large bowl of the liquid gold oil, with its head and tail fin poking up from under a floating bed of green scallions and aged tangerine peels as if it were swimming in a warm, slurp-able pond.
Sunny’s Chinese: What to drink
Now that this former pandemic pop-up has its own space, there’s more room to stretch out and play with the drink program. Bar Manger Nick Chong has created a menu that is as funky and fun as Sunnys. Grab a glass of natural vino or a frothy lambrusco — a lightly sparkling red that complements all the spice with a low-key sweetness.
Baijiu is the world's best-selling spirit, but it's rarely seen on Toronto menus — except at Sunnys. We shot back the clear, strong, fruity liquid in the Gunpowder Slap and sipped it in the smokey Baijiu Long Island Iced Tea. Each baijiu is different, and we would have stayed to try them all, but it was getting late and we had to find our way back home.
Dinner and drinks for two: Around $150, before taxes and gratuity
Sunnys Chinese, 60 Kensington Ave., sunnyschinese.com