Toronto·SURESH DOSS

Spice is king at this southwestern Chinese noodle house in St. Catharines

Chengdu cooking has become a bit of a trend in the last few years, and 06 Chengdu Noodles in St. Catharines is the place where all the local chefs are going to eat. The restaurant is at the core of something special happening in the city.

06 Chengdu Noodles is at 71 King St. in downtown St. Catharines

06 Chengdu Noodles is a new restaurant in St. Catharines, situated within walking distance of the downtown strip. Dan Dan Noodles (pictured) is an emblematic dish of Sichuan. (Suresh Doss/CBC)

Throughout the spring and summer months, I spend a considerable amount of time touring the three premier regions of Ontario: Niagara-on-the-Lake, Niagara Escarpment and Twenty Valley, and Prince Edward County.

The province produces world class wine — each parcel of soil presents its own unique characteristics.

But I'm particularly drawn to the neighbouring towns of wine regions because many have an established food scene, or a burgeoning one. 

When you look at other great wine regions in the world —​ the Okanagan Valley in B.C., Champagne in France, and Napa Valley in California — there's always a neighbouring town or city that makes a great pit stop when you're ready to have a meal or two.

Spice at St. Catharines noodle house delivers a 'slight tingle'

3 years ago
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The spice in the 'first few bites' off 06 Chengdu Noodles' menu in St. Catharines 'will be intense,' says Metro Morning food guide Suresh Doss. 0:51

This hunger brought me to St. Catharines. The city, which is about 115 kilometres southwest of Toronto, is sandwiched between two prominent wine regions in the heart of the Niagara Peninsula. 

I have stopped for lunch or dinner in St. Catharines for many years. The meals have always been predictable, occasionally broken up by a few notable spots. I would always arrive curious and leave somewhat satisfied.

I have noticed a spike, however, in the quality of independent shops. Their openings appear to have corresponded with that of the Meridian Centre, a downtown arena. 

Places like Beechwood Doughnuts, with great vegan doughnuts, and oddBIRD, a globally inspired restaurant driven by a chalkboard menu, complement a small army of mom-and-pop jerk chicken and noodle shops that are starting to weave a new culinary identity for the city.

'Everything is a little spicy'

This is how I came across 06 Chengdu Noodles.

A good friend of mine who lives in Niagara tipped me off to a new noodle place walking distance from the main downtown strip of the town. What was formerly a generic Chinese restaurant had morphed into a shop that specialized in food from Chengdu, the capital of the Sichuan province in southwestern China. 

When I first visited the tiny shop, decorated only with postcards of Chengdu's tea culture, and a wall of Sichuan opera masks, it was empty. A small menu was placed in front of me by manager Joyce Lin. She immediately cautioned me "everything is a little spicy."

A cold dish, called Bon Bon Chicken, consists of shredded chicken chunks dressed with garlic, peanut sauce and chili oil. (Suresh Doss/CBC)

We ordered Dan Dan Noodles, an emblematic dish of Sichuan where chewy thin noodles rest on a mixture of chili oil, Sichuan pepper corns, sugar and soy sauce, and then topped with minced pork.

It's a simple dish but one that perfectly highlights the cuisine of Chengdu in one bite. There are contrasting elements of sour, heat, nuttiness and sweetness in each pull of noodles on your chopsticks.

We then tried a dish called the smacked cucumber — chunks of cukes tossed in chili oil with a sprinkling of ground peppercorns.

At 06 Chengdu Noodles in St. Catharines, diners can order the smacked cucumber — chunks of cukes tossed in chili oil with a sprinkling of ground peppercorns. (Suresh Doss/CBC)

The highlight was a cold dish called Bon Bon Chicken — shredded chicken chunks dressed with garlic, peanut sauce and more of that glistening chili oil. Each piece of chicken was tender with a slight sense of sweetness flushed by the heat from the chili oil.

Every dish we ordered had a good lashing of chili oil, and this is how the cook prefers it. What was most noticeable was how subtle the oil was, it wasn't pungent or one-note, there was depth in its heat.

Restaurant is a 'dream' for owners

Joyce's husband Luka Lin mans the kitchen. They're both newcomers who grew up in Chengdu and moved to Canada to get married and start a new life. Joyce said that their dream was to open a restaurant in Toronto, but things didn't go quite as planned due to the real estate market.

One of her friends, living in St. Catharines, suggested they move to Niagara.

"It has always been my dream to open a Chengdu restaurant and to showcase the cooking of my home," Luka said, effortlessly finishing lunch orders to a small but steady lineup of regulars.

Joyce Lin and husband Luka run 06 Chengdu Noodles in St. Catharines. They're both newcomers who grew up in Chengdu and moved to Canada to get married and start a new life. (Suresh Doss/CBC)

"We are still very unknown, but students and the local Chinese community loves this food because you can't find it anywhere else."

Joyce describes Chengdu as a hot and humid city, not quite bustling but fast-growing. It's the land where Sichuan peppers are king, where everyone likes everything hot.

"It's so hot there, so you have to eat chilies to cool yourself down," Joyce says.

At 06 Chengdu Noodles Luka's primary goal is to show the cooking he was trained on back home, where nearly every dish has whole dried Sichuan chilies and its berries — the lip numbing peppercorns — as primary ingredients.

"I started to make my own chili oil, it's always better when you make it," chef Luka Lin said. (Suresh Doss/CBC)

"I started to make my own chili oil, it's always better when you make it," Luka said, placing a large pot on the table.

As he starts to gently stir the pot, the chilies and peppercorns bob to the surface. While most restaurants I know use large vats of commercial chili oil which have a monotonous taste, Luka makes his own, and that's what gives the oil its subtlety.

Order the Dan Dan, chili wontons or the Bon Bon Chicken as is and you'll notice that, while the heat is thrilling with a slight tingle, it's still very enjoyable. If you want more heat, just say "more ma la" and Luka is happy to give you another ladling of oil.

During a recent visit Luka asked me to try the braised beef noodle dish, and it may be my favourite one on his menu.

Chef Luka Lin makes braised beef noodles (pictured) by cooking a variety of vegetables overnight in a vat of broth loaded with five spice, star anise, chilies, and beef chuck. (Suresh Doss/CBC)

He slowly cooks a variety of vegetables overnight in a vat of broth loaded with five spice, star anise, chilies, and beef chuck. When finished, it's poured over a mound of freshly boiled noodles and mixed with shaoxing wine, soy sauce and more chili oil. The first few bites will be intense, but soon you'll get used to the heat.

Chengdu cooking has become a bit of a trend in the last few years, but it's one I welcome because it allows for a deeper dive into Sichuan cuisine.

This is the place where all the local chefs are going to eat. The restaurant is at the core of something special happening in St. Catharines. From my conversations with locals, I get the impression that there's more to come.

Suresh Doss's weekly food segment premieres on Metro Morning Thursday. Watch for video of his jaunts across the city on CBC Toronto's Facebook page.

Do you know a GTA restaurant that Doss should visit? Tweet us @metromorning or send us a message on Facebook. And if you try any of the places he features, we want to see photos!

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