Those who find grocery shopping in Chinatown an ordeal - first you have to fight your way in, grab what you want quickly, then line up forever at the cash before fighting your way out again - can now just head up the DVP to T & T Supermarket (7070 Warden, at Steeles East, 905-470-8113, and others), a one-stop Asian hypermarket across city limits in Markham.
One of three suburban outlets opened by the BC-based chain two years ago, the huge Loblaws-style operation includes a dim sum food court, in-house bakery and aisle after aisle of high-end food products. The seafood department alone is worth the trip - squeaky clean aquariums full of lobster and Pacific crab with not a "sleeping" fish in sight.
The fixings for half of the pad thai dished up on Queen West likely originate from Vientiane (2 Bradstock, at Weston, 416-743-2911), a Thai supermarket in a 50s-era plaza in the wilds of North York that supplies many a downtown trat. Unlike T & T, Vientiane's a bit of a mess, but amongst the racks of rice noodles, fresh Southeast Asian herbs and hot sauce, sharp-eyed shoppers can spot impossible-to-find-elsewhere items like tins of Police Dog Brand Tea Dust, Ve-Tsin gourmet seasoning ("92 per cent MSG!") and Snake Brand prickly heat powder. There's also a large section of Latin American imports.
Korean Central Market (675 Bloor West, at Manning, 416-516-8022) has recently undergone a facelift, and its once confusing layout has been rearranged. Freezer cases still come packed with dozens of types of frozen mandu dumplings, and the improved produce department now stocks Seoul-food essentials like fresh ginseng, gobo root and peeled garlic. DIY kimchee urns, pre-marinated bulgogi and grill pans, and 20- pound bags of short-grain brown rice, too.
Over in Riverdale, Spadina vet Hua Long (591 Gerrard East, at Broadview, 416-977-8597) has just launched its second supermarket. It's the first store east of Broadview on the south side, down a flight of stairs from the street, and it looks like any other vegetable vendor on the block. But once inside, the transformation is remarkable. The place is gigantic and tidy with orderly rows of quality Asian foodstuffs, a jumping fish market at the back and an extremely efficient checkout up front. If only Hua Long's Spadina emporium (253 Spadina) was this pleasant a retail experience.
All of the above offer a small selection of inexpensive housewares, but the best place to stock up on woks, bamboo steamers and cheap cleavers is Tap Phong Trading (360 Spadina, at Baldwin, 416-977-6364). The friendly folks there also carry all manner of dishware - I've recognized Tap Phong plates in fancy restos - as well as trendy wicker storage baskets, knockoff Noguchi paper lanterns and sake sets.
Down the street, Neohome Houseware (251 Spadina, at Sullivan, 416-597-8288) has a large selection of state-of-the-art rice cookers plus pricey Henckels cleavers, chrome kitchen racks and - hello kitty! - an entire shelf-full of those ceramic good luck cats you see displayed in every Chinese restaurant in town.