I have (yet another) confession to make. I’ve never actually really liked Chinese dessert. There’s something about having hot sticky gruel-like stuff at the end of a meal that never really appealed to me. Plus, growing up in Indonesia, I was very much used to the concept of “how can we make this shit as unhealthily delicious as possible?”, which pretty much translates to dousing everything in either condensed milk, coconut milk, or straight up sugar. NONE of these are available in traditional Chinese desserts, much to my dismay. Dating and eventually marrying WW, however, slowly changed that, as I glacially gained an appreciation for the subtler, lighter fares that the Chinese enjoy following a heavy meal. My (very) gradual shift is now made complete thanks to the addition of one of Taiwan’s most popular dessert chain: ZenQ.
ZenQ marries the conventional ingredients of a “healthier” Chinese dessert with the popular mix-your-own-toppings style of a modern dessert house. Think of it as if a traditional Chinese dessert house produced an offspring with a Yogurty’s/Menchie’s. All wrapped up in a nice and cheerful ambience (and BRIGHT, holy crap do Asians like their shiny white tiles or WHAT), this place finally seals the deal on what I’m looking for when it comes to this kind of food. And while it ain’t exactly cheap, it’s right on par with how much conventional desserts cost these days, aka at around the $5-$6 mark.
Coming in, WW and I quickly realized that this was a special soft opening ceremony, hence the large amounts of balloons, photo booth, and general pandemonium around the place. Everything felt so new and polished, a far cry from the often dim and disorganized feel that I often associate with most Chinese dessert places. We discovered that ZenQ operates using a pretty simple and ingenious concept: most of their dishes have a “base” on which you basically add toppings on to. There are five bases, each called “series”, and the menu lists the base version + some other possible topping combination suggestions. You are, and I stress this tremendously, extremely free to add your own stuff a la carte. Most toppings are around 50 cents extra, with the heftier ones (usually the chewy balls) costing a buck more. The friendly staff there took my order, and freshly prepped everything in front of my eyes to my exact specifications.
This gives you pretty much carte blanche to do WHATEVER you want (a very modern twist which is all the rage these days) on a your Chinese dessert (a much-loved classic offering). The combination is about bringing the new into the old, and I really appreciated it. Now, granted, this can become overwhelming if you’re a complete noob, and that’s why the menu lists some recommended combinations. Finally, after consulting with some of the staff, we ended up trying 3 main things: the tofu pudding series, adorned with tapioca balls, peanut, and taro; the grass jelly series, topped off with Q balls, taro, and brown sugar; and finally the glutinous rice series, with a wee bit of longan and sweet taro.
Firstly, my favourite: the grass jelly series is awesome. For the uninitiated, it may sound a bit gross, but grass jelly actually tastes almost like nothing. It’s the texture that you go for. It really is a bit like wobbly jello, with a clear, refreshing, and cooling feel to it. This contrasted beautifully with the chewiness of the Q balls, which are a collection of different rolled up tapioca balls which contains taro, green team and sweet potato. All of this is coated in a sweet (yet not overwhelmingly so) syrup on which the brown sugar rests on. The result is like a party in my mouth. It was hitting all the right notes, and not once did I feel bloated or disgusting the way I do after eating my way through a conventional dessert (I’m looking at YOU, Oreo cheesecake).
Secondly, the one that felt the lightest: the tofu pudding series. This is pretty much dou fu hua (豆腐花), but again given the supercharged treatment with all the toppings. This dessert is super light and gives new meaning to the oft-used phrase “melt in your mouth”. The grittiness of the peanut, the chewiness of the tapioca balls, and the “meatiness” of the taro provide a sumptuous array of contrasts to the buttery smoothness of the tofu pudding. I kind of wished they had some ginger syrup, but overall this was also very pleasant and, dare I say, calming. Oh, and did I mention it was a warm dessert? Nice on a winter night.
Finally, the “heaviest” dish of the lot: the glutinous rice. WW loved this, especially as she’s always loved sticky rice. This felt almost like a small meal, as it was very hearty. Yet at the same time, the fruity sweetness of the longan and the chunks of sweet taro provide slight punctuation marks that cut through the overall heftiness of the dish.
Much like the bubble tea shops of today, you can alter the level of sweetness to taste by just ordering a side of brown sugar and dunking as much of it as you desire. And speaking of bubble teas, yes they have those as well, made with lovely earl grey teas. They are also delicious and smooth, although I would still emphasize that ZenQ’s signature offerings are definitely their non-bubble tea desserts.
I would recommend this place. And that’s coming from me, who at one point disliked Chinese desserts, only to then slightly improve to the position of sitting on the fence on this topic for so long my butt hurts. I think I can say now that ZenQ provides a solid tipping point for me to say “Yes, I do enjoy Chinese desserts”, which is a thing I never really thought I’d say. It’s a bit more expensive than the smaller mom-and-pop shops that serve similar offerings, but miles better in presentation, ambience, and options. That’s more than enough for me.
Photos courtesy of ZenQ marketing.
–Final verdict: Mari Makan!
8333 Kennedy Rd
Markham, ON L3R 4P8