Regional food specialties
- Exploring Canada's Pacific Northwest
After visiting both Montreal and Toronto in the last calendar year I decided it was time to hit on the Canada trifecta this past Labor Day. So we headed out to Vancouver on what was a pretty last second trip. I've always wanted to get out this way but never had the chance to do so. For one the airfare is always sky high to the point where you can usually find equally priced or even cheaper flights to Europe. Your best bet is to fly into Seattle and rent a car. I think Vancouver is one of those cities that warrants renting a vehicle for a variety of reasons. First is if you want to see the natural beauty of the area outside of the city it's much easier to do so with a car. Second reason is if you plan on going to Richmond more than once those ubers will add up. Since my plan included daily trips to Richmond I basically needed a car to make that happen. What's Richmond? Arguably the best place to eat Chinese food outside of China. It sits next to Vancouver and is constantly growing.
Sights from Vancouver
Now that I have an idea of the food scene in all three of Canada's big cities I have my own idea of what each of them brings to the table. Montreal has amazing chef driven type spots while Toronto has an amazing collection of diverse mom and pop spots. Vancouver? They have the strongest scene of any single cuisine of the three. So if you like Chinese food Vancouver is a great place to check out. There's other stuff but I've heard that Richmond (or China / Hong Kong) is where people from SGV in Cali go when they want the best of the best when it comes to Chinese food. The Chinese food scene is so embedded in the local community they have an organization called the 'Chinese Restaurant Awards' that boosts tourism locally and internationally. The group provides web content and dining guides and hosts a yearly awards show showcasing the areas best chefs, restaurants, and dishes. I was lucky enough to be put in contact with one of the board members and he hooked me up with a list of spots I should check out. On top of that there's lots of info online from them and others.
Sights from Vancouver
Because Richmond and Vancouver is where many people from Hong Kong moved when Beijing took control of Hong Kong you'll notice most of it is Cantonese. Cantonese people have been coming to Vancouver as far back as the building of the railroad days but that number jumped significantly over the last 20-30 years. These days there's more and more restaurants from Mainland China that are popping up as regional Chinese food continues it's descent into North America and elsewhere. It doesn't end there for Vancouver's food options though. There's a decent sized Japanese population as well as lots of local seafood. You can eat well many of ways. Sights wise the best the city offers is what's outside of it. We hit up a few spots including the Lynn Canyon Suspension Bridge which is free unlike the more popular one that cost too much to simply have your stomach drop. Lots of fun stuff including a bucket list activity for my wife - Orca whale watching. For me it was about the food.
Sights from Vancouver
After a disastrous start in which I was shut out of my first three stops in Richmond I needed to stop the bleeding. So we headed into the city proper and sought out a spot long on my bucketlist - Japanese inspired hot dogs from Japadog Canada. They have a handful of locations around town. First trip in so I got the most popular offering. The Terimayo comes with teriyaki, mayo, seaweed on a grilled Kurobuta pork sausage. Don’t knock it until you try it. This shit was fucking delicious.
Terimayo Hot Dog at Japadog
Aside from sleep we didn't spend much time in the downtown area. It's kind of a madhouse during the day especially if you're driving. It's also pretty touristy. But the sushi at Miku is worth stopping for. It's the original purveyor of Aburi style flame seared sushi in the area. Popular spot for lunch or dinner but it's also really large so they can most likely accommodate you if you roll in like we did. We tried a few pieces of Nigiri featuring the days fresh catch as well a couple of their signature Aburi rolls. One mackerel and one salmon. The Aburi sushi is pressed and then flame seared. It's become one of the city's signature snacks and that all goes back to the CEO of Aburi Restaurants Canada which owns Miku. The Japanese businessman took over his fathers restaurant ventures back in Japan and now owns a handful of restaurants in Vancouver too. While Aburi style sushi is more of a side item in Japan he and the team at Miku have turned it into the restaurant groups best seller (salmon).
Sushi at Miku
If not for the fact there was so much Chinese food to be consumed we would have had more oysters. I'm not sure there's a batter place in the world to eat them than those native to the Vancouver area. I've always preferred cold water oysters and from what I've tried over the years the best seem to always come from the British Colombia region. The best of which barely make it out of the province. There's lots of spots to sip oysters all day and they all seem to have a decent enough happy hour. That said Oyster Express in Chinatown I was told has the best most fresh oysters in town. They had a couple local mollusks on happy hour for $1.50 each which is more like $1 in US currency. So very much a good deal for what were some of the best oysters I've had in a long time. I wish I ate more.
Oysters at Oyster Express
Vancouver's Chinatown seemed like it had seen better days. I'm guessing the businesses from there that didn't shut down moved over to Richmond at some point and time. That said it's ripe for restaurant groups to come in and and get a decently priced spot to put out some fun food that makes the local buildings more valuable and the neighborhood more prone to gentrification. Not going to tackle that here but I will say there should be room for a Bao Bei in every neighborhood. I loved the setup of this first come first seated restaurant which doubles as a cocktail bar. The menu takes inspiration from Chinese countries like Taiwan, provinces like Sichuan, and cities like Shanghai. As the name suggests they make all dumplings in-house. I really liked the pork and prawn wonton which were both delicate and also clean tasting. I really appreciated the super thin skins and the broth of ponzu and serrano they sat in. House fried rice was also nice. As described it's fresh turmeric and yogurt marinated rockfish, fried peanuts, fresh dill, chili, and salted egg yolk dusted fish chicharrón.
Meal at Bao Bei
With the success of Bao Bei the chef from there decided to open another spot in the area. Kissa Tanto was high on my hit list for it's Japanese-Italian food served inside a dining room said to be a flashback to 1960's Tokyo. Japanese-Italian food is very much a thing. Just like with French food you can find some of the worlds best Italian food in Japan and Tokyo in particular. Many chefs will train making pizza in Naples or sauces in Lyon and then come home and use what they learned there mixed in with Japanese technique and also ingredients. Kissa-Tanto is a great spot to check out if you have an appreciation for the marriage of two cuisines like I do. Top to bottom it was maybe the best meal of the trip with the pasta in particular being one of my favorite bites from the entire trip. It was also the most Japanese-Italian of all the dishes. The whole fried fish was so crisp I ate the face.
Fried Stuffed Olives - yuzu and smoked chili sausage
Octopus Salad - crispy smoked octopus, fresh and pickled radishes, parsley, and chili purée
Tsukune Agnolotti - roasted chicken, confit gizzard, Tokyo leek, chicken tare sauce, ginger, sesame, shisho, lotus
Whole Fried Fish (Pacific Rock Cod) - daikon soy dipping sauce
Up and down the west coast you can find spots like Northern Cafe. Asian owned diners where they’re slanging both classic American breakfast and also plates of Asian food that skew towards western palates. However none of them I’ve been to are quite like Northern Cafe in Vancouver. Hidden in a lumber yard on the second floor of a dilapidated building it’s like walking onto a set for Diners, Drive Ins, and Dives were it trying to be recreated. It’s a family owned spot and Jimmy the owner and his wife and son are some of the most hospitable people I’ve come across while eating. Jimmy being from Hong Kong originally so items like wonton soup are longtime family recipes. I got the special combination plate consisting of sweet and sour pork (an actual Cantonese dish) with BBQ pork chow mein and white rice. My type of breakfast. Particularly the noodles which had great smoky flavor from the wok. The S&S pork was semi sweet but fried to a perfect crunch. I regret not coming here earlier in the trip as I would’ve been back for a burger and fries. They both looked fantastic. It all did.
Lunch Plate Special at Northern Cafe
Behold the Stoners Delight that is Duffins Donuts. Owned by an immigrant from Cambodia who learned to make donuts in California (this is a thing). The menu is the ultimate guide in a what’s what of munchies. Donuts, fried chicken, rice and or fries with gravy, banh mi sandwiches, and Mexican tortas stuffed with meats like teriyaki beef. Papusas, breakfast plates, and chili cheese dogs too. All available 24 hours a day. The parking lot was filled with hot boxers ready to attack all of it. Love it.
Midnight munchies at Duffin's Donuts
Golden Paramount Seafood Restaurant
My biggest regret of this trip was not getting to eat more dim sum. Due to the large Cantonese / Hong Kong connection you can find more dim sum spots in this area than you will almost anywhere else in North America. I was led to Golden Paramount by a well known local who helps with the Vancouver Chinese Restaurant Awards. His top pick for dim sum was here. They had a nice size crowd for lunch and most all of them were speaking in native tongue. Most were older too so I got the feeling this place is still doing most of their stuff the old fashioned way. First item he mentioned as a must were the pork and shrimp dumplings. We ordered another immediately after realizing one of us would only get one otherwise. I love all dumplings but these were special in that they were unlike any others. Rice rolls are still made in house here. The shrimp were wonderful and the beef were even better.
Dim Sum at Golden Paramount
HK BBQ Master
This was scheduled to be my very first stop in Vancouver or even in Canada for that matter. Before the hotel check in I planned to hit a few spots in Richmond on the way in. I didn't realize that Canada also celebrated Labor Day and thus HK BBQ Master was packed with people and had a line out the door both to eat there and takeaway. Well actually they most always have a line bc it's a super small space hidden within the parking lot basement of a super large grocery store. I had to pass but did make it back. We arrived at the 11am opening time the next day and were sat right away. The star of the show was the Char Siu ordered “mou tao” (the most tender part) thanks to a tip from the previously mentioned Lee Man. A simple plate of food can only be this good when a lifetime has been dedicated to perfecting it. So some say this is the best Hong Kong style BBQ outside of HK.
Char Siu Plate at HK BBQ Master
This little Macanese stall in a mall was my only successful stop of my first trip into Richmond. I found it searching for restaurants in the area serving food from Macau. It would seem as though Macau Cafe is the only place in town where you can get a baked pork chop bun for breakfast or lunch. Even though I was successful in finding it and they were actually open and not packed to the gills I still had a slight mishap in my ordering of a pork chop bun. Instead I said sandwich so I got the baked pork chop served between two pieces of toasted bread instead of the traditional Portuguese bun. Still very satisfying for me and since it's hard to acquire a good Portuguese bun I now have an idea for next time I want one and the only way to get it is making one at home. I'll just make it on toast.
Baked Pork Chop Sandwich
My interest was high for this regional spot offering bowls of noodles from the Guangxi region of China. Tucked into the corner of a large strip mall it’s called Creating Taste and I was told to get the number one which is how the people of Guilin like to eat rice noodles. They’re tossed with a nice sour house marinade and topped with super crispy pork belly, extra tender beef, deep fried Chinese sausage, sour beans, and fried peanuts. What a flavor combination. As regional Chinese food makes its way across North America it’s the food from China’s southern provinces I find most intriguing. As Richmond continues to grow so too does the local food scene. Cantonese is still king but there’s lots of other options popping up. Many of them offering regional favorites from the Mainland of China.
Number One Guilin Rice Noodles at Creating Taste
Mama's Dumpling & Coffee
Meet the star of my Richmond crawl(s). As previously mentioned there’s a yearly awards banquet held for the Chinese restaurants of Vancouver. One of the yearly lists features ten of the best dishes of the year as agreed upon by a group of panelists. These Sheng Jian Bao aka fried soup dumplings finished second in the 2019 best dishes of Richmond. Made by a mom who’s a native of Shanghai you must order ahead or be prepared to wait for 30 minutes as they’re made fresh to order. Easily the crispiest SJB I’ve ever had the pleasure of eating. As good as those at Cheung Hing Kee in HK. It was the second time I’d had killer sheng jian bao in Canada this year. Send some down to us!
Sheng Jian Boa at Mama's Dumplings & Coffee
R&H Chinese Food
The Vancouver area has enough Xiao Long Bao (soup dumplings) vendors that it has it's own XLB trail. They seem to do a good job boosting local spots to both tourists and locals. It would be nice to see Chicago get in on that. Anyway that Dumpling Trail guide is how I found R&H Chinese Food which sits in a still active mall. Not all of the food court tenants are making regional Chinese food but it looked like quite a few of them were. The dumplings are made by an old grandma right there in front of the house. I got an order and waited for them to steam. Not bad at all. Better than anything we have in Chicago that's for sure. Though that's not saying much. Haha. Not sure how they compare to others around Vancouver and Richmond. If only I had an extra week or three to try them all.
Xiao Long Bao
Chao Shou Wang
As soon as I saw a picture of the wonton at Chao Shao Wang it rose to near the top of my Vancouver hit list. This is yet another food stall located in a very active mall in Burnaby right on the edge of Richmond. I took what was an extra 15/20 minute drive just to try these but it was cool walking around the mall. It's probably the closest to Asia I've felt in North America. Chao Shou Wang is in the main food court which was dominated by Chinese vendors. Most of them pushing regional dishes like this. According to a poster at Chowhound - "The 炒手/Chao Shou part is the same as the Sichuan dish Wontons in Spicy Red Chili Oil (炒手餛飩), and “王” means king." So consider me intrigued by anyone who calls themselves the wonton king. Consider me sold after trying a platter of the "spicy wonton" made from house pork wonton covered in chile oil with bean sprouts and roasted peanuts.
Spicy Chile oil dumplings at Chao Shou Wang
The Fish Man
I came by this upscale Northern Chinese fish specialist for a late night snack one evening. There were groups of tables with mostly younger crowds eating big pots of fish in fiery red Sichuan broth. But since it was just me I couldn't really partake in one of those. Instead I was here to sample another winning dish from the 2019 'Chinese Restaurant Awards' - Spicy Stir Fried Clams. This dish had a bit of it all. Spicy, savory, and sweet. At something like $15 US this was what I thought to be a steal of a deal. That's bc compared to the pots of fish at $60+ this still packed as much flavor as any dish I tried in Richmond. So that's pretty great bang for the buck value. But I would like to get back for that fish.
Spicy Stir Fried Clams at The Fish Man
Mui Garden made it onto my google maps guide of spots scouted before arriving. It also came rec'd by a well traveled friend from the online food world and thus it earned a visit from me. Or should I say I earned this fragrant Hong Kong style brisket curry by listening to others. It's pretty much the definition of "Ugly Delicious" and sure to bring back vivid memories to anyone who's enjoyed this Hong Kong favorite on the island itself. Loaded with spoon tender brisket and perfectly cooked potatoes both of which are covered in the restaurants signature Hong Kong curry sauce. Like most Cantonese classics it's not spicy but deep in savory flavor. I also heard the Hainanese chicken rice and baked pork chop rice are great but it was just me so I had to choose one. I was happy with my choice.
Brisket Curry at Mui Garden