The recent influx of Mainland Chinese has brought over more than just an increase in our real estate prices – they have also imported a taste for spicy Chinese food that until fairly recently, was relatively foreign to Vancouver. As recent as three or four years ago, I recall thinking how precious few places served authentic spicy Chinese food. And those that did specialize in these cuisines are often cloaked Cantonese kitchens that catered to the milder Cantonese palate – serving food that would not have satisfied the Mainlanders’ spice cravings. Over the recent years, with the increasing immigration of these “Northerners”, the number of spicy Chinese restaurants has been steadily increasing to the point where I think we now have enough of a selection to have a solid week-to-week rotation of places to eat.
I still think we don’t have an exemplary Sichuan restaurant (especially after losing a very good one in Chuan Xiang Ge in Richmond), but I think we have Yunan covered (S&W Pepperhouse in Crystal Mall and their less able branch in Richmond), and we now have two very good Hunan joints to choose from: Alvin Garden (Burnaby) and Lucky Noodle (Collingwood).
Sal y Limon
701 Kingsway Ave
I’m a big fan of Kingsway as a foodist’s destination. The scruffiness of this diagonal slash of a street seems to impose a level of gastronomic authenticity that you will not see in other parts of this city. Embedded into the various strip malls along this drag are some true gems – mostly of the ethnic hole-in-the-wall variety. This road is of course well known to fans of Vietnamese food, but this post is about a Mexican Tacos and Tortas newcomer to the section many people call “The Triangle” at corner of Fraser St.
When someone texted me a picture of the menu of this newly opened hole in the wall a couple of weeks ago, I was instantly intrigued and have been angling to check it out. The subsequent social media buzz about this restaurant further stoked my interest.
I finally made the effort last week and ordered a selection of tacos (al pastor, cordero, pernil) and a carne asada torta (grilled beef sandwich). The tacos are small (as they should be) and served on doubled-up tortillas…but they were not inexpensive at $2.25 each – about the same range as La Taqueria’s offerings. A bit high for Kingsway joint, I thought.
When Goa Girl posted that she missed the banh cuon from the late lamented Northern Vietnamese restaurant Truong Thranh, I thought it was time to revisit Thanh Xuan, a Kingsway hole-in-the-wall that I knew specializes in this Vietnamese delicacy. I blogged about this place around the time I first encountered it, and I haven’t really been back for quite some time, so I finally found an excuse to return.
Banh cuon, a simple steamed rice flour crepe, is a common breakfast dish originating from Northern Vietnam. Like most of Vietnam’s indigenous food, however, banh cuon’s true origins are in Southern China – specifically from the familiar cheong fun, the rice roll you will find in all dim sum menus. The methods of preparation are quite similar – rice starch batter (often augmented with wheat, tapioca or other starches) is steamed to form a thin sheet over boiling water. While cheong fun is steamed in shallow metal trays, bank cuon is steamed in a specially constructed pot which has a fine cloth tautly stretched over the opening.
Unit 40 1055 Canada Place
This recently opened downtown “outpost” of the much loved Turkish restaurant Anatolia’s Gate in Burnaby has a comparatively pared-down menu, but a number of the favourites are here including their stuffed pide. Sadly missing is their lavash which, at the Burnaby location, comes out of their pizza oven puffed up to the size of a baleen whale. Also, the flavours of the dishes here are subdued compared to those at the mothership.
The eggplant salad, for example, lacks the lovely smokiness of its fire broiled sibling in Burnaby. The portion sizes are also slightly miniaturized for area’s the take-out market
Hot Lady Hotpot
#1185 – 8580 Alexandra Road
I need to get this preamble out of the way first…This restaurant does not have an official English name. The banner in front reads 麻辣妞妞火鍋專門店. Urbanspoon translates these characters (perhaps via a contributor) to mean “Hot Lady Hotpot”. My Chinese friend prefers to call this place “Spice Girls Hotpot”.
The characters 麻辣 translate to “ma la” or “numbing and hot “, the signature spicy Sichuan flavour combination. The next two characters 妞妞 “niu niu” both stand for “little girl”. The next two characters 火鍋 are “hotpot”. Finally the characters 專門 mean “specialist” and 店 means “inn” or even “place.” So…this restaurant tis called “Hot and Numbing Little Girls Hotpot Specialist Place.” Hmm…
I think I’ll stick to “Spice Girls Hotpot” – Urbanspoon bedamned.
654 E Broadway
It was a tough year for Terry Deane. He had sold Ah-Beetz in Abbotsford (his first pizza joint) over a year ago now to open his dream pizzeria here in Vancouver. It took a lot longer than he expected. A couple of missteps with city permits have stretched his resolve and his finances to the limit. Zoning issues prevented him from building out at his original location – a former gelato store on Victoria Drive. This insurmountable hurdle finally forced him to seek a new place.
After a few months of active searching, he settled on a location near the corner of Broadway and Fraser. This dog-eared space that formerly housed a Chinese restaurant wasn’t any easier – it took months to get proper permits in order, and the conversion process took much longer than he had anticipated. “It was a mess. Everything was covered in grease,” he said.”It was a lot of work.”
Desi Dosa House
8859 120th Street
I have recently committed to exploring Surrey to mine it of all its gastronomic goodness. To me, this is frontier territory. The distance from my home and my reluctance to drive on the highway have always been blockers to my exploration of this sprawling city. Surrey, of course, is the center of the Indian community here in the Metro Vancouver area. And like Richmond is to Chinese food, Surrey is dotted with true Indian gems. One such place is Desi Dosa Madras on the same strip mall as the more well known (and decidedly mediocre Desi Junction).
The Crow and Gate Pub
2313 Yellow Point Road
Nanaimo District, BC
In 1972, the government of BC relaxed truly some truly Victorian liquor laws to allow neighbourhood pubs to operate for the first time in the province. The Crow and Gate made local history when it became the very first of such establishments. Jack Nash, Sussex native and the former owner, built this place as a labour of love — importing timber beams, furnishings, windows, memorabilia, and other objects to provide the raw material to build a truly authentic southern English pub. He provided a sort of template of how neighbourhood drinking holes could be built and run. Soon it became a local favourite.
Since then, however, the big factory breweries such as Molson’s and Labatt’s have managed to use their hegemony to infest just about every neighbourhood in the province with cookie cutter pubs serving their swill. Things are definitely getting better now in the urban areas with the recent ascent of modern microbreweries and “gastropubs”….but for the rest of the province, Big Brewery mediocrity still rules.
130 W15th St
North Vancouver, BC
North Vancouver’s Laleh Bakery specializes in Persian cookies that you serve to accompany traditional afternoon tea. These melt-in-your-mouth treats pair well with tea drinking. They come in a variety of textures that complement the ritual – often slightly dry, flakey, and grainy – with crunchy punctuation provided by walnuts, or pistachios. Some are sticky sweet, or are covered in powdered sugar.
Butter and semolina lend their richness, and the subtle flavour of cardamon or rosewater permeate many of these confections. Date and fig jams are used as spreads sandwiched between cookie rounds or as fillings. Preserves such as apricot, or berry jam serve to fill thumbprint indentations.
4801 Victoria Drive
88 Supermarket is one of the many reasons why I feel privileged living in the East Side.
As an avid cook and general enthusiast in all things pertaining food, I’m always on the lookout for great sources for ingredients. When I am cooking Southeast Asian food, I would usually head on over to stock up.
Madras Dosa House
5656 Fraser St
Recently my daughter told me that her favourite cuisine is South Indian vegetarian…this is after many years of sushi as here top choice when dining out. A couple of years ago, I had taken her to the Vancouver location of Saravanaa Bhavan – a restaurant chain hailing from the city of Chennai that specializes in the cuisine of Tamil Nadu. She was smitten. She always asks if we can dine there whenever we are nearby and she held here birthday party with her friends there recently. (She and a number of her friends are verging on vegetarianism). I am only too happy to oblige her.
Being a carnivore, I find Indian vegetarian food to be the only meatless food that truly satisfies me. Unlike the typical “beans and tofu” vegetarian cuisines endemic to this city, I truly do not miss meat at all when I eat this food. Also, I had traveled through that part of India a couple of decades ago and fell in love with the cuisine and had always wanted to explore it first hand. With impetus, I am now in the midst of exploring this cuisine with my daughter by learning to cook it. I would like her to grow up knowing that vegetarianism can actually be a delicious lifestyle. I have stocked my kitchen with the requisite pantry items – luckily all very easy to find here in Vancouver. I already had a number of great cookbooks (I’m a bit of a cookbook hound), and there is no shortage of websites from which you can learn this cuisine.
5225 Victoria Dr
As far as Food Trends go, Pork is an odd duck. After many years (even decades) of virtual banishment from many restaurant menus, this “other white meat” has surged with a vengeance. Pork Belly Anything, Pulled Pork on Anything, and Bacon Anything is all the rage in restaurants from casual breakfast joints, all the way to fine dining establishments. It is getting quite tiresome to be honest. The Chinese diner, insulated and bemused by these strange Western trends, have never shied away from this beautiful meat. Kalvin’s – a relatively unsung Chinese restaurant on the East Side of Vancouver serves two of the finest examples of Pork dishes in town.
Kalvin’s Szechuan, is a Taiwanese-run restaurant that specializes in Sichuan cuisine by way of Taiwan. Taiwan became an incubator for Sichuan-Taiwanese cuisine when the civil war forced the defeated Chinese nationalists to retreat to the island of Taiwan and declare the Republic of China (Taiwan) as a sole governing authority over all of China. The connection to Sichuan (and thus its cuisine) is a primarily symbolic and spiritual one as Sichuan province was the last stronghold of the Republican forces and the last to fall to the Communist troops. Chongqing (in Sichuan province) was also the home base of Chiang Kai-Shek’s Republic for many years. The two dishes examined here, however, are not Sichuan in nature – they both probably originate from other parts of China. We will have a look at the Sichuan inspired dishes here in a later post.
Ayoub’s Dried Fruit and Nuts
1332 Lonsdale Ave
North Vancouver, BC
Along Lonsdale in North Vancouver’s Little Iran, is a seemingly non-descript dried fruit and nut shop called Ayoub’s. The green awning and the oddly chosen typography of its brand belie what is inside the store.
Ayoub’s interior is a caricature of opulence - crystal chandeliers, marble, and trimmed out cabinetry adorn the store and its displays. The product, however, is undeniably good albeit pricier than the nearby competition. You can get high quality nuts, dried fruits of all kinds, fruit preserves, halva, loukum (Turkish delight).
Kakuni: Guu Original on Thurlow
Kakuni’s origins, like many dishes in Japanese cuisine, are in China. This homey dish of cubed, slow braised pork belly is surely a descendant of one of China’s most iconic dishes: red cooked pork – or “Dongpo pork” mythically named after the man who purportedly invented the dish. Kakuni and Dongpo pork are both rustic dishes which require more time than effort to make.
“I’m sorry sir, it is illegal to serve medium-rare burgers in this city.”
I can’t really fault my waitress for uttering this common misconception. Like many, I used to think that it is illegal to serve hamburgers that are raw in the middle. It is not. The health authorities do not have such a law in the books. What is stopping most restaurants from giving you the option of ordering a rare or medium-rare burger has nothing to do with the legality of the act, but from their own distrust of their source of ground beef. Most burger joints will not take chances as they get their ground meat from large factory operations whose quality control is beyond their reach.