Truong Tranh – Vancouver, BC


Truong Tranh
Kingsway and Victoria Dr
Vancouver, BC

Truong Tranh on Urbanspoon

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It is heartening to see the signs of a maturing ethnic restaurant scene. To me, one of the first real indications of maturity is the emergence of regional cuisines within a dominant national cuisine. Vancouver has been experiencing this type of emergence in its Chinese scene for quite a while. Restaurants that serve Hunan, Sichuan, Hakka, amongst others having been coming out of the woodwork over the last decade. Much more recently we have been seeing regional Italian – wooing diners from the typical “red-sauce” joint.

Vietnamese regional cuisine isn’t very common here in Vancouver. Here, this cuisine has been defined (and caricatured) by pho joints. However, if you dig a little deeper, you will find these little places that serve regional specialties front and center in their menu. Truong Tranh is such a place. Here, pho takes a back seat to Northern specialties such as banh cuon, xoi, bun rieu cua, and bun oc.

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Truong Tranh has a section of their menu reserved for xoi – Vietnamese sticky rice. My particular favorite dish here is their xoi thit – or — to use the more familiar Colonial name — Porc au Caramel. The pork (belly in this case) is tender, deliciously fatty (“unctuous” would be the ideal description here), and the sauce is an intensely flavoured concoction of fish sauce, black pepper, garlic, and caramel sauce – nuoc mau. This caramel sauce imparts a sweet and pleasant bitter undertone to the dish. It is a great accompaniment to the xoi.

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Banh cuon is a common breakfast dish in Northern Vietnam. I reported about another restaurant — Trahn Xuan that serves an authentic example of this dish. Like at Trahn Xuan, the banh cuon‘s rice wrapper is made fresh to order here. Most Vietnamese restaurants are content to serve this dish using store-bought Chinese-style rice rolls.

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The banh cuon pictured here comes with cha lua (pork loaf)  and pork floss (looking a lot like burlap). It always comes with an herb plate and nuoc cham.

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Bun oc (fresh water snail soup) is a dish that is difficult to find in Vancouver (and in most cities in North America). The examples of this dish that you do find are often made with canned snails (Truong Tranh is no different). This particular example is strongly flavoured with pickled bamboo shoots – very tasty to those who are accustomed to it – but oddly medicinal to first timers.

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There are so many Vietnamese restaurants out here in this city. I’m sure that there are a number that have surprisingly regional menus.  I am hoping that these places are just the tip of the iceberg. This refrain rings familiar — Vietnamese is so much more than pho — (remember when we used to say Chinese restaurants are more than just chow mein and sweet and sour pork?).

Truong Tranh on Urbanspoon

My Chau – Vancouver, BC


My Chau
1715 Kingsway
Vancouver, BC
(604) 874-6880

My Chau on Urbanspoon

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When I walk into an ethnic restaurant for the first time, I make an attempt to determine if they have a specialty – a particular house dish for which they are “famous” within their community. I look for clues in the menu or on chalkboards and also I look around at the other tables to see what the other patrons are having.

The first time I entered My Chau a couple of years ago, determining their specialty was easy  – it was their chicken pho (pho ga) with a side of deep fried chicken leg. The place was packed for lunch and almost every single table had a plate full of this beautifully deep fried chicken leg that comes with bowl of a chicken pho. I knew then I had to have it.

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This place is truly a hole-in-the-wall in the best meaning of the term. The restaurant is a mere sliver – perhaps ten feet across and seats no more than perhaps 20-30 people. For such a tiny place, they have an extensive eight page menu.

East Vancouver has a number of places that serve a good beef pho (pho bo). My Chau differentiates itself from the crowd by specializing in pho ga and thus have developed a quite a following. It fills up quickly around lunch time – often with well-dressed and affluent Vietnamese side by side with working class folk looking to have a good pho ga.

Their chicken broth is light, but flavourful – and very nearly transparent in its clarity. It is also quite light in salt. I do not detect that “round” MSG flavour that so many bowls of pho in this town exhibit. The accompanying chicken leg is fried perfectly – with a crisp, golden skin and tender meat. I suspect that the legs had been used to make the broth prior to being deep fried. It may explain the excellent crispiness of the skin. It is delicious and perfectly seasoned.

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The noodles are perfectly cooked – loosely separate, al dente, fresh tasting and nicely “ricey”.

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The other food I have had here has been very good (The hu tieu – dry noodles – in particular). However, it is their pho ga that beckons.

My Chau on Urbanspoon

Thahn Xuan – Vancouver, BC


Trahn Xuan
2200 Block of Kingsway at Nanaimo St
Vancouver, BC

Trahn Xuan on Urbanspoon

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I love pho. It is a delicious, nourishing lunch time meal….however, I am in a pho phunk. I think may have had too much pho lately.

I live in an area in East Vancouver which is dotted with great Vietnamese restaurants. The Vietnamese triumvirate of pho, bun, and bahn mi are my usual suspects in this area…but I needed a change.

I have been aware of Thahn Xuan (literally a hole in the wall on Kingsway) for quite a while. It is located adjacent to a Pho Hoa franchise location, an adult video store and a massage parlour. I never thought much of it because it looked very much like the many Vietnamese “Cafes” (… often smoky gambling dens in disguise) that dot this section of Kingsway.

This place serves Northern Vietnamese food that is not pho-centric…as a matter of fact, in spite of the signage on their window that declares they offer pho, they don’t actually serve it. They have a small menu – less than ten dishes listed on the photocopies taped up to the wall. Their specialties are bahn cuon (Vietnamese Rice Rolls), bun oc (Freshwater Snail Soup) and bun rieu cua (Crab Cake and Seafood Soup). it.

I have to admit I felt some excitement (…these kinds of things excite me). This type of restaurant is not common here in Vancouver – a Vietnamese restaurant that doesn’t serve pho, com, bun or bahn mi? What is this? Here in North America, this type of place is more common in places like Westminster and Garden Grove, Vietnamese enclaves in Southern California.

I have been back a number of times since my first visit here a few weeks ago and have tried all their specialties.

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Bahn cuon, a common breakfast dish in Northern Vietnam is their main specialty. Bahn cuon is rice roll stuffed with minced pork with a side of nouc cham dipping sauce and the requisite herb salad. From my observations, this is the most commonly ordered dish here.  I have seen it at many other Vietnamese joints in town, though here at Thanh Xuan, they don’t use the usual premade Chinese rice rolls – you can watch them make the rice noodle sheets fresh to order in the back. These sheets are thinner, more translucent and chewier than the more commonly used Chinese variety. The herb salad is well appointed with about four or five uncommon greens.

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Another dish I could recommend is the bahn rieu cua – soup with a seafood-stock base with house-made crab cake and various greens (notably the anise-flavoured Vietnamese celery). The crab cake is usually made by grinding or pounding whole mud crabs, shrimp, and pork into a cake-like consistency (see photo). The best bowls of bahn rieu I have had outside of Vietnam were served in Southern California and they also included cubes of pork blood, tofu puffs, and other accoutrement that Thahn Xuan’s version lacked. Still, this was a very good rendition.

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The food here is good – but not exemplary (even compared to some Vietnamese places as far north as Seattle – and I won’t even bother comparing it to places in Vietnam). Still, this is a welcome addition to my list.

I am seeking more places like this – places that serve uncommon (for this city) Vietnamese dishes. Song Huong (whose proprietors are ethnically Hue – a people from the middle section of Vietnam – serves a killer Bo 7 Mon and some good Hue food. Co Do, which recently closed, used to serve great Hue food (they had a good bun bo Hue and nice little starch dumpling appetizers). Truong Thanh just down the road on Kingsway at Victoria is another very good Northern Vietnamese restaurant with a non-pho centric menu. (Look for an upcoming report on Truong Thanh here on Foodospsohy).

Anyone out there know of any regional Vietnamese restaurants that are worthy of a visit? I would love to know about them.

Trahn Xuan on Urbanspoon

Long’s Noodle House – Vancouver, BC


Long’s Noodle House
4853 Main Street
Vancouver, BC
(604) 879-7879

Long's Noodle House on Urbanspoon

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This endearing hole-in-the wall has become a regular spot for me. Their take on Shanghai cuisine is generally excellent and humbly innovative. The service is also excellent – Sandy, co-proprietor and server could be one of the best servers I have ever seen: friendly, knowledgeable, fast and efficient.

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I recommend the Xiao Long Bao (soup dumplings), the Hot and Sour Fish Maw Soup, their unique Crispy Rice with Salty Egg Yolk (which goes very well with the Hot and Sour Soup as a crouton-like condiment), Fish with Pinenut, and their Drunken Chicken. The flavours are clean and the food is prepared expertly.

Their Xiao Long Bao here is a standout – one of the best in town and very close to the top of the heap. It is expertly prepared – translucent skin, perfect pleating, and plump with broth.

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They have a small and very focused menu (not the nearly 200 items you often would see in a Chinese restaurant in this town)…and everything I have had there over the years has been very good…and inexpensive. This is the kind of place that exemplifies the type of restaurant that Vancouver does best.

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Long's Noodle House on Urbanspoon

Seri Malaysia – Vancouver, BC


Seri Malaysia
2327 Hastings Street East
Vancouver, BC V5L 1V6
(604) 677-7555

Seri Malaysia on Urbanspoon

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When eating at an ethnic restaurant anywhere in town, I often ponder the authenticity of the food being served. Vancouver diners  often get shortchanged in this department – certain cuisines (think sushi) being served by untrained “chefs”, unsuccessful re-interpretations of regionalized cooking (think “Szechuan”), classics of a cuisine automatically “dumbed down” with prejudice for fear of offending unadventurous  tastes…I could go on.

In order judge the “authenticity” of a restaurant, I often have to rely on my experience in that particular cuisine gained from my travels, or from my attempts at cooking it, or sometimes through some sort of intuitive gustatory extrapolation. Still – on cuisines where I have little experience,  I wonder whether a dish I am currently enjoying is an exemplary example….and I reassure myself that if I’m liking what I’m eating, that’s all that really matters. The food of Southeast Asia is something I know quite a lot about – experience I gained when lived in that part of the world….so I know almost instantly whether a dish is hitting its target in terms of authenticity.
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Seri Malaysia is a non-descript Halal Malaysian restaurant on Vancouver’s East Hastings St. The restaurant, like its Hastings St environs, is a little run down. It could use a paint job, the awning needs a wash, and the decor needs some re-thinking.  The ambiance, however, is not why I keep returning here – I come for the food.
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I know a little about this place from my casual chats with the chef/owner Jamal. Chef Jamal used to co-own the original Kedah House…which, at one time, was the only Malaysian restaurant in Vancouver with honest-to-goodness Malaysian cooks. Having a Malaysian cook is still a rare occurrence here in town – the most popular Malaysian restaurants in Vancouver are known to have Chinese cooks. (Sometimes, it really does make a difference.)

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Much of Malaysian food is bold in flavour – often pungent and unsubtle. It uses a lot of curry spices, strongly flavoured and scented botanicals (lemongrass,  galangal, and so forth) and fermented seafood (for example: belacan – a dried fermented shrimp paste, and ikan bilis - dried anchovies). Seri Malaysia serves what I believe to be the most authentic examples of some of the  classic Malay  dishes here in town (with a disclaimer that  like most countries in the Straits – the cuisine is highly regional and does vary significantly).

As if to validate my assessment of the food here – on my most recent visit here a couple of days ago, none other than the Consul General of Malaysia came in to dine with some compatriots a couple of tables away. I had a quick chat with these gentlemen on my way out.  I understand that the Consulate regularly orders the Rendang and other items here from here in bulk whenever they have official banquets.

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The Beef Rendang (a dish of Indonesian origins) is delicious – tender beef with strong hints of lemongrass (you can see the lemon grass fibers in the  sauce). I’m not sure what cut of beef was used to prepare this one – probably chuck or something similar. A more celebratory rendition would use the meat from short ribs or shank. Rendang takes hours to cook properly…and it gets better with age.

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I also ordered the Chicken Curry which is traditionally prepared in coconut milk. It was well seasoned and tender, though perhaps a little toned down in chili heat today.  You can always order one of the three or four kinds Chili Sambal to adjust the heat. The curry wasn’t an exemplary dish, but it was still very good. The Roti Canai (the Malaysian rendition of an Indian flatbread) was nice and flakey (almost croissant-like) and not at all oily ( a common misstep in its preparation). The Roti was perhaps not the best one I have had in town, nonetheless, it was a perfect vehicle for the curry sauce.

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Chefs who serve me food “the way it should taste”…whatever that means to them…have my admiration. It is an indication to me that they have respect for their diners – they make no assumptions and they will ask you questions about your preferences. Vancouver is a town full of adventurous diners…yet I fear for this place and other restaurants like it.  Chef Jamal has indicated to me that it is a struggle for him at this location (he often runs the entire show by himself- he is the waiter, cook, dishwasher, and host – it really shows when the place is busy). He has, in fact, considered throwing in the towel on occasion (I sure hope he doesn’t any time soon) and he is on the lookout for a better location.

If you are on East Hastings Sunrise area and you are a little peckish, check this place out. They have inexpensive lunch specials (under $7), but I think it is worth it to order from the full menu.

Seri Malaysia on Urbanspoon

Tung Hing – Vancouver, BC


Tung Hing Bakery
1196 Kingsway
Vancouver, BC V5V 3C8
(604) 875-3394

Tung Hing Bakery on Urbanspoon

I had mentioned in an earlier post that Banh Mi provides (for me) the best value in a lunch time meal. Where else can you get a filling, fresh and healthy lunch for under $3? It makes a great “recession” meal. Look at this monster below…a full 12 inches worth of goodness….all for a paltry $2.75.

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Tung Hing is located on an unassuming stripmall on Kingsway that is occupied by an insurance company and yet another Banh Mi joint and bakery. This downtrodden part of Kingsway is strewn with Vietnamese businesses of all kinds. There may be over a dozen Pho joints within a stone’s throw of each other. There are also quite a number of Ca Phe (Vietnamese coffee houses) and Delis that also serve these sandwiches. None of these places have offerings that can compare to Tung Hing’s.
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Upon entering the bakery, you are greeted with an golden array of Chinese-style pastries in a glass display case. These pastries lead me to believe that the operators are Vietnamese of Chinese descent. The pastries they sell there are also very good and very fresh. You can get all the favourites here (coconut or cocktail bun, custard bun, egg tarts, and so forth).
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I can smell the aroma of freshly baking bread…a indication that a fresh batch has just come out of the oven. This busy bakery seems to supply Vietnamese baguettes to other Banh Mi joints in the surrounding area…I have seen deliveries of bags and boxes full of this stuff going out the door on occasion. You can see the baker manning the small deck ovens in the back of the store in the picture below.
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The sandwich bar is on the right side of the store. I like this arrangement  –  the bar  is visible behind a glass divider and in front of the ovens. This gives me the opportunity to watch the Banh Mi as they are made from start to finish – the bread leaves the oven, it goes on cooling rack, it is deftly slit open and filled.
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Today, I was promptly greeted by the friendly sandwich ladies. I most often order the the Dac Biet (“Special”)…in this case a sandwich with Cha Lua (Vietnamese white “ham”) , Char Siu (Chinese-style BBQ Pork unusually sliced lengthwise and is much more tender and moist than the Chinese rendition), and liver pate. Fresh-tasting daikon and carrot pickle, cucumber, some onions, herbs, pepper, and finally a dash of soya or the soya-like Maggi seasoning to round it out. The sandwich is then traditionally wrapped in wax paper and strapped with a small elastic band.

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A good Banh Mi like this has achieved a balance…a perfect equilateral triangle really: the Bread (a light and airy crumb and crispy crust); the Meats – (not too much since we aren’t trying to make a Reuben here); and the Vegetables (a good daikon and carrot pickle, some crisp cucumbers and so forth). Since Tung Hing makes their own bread (an excellent rendition of a “French” baguette), you are almost guaranteed freshness in this department. The bread is often still warm from the oven when you get it.

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One thing Tung Hing has over the other Banh Mi joints in the area: I have never seen them run out of Banh Mi as often happens at other purveyors (this  actually means they have run out of baguettes).

I dare not say that this is the “best” Banh Mi in town since food is such a subjective topic. I can safely say it is my favourite Banh Mi joint. It certainly rivals the favourites such as Au Petit Cafe on Main St. It’s worth heading eastward on Kingsway just for this.

Tung Hing Bakery on Urbanspoon

Phnom Penh – Vancouver, BC


Phnom Penh Restaurant
244 E Georgia St.
Vancouver, BC
Tel: 604 682-5777

Phnom Penh on Urbanspoon

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One restaurant that has never failed me is Phnom Penh – the Cambodian-Vietnamese restaurant on the outskirts of Chinatown. I have yet to have a bad meal there…which is remarkable for such a busy place. I can always count on the cooks there to serve me food with big, bold yet balanced and nuanced flavours. I’m not one to hyperbolize about dining experiences, but I must say that I have taken many friends, colleagues, out-of-towners to this place and they have all invariably declared the meal as one of the best they have had. One particular food-loving colleague from Los Angeles  emails me regularly to tell me that he craves a couple of their signature dishes and is constantly looking for excuses to fly up to Vancouver.

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The restaurant describes itself as Cambodian-Vietnamese – two cuisines which will have much in common given the geographic proximity of the two countries. (The food from Laos and parts of Thailand are similar as well). The Khmer (Cambodian) and Vietnamese names of many dishes are often phonetically identical.

Much of the cuisine in this region all have certain elements in common – the use of souring ingredients (such as  tamarind, citrus); the use of strongly scented green herbs (cilantro, asian basils, lemongrass, kaffir, and so forth); fresh or pickled (instead of dried) pepper; the use of fermented fish sauces and pastes (nuoc nam, kapi); and the use of curry spices (turmeric, star anise, galangal, and so forth).

Also common to the cuisines is the general presentational philosophy of “fresh” balanced with “savory”. Pho, as an example, will always be presented to the diner with a plateful of herbs and greens as a counterpoint the savoriness of the broth. To indulge the diner further – a wedge of lime of almost always provided to allow for adjustment the sour note. This philosophy lends an appealing “brightness” to the cuisine. Cambodian and Vietnamese cuisine do diverge somewhat – for example, Cambodian cuisine tends to be more pungent with fermented fishy flavours and the use of ripe tamarind paste is more prevalent.

I tend to order from the “Cambodian” section of the menu with forays into the “Vietnamese” section for a couple of particular favorite dishes. The selection of dishes between the two sections of the menu are similar but distinct enough to highlight the unique aspects of each cuisine.

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My favorite dishes at Phnom Penh are their rightly famous garlic Chicken Wings (which comes with an lime juice and pepper dipping sauce), their Banh Xeo (their Vietnamese rice flour crepe filled with pork and sprouts), Black Pepper Squid (a wok-fried, tender and peppery concoction), Butter Beef (a superb dish of sliced rare beef with a good drizzle of a soy and nuoc nam based sauce), and their fried Frogs Legs (I didn’t have it today).
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I did find a new favorite on this visit: The Loc Lac which is the Khmer version of the Vietnamese dish Bo Luc Lac – more commonly known as “Shaking Beef” (due to the preparation method and not the on-plate antics of the beef slices).

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The meal was excellent yet again. The service was perfunctory yet prompt and efficient…which is all I really want in a place like this. Be forewarned about the long lunch hour lineups. It is a very popular place.

Phnom Penh on Urbanspoon