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

Ebisu on Broadway – Vancouver, BC


Ebisu on Broadway
601 W. Broadway #12
Vancouver, BC
(604) 876-3388

Ebisu (Kamei Royale) on Urbanspoon

I know what you’re thinking, not another sushi restaurant review!  The frequency of Foodosophy posts relating to sushi is for good reason. In the Lower Mainland, sushi restaurants are as ubiquitous as Starbucks. To mix things up a bit, I thought I’d take a different approach and compare take-out and dine-in experiences from the same establishment.  The guinea pig for this little culinary experiment was Ebisu on Broadway. I’m still confused about the name of this restaurant since the street signage clearly says Ebisu, the menu says Kamei Royale and the “coming soon” website refers to Kamakura. Maybe customer confusion is how you distinguish yourself in the Vancouver sushi scene. This restaurant clearly has a case of confused identity and I was hoping this wouldn’t translate into the food.

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From a takeout perspective, sushi is a fantastic item for a quick grab and go, but is equally enjoyable during a sit down meal. To start this commentary, I’m going to walk you through my first take-out experience at Ebisu on Broadway. I was having a late evening craving for some sushi so I decided to follow the neon “open” sign clearly visible from the corner of W.8th Ave and Ash. After navigating a steep and narrow stepped staircase, I arrived at the sparsely populated restaurant. This visit was mid week and close to closing time so I wasn’t expecting to see a large crowd of people. The takeout menu caters to large groups and the combination platters would easily feed a small family. Since I was looking more for a snack, I decided to order a-la-carte. Keeping it simple I went with a small sashimi salad and an assortment of nigiri which included a couple of pieces of saba (Spanish mackerel), toro (tuna belly) and a piece each of hamachi (yellow tail) and uni (sea urchin roe). I placed my order and sat down in the small seating area next to the entrance. The first thing that grabbed my attention was the assortment of Japanese language newspapers and magazines. In my view, this is always a good sign when eating at a Japanese restaurant. After a few minutes of attempting to read a Japanese newspaper, my order was packaged and ready to go.

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Sushi was correctly proportioned and could be eaten in a single mouthful. The fish was fresh and the rice had the right amount of bite to it. I’m a traditionalist when it comes to sushi where quality will always trump quantity.

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After devouring my sushi, I tucked into the sashimi salad. Visually, the salad presented well, even in a Styrofoam container. Taste wise, it failed. I’m not a fan of mayonnaise based dressings and the some of salad was wilted. I personally prefer vinegar based dressings so had I known, I would’ve probably never ordered it, but the wilted salad is hard to forgive. Overall, I’d definitely go back for the sushi and stay away from the sashimi salad.

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Dining in was a different experience. We were seated in a private room with ample lighting and seating for four. It felt isolated from the rest of the restaurant and would be perfect if you were looking for a private date. Similar to the takeout menu, the dine-in menu caters to group dining with large sushi and sashimi platters. There was an assortment of cooked dishes and I was tempted to go the combination dinner which gives you the option of choosing several dishes for a fixed price. In the end, we decided on a sushi/sashimi platter, the shrimp gyoza and the tuna tataki salad. From my previous takeout experience, I was hesitant about the salad but agreed since the menu described as having a vinaigrette dressing. I was impressed with how quick the large sushi/sashimi platter arrived as it was beautifully presented on a wooden boat. The sushi and sashimi was fresh and the maki’s were well prepared. They put great effort in their presentation and it definitely shows.

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The salad was the next to arrive and true to form, presentation was well done. Flavor wise, the salad again missed the mark. The tuna was seasoned with a Cajun spice blend which completely masked the tuna’s delicate flavor and to top it off, the salad had a balsamic dressing. The combination of raw tuna, Cajun spices and balsamic dressing just didn’t work. So strike two on the salad front and I don’t know if I’m willing to try a third time, even if it’s supposed to be a charm.

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The shrimp gyoza were the final item to arrive and again presentation was impressive. Three gyoza were neatly arranged on a bed of green onions and deep fried wontons with a side of a basic soy sauce and vinegar mixture. One of my favorite things about gyoza are the crispy bottoms of the steamed dumplings. Unfortunately, in order to achieve this crispiness, the shrimp were complete overcooked and rubbery in texture. Although pleasing to look at, it didn’t taste very good. I also felt somewhat wasteful, since you leave behind the deep fried wontons and the bed of green onions. I don’t feel bad for leaving behind a sprig of parsley, but a quarter cup of green onions seems a bit wasteful. Overall, service was excellent and the food arrived in a timely manner. Even though we were tucked into a private hut, our orders were taken quickly and our tea was refilled frequently. So two thumbs up for the service staff.

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So comparing the takeout and dine-in experiences, one thing is clear. I’ll be back for the sushi and sashimi and the service was excellent during my take-out and dine-in experiences. So next time I’ve got a craving for sushi, I’ll definitely head in Ebisu’s/Kamei Royale/Kamakura’s direction. Hopefully they’ll finalize their name one day.

Ebisu (Kamei Royale) on Urbanspoon

Koko – Vancouver, BC


Koko
2053 E. Hastings Street
Vancouver, BC
604-251-1328

Koko on Urbanspoon

I paid homage of sorts a couple of days ago. It was homage to a slice of Vancouver gastronomic history: Sushi history to be precise….I had lunch at Koko – one of Vancouver’s oldest sushi restaurants. Koko is located on Vancouver’s East Hastings St — just east of the infamous, downtrodden Downtown Eastside. If this road is part of your regular commute, then you should be familiar with the funky yellow sign. You may have already dined there yourself, but probably did not attribute anything “special” to the place. Koko, you see, is part of Vancouver’s sushi heritage.

Like in most large North American cities, Sushi, has become a staple for many people here in Vancouver.  Most Vancouverites (and perhaps most North Americans) who partake in a regular sushi habit will probably tell you that they had awakened to raw fish some time in the early 1980′s…around the time sushi went mainstream. (That is around the time I  had it for the first time too….maybe 1981?) Most will be surprised that Vancouver has had a sushi scene since the 1960′s…around the time of its ascent in Los Angeles, the veritable center of North American sushi culture and the city where the first sushi bar in the US opened in its Little Tokyo in 1965.

It should probably have come as no surprise that Vancouver cottoned on to sushi relatively early – Vancouver has had a long history with Japan and Japanese fishermen. This city has had a distinct Japan Town since the late 1800′s and Japanese settlers from various shipwrecks have lived in the area since the early 1800′s. That influence continues to be felt today – the city streets are teeming with Japanese foreign students…and you can’t swing a salmon without hitting a sushi bar or an izakaya.
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So how does Koko relate to sushi history in this city? It is connected to Koji- one of Vancouver’s first sushi chefs – arguably this city’s first true itamae. I will not fully recount the Koji’s story here. Instead I will send you off to an article written by Toronto based writer Brian Fawcett. In that article, he recounts the tale and thus the backstory of this restaurant:

Then there’s the story of Koko, which is extraordinary, and has several chapters. Koko, you see, is the last restaurant of Koji, Vancouver’s first sushi master, who started serving sushi in the late 1960s in a tiny second floor dive above a Japanese grocery just east of Main Street on the north side of Hastings Street. [Excerpted from Koji's Story by Brian Fawcett]

That dive, which is close to the Patricia Hotel, now houses a Buddhist temple. Koji, by the way, is still alive and kicking…long retired from the sushi trade. Koko is now run by Koji’s son Kuni, pictured here.

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Inside and out Koko looks like what sushi restaurants used to look like: a open raw bar in the back with divided semi-private tatami tea-room sections….you know…where you take your shoes off and sit on low benches as if to simulate the way the Japanese eat at home. The staff are also all Japanese.

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That day, I sat at the bar and had the sushi assortment platter. The fish was fresh and expertly made (Kuni learned his craft from a master, after all…and he also apprenticed in Japan for a number of years to further hone his skills and to become a “proper” itamae).

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I don’t recall exactly how many times I have been to Koko in the years I have lived in this area…perhaps less than ten times. The meals I have had here were not that memorable, but the food was always honest, well prepared and fresh. The sushi here is perhaps not the best in town or even in the vicinity (I will give the nod to Lime on Commercial Drive for that one)….but that is not the point. I was paying homage…like I said.

Koko on Urbanspoon

Original Cupcakes – Vancouver, BC


Original Cupcakes
2887 West Broadway
Vancouver, BC
(604) 974 1300

Original Cupcakes on Urbanspoon

In my mind, cupcakes and childhood birthday parties are synonymous.  Fast forward a few years and I was introduced to “gourmet” cupcakes at a wedding.  Rather than having a traditional wedding cake, the bride and groom had a tower of cupcakes.  Fast forward a few more years, I was walking down West Broadway one Saturday afternoon and I came across a cute little shop selling what else…  Cupcakes of course!  The décor of Original Cupcakes is something you’d expect to find in a little girls dollhouse.  I was impressed with the look of the pink hued store, complete with cupcake shaped light fixtures.  From the bustle in the open bakery in the back and the sweet smell in the air, I thought it’d be a shame to leave without some cupcake bounty.

I’m not the type that indulges in baked sweets very often, but for some reason cupcakes are an exception.  Wanting to try more than a single sweet something, I decided on a half dozen mini cupcakes.  This being my first time in the store I thought these were perfect!  The cake portion was moist and had just the right amount of sweetness.  The frosting also wasn’t overly sweet and each had their distinct flavor profiles.  If I were to pick my favorite of the bunch, it would have to be the “mint condition”.  To get a feel for their cupcake lineup, they’ve got them all listed on their website.

Funny how things happen and later that week I was at a local grocery store and overheard a conversation about the Cupcake store on W Broadway.  The cashier informed the customer ahead of me that Original Cupcakes also makes great cakes.  Making a mental note, a cake will definitely be on my list for a future gathering and I’ll more than likely end up indulging in a couple of cupcakes, maybe even a big one next time.

As a final note, I’ve just learned that every month they have a “cause cupcake” where a portion of the proceeds from the sale of each cupcake goes to the cause of the month.  You should check out the story behind January’s “bizzy lizzy” on their blog.

Original Cupcakes on Urbanspoon

Oasis Bubble Tea and Cuisine – Vancouver, BC


Oasis Bubble Tea and Cuisine
2076 West 41st Avenue
Vancouver, BC
Tel: (604) 606 0688

Oasis Bubble Tea & Cuisine on Urbanspoon

Scanning the drink board menu at most bubble tea places is an overwhelming experience, what with all of the flavors that are listed, including many that are not common ingredients that one usually sees elsewhere in an eating establishment and I am not talking just about bubble teas (e.g. black grass jelly, anyone?).

From the black tea-based originals, milk-based variations, and fresh fruit slush types, the choices can leave you pondering what to do. Order something you’ve had before and know you enjoy? Or take a chance with a new flavor or blend-style that might cause you to want to ditch it after one single sip? Oasis goes a step further and throws another wrench into the works with their inclusion of ice cream blended bubble teas on the menu – which for me was a new range to see in a bubble tea shop (I later saw their sandwich board outside that boldly proclaimed they have “the best ice cream bubble tea in town”).

I figured I’d take the plunge. As you may recall from my previous posts, when it comes to ice cream as a dessert, it doesn’t take much to twist my arm. At $4.25 for the base drink and an extra fifty cents for the added pearls, it came in a good sized cup complete with that ubiquitous plastic seal on top. If anyone can tell me how they put these on (is there a special sealing device they use?), I’d be happy to know.

Turns out, the ice cream bubble tea is as creamy as a milkshake, so no big surprises on the texture and temperature front. The green tea flavor was a perfect sweetness, I was afraid that is would be overwhelmingly sugary, knowing that sweetness is added to bubble teas on top of what comes out naturally from the usual ingredients (such as fruit). I was torn on the inclusion of the pearls with my drink.

Mixed in with the thicker-than-usual liquid that was the ice cream blend, I felt they got lost in the shuffle and were completely enveloped into the mix rather than standing out on their own as they are in a straight tea bubble tea. As a result, I am not sure if it was the preparation of the pearls, but they did seem to be a touch on the soft side, but thankfully with none of that chalkiness that sometimes does happen with them that I really dislike.

If you can put up with the tacky Polynesian-themed interior decor, which also stretches outside with some fake palm trees attached to the outer wall and that hover next to a circular glass cutout that serves as the main window into the restaurant (as well as some photographs of food items encased in two vertical frames just outside the front door), Oasis can almost be just that and live up to their name, on a non-busy day. With four booths lined along one wall, and some tables and chairs in the other section, if you can get a seat, it felt much less cramped than say a coffee cafe would, enabling you to sit and chat for a longer period of time comfortably.

I didn’t get much of a look at the food available, other than say some Vietnamese subs on a hanging menu board (but no doubt, better ones can be had in a place like Calgary when it comes to this as they do it well there). The skimpy menu that was on the table at the order desk also had some Taiwanese cafe dishes like beef with noodles soup, and curry with rice dishes, so I am guessing that’s why the “Vietnamese” in the restaurant name had been replaced with a blank void in the place’s signage outside.   I think I’d just stick to the bubble tea and get your food elsewhere as that is what my “Spidey Sense” was telling me …

Oasis Bubble Tea & Cuisine on Urbanspoon

Imperial Court Beijing Cuisine – Richmond, BC


Imperial Court Beijing Cuisine
6360 No. 3 Rd
Suite 6
Richmond, BC V6Y 2B3
(604) 270-6169

Imperial Court Beijing Cuisine on Urbanspoon

Richmond BC, as many people already know, is a great place to eat Chinese food. Chinese restaurants of varying quality dot the city – specially around the main drag of Number Three Road. When it comes to breakfast spots – it is a real challenge to find anything worthy to eat. The choices seem limited to chain restaurants such as the Whitepot, the IHOP, and similarly mediocre restaurants.

I was running errands early one chilly morning and I wanted to have breakfast….so I drove up to Imperial Court Beijing Cuisine, a restaurant that I knew served dim sum at 8:00 am. Nice.

tea

Dim sum for breakfast? Sure…why not? People in the West think of dim sum as a lunchtime experience. In China (Hong Kong in particular) and other countries in Asia, dim sum is most certainly a breakfast meal. Dim Sum restaurants there open very early and often stop serving at noon. Here in Canada (and the US) most places that serve dim sum often start serving at 10:00am or 11:00am and stop at 3:00pm.

Imperial Court Beijing Cuisine is a mid-sized restaurant situated in one of Richmond’s oldest strip malls. It is somewhat upscale – it is clean, the tables have nice linen  and they are set with nice white porcelain settings. Like most dim sum restaurants these days, Imperial Court uses order sheets instead the once ubiquitous cart service.

At little after 8:00am on a weekday when I walked in, the restaurant was well staffed – having two “captains” and about four servers. I sat down and ordered a small meal. The captain asked for my tea preference – jasmine, I said. Using the green order sheet, I ordered some Sou (flakey pastry) with Char Sui (BBQ Pork), Chao Fun (Rice Noode Rolls) filled with enoki mushrooms, and Congee with Pork and Century Egg.

The Sou pastry dish came first. Imperial Court’s rendition of this dish is coated with a shiny and sticky syrup – so sticky that with each bite, a bit of the pastry stuck to your teeth. I notice that some of their other buns were similarly coated with this shiny syrup. They looked beautiful…almost like porcelain orbs. The BBQ Pork filling tasted fresh and tender…and not as “porky” as the others I have had.

dimsum1

I didn’t get a picture of the dipping sauce, but now I wish I had in restrospect. In my opinion, dipping sauces are the unsung heroes of the dim sum universe. It can really make or break the whole dining experience for me. In this case, Imperial Court’s dipping sauce was a sweet, but thin soya sauce concoction. It was a nice balance between sweet and salty and it had subtle notes of spice (perhaps some anise or five spice).

dimsum2

The Rice Noodle Rolls came in quick succession. The noodles tasted freshly made – soft, tender, and still resilient. The enoki mushroom filling, while delicious, was a bit unwieldy as bits of it fell out as I tried to pick up a piece. (The kitchen had failed to completely cut through the rolls).

dimsum3

The last dish was the Congee with Cooked Pork and Century Egg. The rendition came with an embellishment of deep fried wonton skin and scallion. It was good and creamy. On a cold day, it was definitley hitting the spot.

congee-copy

All in all a nice meal for under $10 CAD including tax. Unlike a “regular” breakfast – I didn’t leave feeling bloated and greasy. I asked myself why I don’t eat dim sum for breakfast more often.

Imperial Court Beijing Cuisine on Urbanspoon

Song Huong Restaurant – Vancouver, BC


Song Huong Restaurant
1613 Nanaimo Street
Vancouver, BC V5L 4T9
(604) 251-1151

Song Houng Vietnamese on Urbanspoon

Beef Seven Ways (or to use the wonderfully semiotic term: “Bo 7 Mon“) is a truly celebratory meal. In Vietnam, Bo 7 Mon is often served at weddings and any other special occasion where the overt display of largesse and bounty is important. The Vietnamese people’s love of beef is of course famous: Vietnam’s most loved contribution to our gastronomic scene – pho bo -  revolves around beef. Bo 7 Mon is something all carnivorous aficionados of Vietnamese food will appreciate. The best examples of this experience can be found in and around the Los Angeles area…and of course, Vietnam.

Song Huong is one of the rare Vietnamese restaurants in Vancouver that offers Bo 7 Mon….actually, it could be the only one. The other two that I know about are now long gone. The last time I had this dish in Vancouver was at a restaurant which has now been annexed to become a part of Les Faux Bourgousie , the new, hip, and oddly located French restaurant on Kingsway.

Song Huong - The Spread

Bo 7 Mon traditionally starts with Goi Bo a course of thinly sliced grilled beef served on top of shredded fresh vegetables.  Then the meal progresses through a series of beef dishes which usually includes Bo La Lot, a Beef Sausage wrapped in La Lot leaf. The individual beefy items are wrapped, along with condiments, herbs and vermicelli, into a rice paper roll. Finally, you dip this little parcel into a selection of sauces prior to eating it. Other courses could include Beef Wrapped Scallion, Beef with Rice Crackers, Beef Satay, and whatever else the chef decides to present. The meal traditionally ends with a Chao Bo – a type of Vietnamese Beef Congee.

Each time I have had Bo 7 Mon, some of the beef dishes that comprised the meal varied significantly… but it always started with Goi Bo, it always included Bo La Lot and it always ended with the Chao Bo. Song Huong’s rendition of this meal is fairly typical in this sense.

Song Huong’s Goi Bo course is served on a mound of daikon, carrots, and cabbage. The cooks added crushed, toasted peanuts which added a nice crunch.

Goi Bo

Three of the next courses came all at once as our waitress set a dish of three different types of grilled beef sausage: the  Bo La Lot, another sausage which is strongly lemongrassy and yet another which is sweet and garlicky. This is where I believe Song Huong had taken a shortcut by serving three sausages instead of varying it up a little. I would have preferred just the Bo La Lot and two other types of beef dishes to provide more contrast and variety. Perhaps a Beef Wrapped in Scallion and Beef with Rice Cracker would have been perfect here. As it was served, I thought that the three dishes were far too similar in flavour and texture to be truly considered three seperate courses.

Bo La Lot et al.

The next course is yet another dish made up of ground beef. I believe this one is supposed to simulate the commonly served course of Ground Beef Wrapped in Beef Caul (the fat surrounding the intestines). I would have loved to have a real version of this dish, but alas….

Pseudo Beef with Caul

The next course, the Hotpot, consists of a tender Beef Carpaccio which you dip into a simmering broth. The beef has been drizzled with a garlicky vinaigrette prepared with Nuoc Nam, the pungent Vietnamese Fish Sauce.

Carpaccio of Beef

The broth is a light concoction of water, Nuoc Nam, herbs, onions and spices. I like to cook my beef to just rare.

Hotpot

To begin assembly of a roll, you first reconstitute the dried rice paper by dipping it very briefly into a bowl of hot water. This quick bath will turn the brittle disk into a soft, pliant crepe. Leave it in the water too long and the rice paper will be too soft and will tear when you attempt to use it. Luckily, the waitress gives you more than enough of the dry rice paper so you can practice and perfect the timing of this water bath.

seven

On the rice paper goes vermicelli, some herbs, the current course of beef….

Beef Parcel

…Voila!

Rice Roll

One area that Song Huong  differentiates itself from other Vietnamese restaurants in town is in the quality and variety of their herb plate – Rau Song in Vietnamese. Those who have eaten in Vietnam will be familiar with this sight: the big mound of wild herbs and leafy greens on a platter placed in the middle of your table at the start of your meal. Over the course of the meal – the diners incorporate the various herbs into the dishes in varying proportions to add flavour and to vary the experience.

To me, the Rau Song provides Vietnamese cuisine  with much of its appeal: the food is at once intensely savory and crisply fresh….and it is highly interactive. Song Huong provides you with an abundant selection of unusual greens such as Rau Ram, Fish Mint, Spearmint, Vietnamese Balm, sliced Plantain, sliced Banana Heart, Vietnamese Pickled Scallions – along with the usual Mung Bean Sprouts, Lemongrass, Leaf Lettuce, Tomatos,  Cucumbers and Purple Basil.

Herb Plate

And finally the last course: Chao Bo…Vietnamese Beef Congee. The congee had a nice rich flavour and texture rivalling the best Cantonese congees in town. I can detect some spicy notes which probably means that the chef used some of the Pho stock. And the meal is now nicely rounded off.

fourteen

Overall, it was a very satisfying experience, despite the shortcomings I had mentioned. It is a great deal for about $25 CAD – the meal could have easily fed three of four diners (…there were only two of us).

As an aside, I should mention that Song Huong is a very good Vietnamese restaurant. The proprietors are ethnically Hue – from central Vietnam – an region known for its distinctive cuisine. If you aren’t feeling so carnivorous, you can try their Pho or Bun Bo Hue.

Song Houng Vietnamese on Urbanspoon

Presto Cucina – Vancouver, BC


Presto Cucina
2272 W 4th Ave
Vancouver, BC
(604) 731 7222

I love Italian cuisine, but I am often torn when it comes to dining out.  Mainly because it usually involves the see saw battle between a) unpretentious, affordable, in a casual environment but poor to average tasting; and b) fantastic recipes, skilled preparation and beautiful presentation though more expensive and in much more formal settings.  So I was cautiously optimistic when I received a friend’s suggestion one night when I was looking for a delicious but reasonably priced pasta/pizza dine-in option in Kitsilano, after spending the previous ten days in Hong Kong and wanting to avoid anything Cantonese.

On first glance, the outside of Presto Cucina is nothing spectacular, as it occupies a space in one of the many generic buildings along W 4th Avenue. A sandwich board with take-out menus stood upright just outside the front entrance, and taking a glance inside, I was pleased to see it looked fairly busy.  Stepping inside is where some confusion arose, as I could see servers in the back of the room, but they could obviously not see us.  After five minutes of waiting by the door, during which time I saw two servers walk around in the dining space and they could have clearly seen us, but continued back to the open kitchen area at the back.  Spotting a booth along one wall, albeit still dirty and not cleared, we decided to move to it in the hope that would finally grab their attention.  Not so.  Another five minutes later I was finally able to flag a person down, who then hurried back to the kitchen again, and then another server came by and lazily wiped down the table and disappeared again.  I was beginning to wonder if there was a batton they were handing off to each other and I was part of some magic act with all the vanishing going on.

After finally getting a chance to give our order – deciding to share one of the special menu pizzas ($10.99), with Tomato and Bocconcini; as well as a Shrimp Pesto Penne ($15.99) – I finally got a chance to fully scan the room.  Brightly lit and clean, the customers on this night seemed to be mainly couples, more friends having a meal rather than dates.  When the food did arrive, I was fairly disappointed in the bland tasting penne.  The pasta itself was cooked al dente which was fine, but it just had no flavor, and required a dose of table salt and pepper to try and improve it somewhat.  The shrimp, as you often find in casual pasta joints like this, was a bit tough and overcooked.  The accompanying piece of garlic toast felt stale, either that or severely overtoasted, with the sharp edges easily able to do some damage to the vulnerable parts of your mouth.  The pizza was slightly better, but at the same time simply just okay  Nothing horrible about the flavor of it (which was not skimpy on the ingredients), though I was torn over the lump of pesto that appeared in the centre of the dish, as it was really dredged in oil and had my doubts of its freshness.

Back to the service, clearly, the two wait staff were overmatched.  Every time they came by to deliver drinks, food, enquire how things were (once), and even when they brought the final cheque, it was as if they were on permanent drive-by.  Drop and go, is how I would describe it… a service of blurs.  For what it is, Presto Cucina (a four restaurant chain with other outlets in West Vancouver, White Rock and Abbotsford) does what it advertises itself to be – Italian casual.  Frankly the food though could be found in just about any family restaurant serving up pizza and pasta, and probably at a more reasonable price.  Amid all the Italian options in the city, I think Presto Cucina could do more to help itself succeed in this market, beginning with hiring of more service staff.  I really wish I could find a homey, rustic Italian kitchen that serves us authentic, flavorful dishes at wallet-friendly prices in the west side.  If anyone has any suggestions, I would be open to hearing of them and giving them a try.

Presto Cucina (Kitsilano) on Urbanspoon

True Confections – Vancouver, BC


True Confections @ Broadway
#6 – 3701 W. Broadway (at Alma intersection)
Vancouver, BC
(604) 222 8489

As everyone knows, the food service industry is a tough business. Restaurants pop up suddenly, have their time in the sun, and many burn out before being able to establish a strong customer base. Fickle trends, demanding diners, general economics and others, all factor into the success or failure of any food establishment. Much like the productive lifetime of a professional athlete, restaurants are lucky to get a few good years before having to re-invent themselves, increase their appeal, and stay on the rails towards positive business growth. By marking their twentieth year of operations since creating their first desserts-only-desserts-restaurant in downtown Vancouver, True Confections continues to build their following and has clearly ridden out the tough early years, and has been one of the lucky, long lasting food enterprises in the city. It is all the more amazing, considering their concept, of limiting their offerings to the dessert menu.

It is this kind of boldness that I admire. Niche markets are always a dilemma. While they offer a chance to specialize and fill a need that is narrow in scope, this limitation also can be the death of any business due to the fact that mass market appeal is needed to secure the volume that is often required to make production worthwhile. From my own point of view, desserts have traditionally been an afterthought for many of my meals. I did not grow up in a household where desserts were an element of our family meals, nor did I tend to order dessert when dining outside. It was really not until I was into my first real job following graduation where business dinners were a staple of my work, that I learned how some people view dessert as a crucial element in wrapping up a dining experience.

It was through these dinner parties, working meals, etc. that I became a fan of cheesecake. True Confections does these well, referring to their dense cheesecake creations as being Montreal-style. Whatever that may be, I am a fan. For me, its this richness that makes or breaks a cheesecake. It is a delicate balance, between being still soft enough to enable a fork to cut through with relative ease, while still being solid enough to stand on its own as a single slice without collapsing under the weight of whatever toppings may be applied. The fruit edition is my personal favorite here.

The Broadway location (the second in the three store chain) is a simply designed space, with a prominent showcase presenting the cakes that can be chosen by the slice, and a smaller one near the entrance that is for whole cakes for take-away. Eating-in tends to be either a relaxing or hurried experience depending on the time of day that you go, with evenings (especially on Fri/Sat) being very busy and a popular location for after dinner dates. Parking is a bit tight given that the building shares space with a few other businesses. With several restaurants in the neighborhood, I believe that many customers decide to drop by for a different atmosphere and continue their dinners, with a helping of one of True Confection’s many sweet temptations including cakes, pies, tartes and trifles. Give it a try, your sweet tooth will thank you.

True Confections (Broadway) on Urbanspoon