Jang Mo Jib – Vancouver, BC

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Jang Mo Jib Korean Restaurant
1715 Robson Street
Vancouver, BC

With the Foodosopher rapidly stacking up a solid collection of reports on Pho, I thought I would try to keep up with the master and add some more spice to the mix in the form of another Korean food experience.

Now Jang Mo Jib is what I’ll dub as a “once-you’ve-tried-it-you’ll-know-what-you’ll-get” type of joint.  By that I mean, one visit will tell you all you need to know, and its a very safe bet you’ll get the same treatment on any subsequent trip.  For me, through probably about six visits in total, this has generally averaged out to: a passable level of satisfaction on the taste side, and certain spotty service.  My first ever stop at this well known Robson hangout must have been about eight years ago, back when there were much fewer Korean options in the west end, and it was more of a “no other choices available” reason to eat there.  In recent years, after the explosion of choices for this cuisine in that part of downtown, Jang Mo Jib has become a decision based solely on pure convenience or reluctant resignation.

On my most recent visit this month, upon stepping inside after a tiring afternoon of shopping the strip, I knew right away the answer to the story.  A man was at the cash register facing us, fiddling around with the cash inside, virtually oblivious to the fact that my dining partner and me were standing not one meter away.  This went on for almost a minute before another customer came right in front of us asking for the bill, which immediately caught his attention.  The payment transaction took another few minutes, and right after, he went back to messing around with the bills in the cash tray.  I glanced at my companion, who gave me the knowing look of “what did you expect?”, having been here with me on basically all of my previous visits. Finally getting his attention he took us to a back table for two, and scuttled back to the front of the restaurant, without giving us any menus.  Now I must admit, the younger staff are generally better at customer service here, but on this day there was only one other fellow who was waiting on tables.  Getting his attention was a struggle even though the room was only about half full, and when we finally got the menus, I was on the verge of wanting to just leave.

The boy waiter brought out the banchan (side dishes) afterwards.  Kimchi – horrible, hadn’t infused the flavored yet, much too “young”.  But my hunger and fatigue got the better of me and I reluctantly turned the page on the dilapitated laminated menu seeking something safe as I knew I couldn’t expect anything outstanding.  Kalbi, check.  My dining partner elected the seafood soon dubu chigae (spicy silken tofu soup), with me laughing as I knew she was in for a serious miss.  Ah, when you know what’s coming, its just too easy…

So the soon dubu chigae comes out first, and as expected pretty weak on the seafood flavor side of things, and really overloaded with the soft tofu to make it appear like there was more inside.  The kalbi took a long time to come out, at least fifteen minutes after the chigae had reached the table – even though we made it clear we weren’t sharing.  This was not bad, not overcooked, three big strips and the flavoring was acceptable, but not great.  When you don’t have high expectations, it makes it a bit easier to handle but nonetheless the nagging though of wishing to have gone someplace else nearby, did creap into my head.

Compared to 2000, I know the quality of Korean food in town has improved, and my handful of trips to Seoul as well to try the real deal has made me a lot more demanding when it comes to Korean cuisine in Vancouver.  Jang Mo Jib used to be a by-default place for Korean food while on Robson, but it won’t be anymore.  I just see no real reason to want to go there by choice when I am on that part of the street, especially for mediocore food and disappointing attention to service.  Previously reviewed Dae Bak Bon Ga, definitely gets my nod over this place.

Jang Mo Jib (Robson) on Urbanspoon

Noodle King – Calgary, AB

Noodle King
119-2323 32 Avenue NE
Calgary, AB T2E 6Z3
(403) 250-9808
Open Weekdays 11am-10pm; Sat 5pm-10pm

Many restaurants come and go from our lives. There one minute, gone the next. It’s a hard reality, the restaurant business – most establishments don’t succeed. Quality and price aren’t the only things that matter; location, and a certain element of luck matter as well. With a high failure rate, very rarely do we see restaurants make a second go around – My Marvin’s, the institutional Calgary smoked meat shop has recently tried, to very mixed success. Noodle King, which closed and sold their 17th Avenue SW location, has reappeared as well, this time in the NE.

Noodle King is another in the long line of family owned Vietnamese operations in Calgary. When they opened up on 17th Avenue SW, they provided a wonderful alternative to the mediocre selection of Pho and Bun available on the Red Mile. With friendly service, large quantities, and great quality food, they quickly became a favorite of mine. And then one day, inexplicably, they were gone. When i caught wind from a friend that they had reopened in the Airways Centre off of 32nd Avenue NE, i enthusiastically ran over for lunch. I was greeted with warm hellos – acquaintances renewed over long stories and a plate of Cha Gio. It was as good as ever.

The defining dish at Noodle King is the Pho Sate. Its defining characteristic is definitely the rich, creamy broth; the traditional broth of garlic, chilies, peanuts, laced with coconut milk. This is not for the faint of heart. A *large* bowl of soup, chock full of slightly too firm noodles, slightly “cut too thick” beef, and fresh veg. Ringing in at $8.95, it is a meal in a bowl. The rich and heady broth is intoxicating, and worth every penny.

The rest of the Noodle King menu is a potpourri of SE Asian dishes and flavours. They have an eclectic variety of dishes, including Cambodian Soup, Bun Bo Hue, Wor Wonton, etc.. most of these dishes are not memorable. However, their Bun comes in a bowl of equally large size when compared to the Pho Sate. A great mix of ingredients, the meat lacks quality standards of the better Bun establishments in town. However, they make up in quantity what they lack in quality.

With busy lunch hours and an expanded space, Noodle King is proving that restaurants can make a come back. Based on the lunch crowds, their new NE Calgary location has clearly filled a void in an area seriously lacking a Vietnamese presence. While their success is well-deserved, the fact that most of their clientele are new customers, not old ones from their 17th Avenue SW location, only goes to show that the success of the second go around rarely has anything to do with the first. Thankfully, the good people at Noodle King have been successful at both locations, so I can continue to enjoy one of my favorite Pho Sate’s in town.

Noodle King on Urbanspoon

Bukhara – New Delhi, IN

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ITC Hotel Mauraya Sheraton & Towers
Diplomatic Enclave, Sardar Patel Marg
New Delhi, India
Open seven days a week
Lunch: 12:30pm to 2:45pm
Dinner: 7:00pm to 11:45pm

What could be better than a meal that is comprised largely of slow cooked, tender meats brought to life with exotic spices and flavorings, and where the service staff recommends that you eat with just your hands?

That’s the kind of amazing experience that is in store for you at Bukhara.

Now in its thirtieth year of business, Bukhara has proven that staying with the tried, tested and true does pay dividends, as it has maintained the exact same menu as when they first opened its doors back in 1978.  Restaurant Magazine has listed Bukhara among its selection of the “World’s 50 Best Restaurants” (which began in 2002), a total of five times (missing out on the list in only 2005 and 2008). In 2007, it was the only Asian restaurant that made the top fifty list!

Prior to heading off on my first ever visit to India, I was told by a few of my Indian friends to definitely check this place out, no matter how busy I was, and I am glad I listened.  It is located within one of the high end hotels of New Delhi, which no doubt benefits tremendously from the reputation of their flagship restaurant.  Entering inside, there is a smallish waiting area adorned with a multitude of trophies and plaques from awards won, where many people were mingling about and having drinks before their reservation (a must here!).  The main dining area could be summed up as being very welcoming, a little on the dark side, at-home like with its creative use of a mixure of stone, wood, and bronze metals as construction materials.  The place feels almost like a well-decked out cave dwelling for some mystical genie, with all the colorful cushions and rugs spread out all over the place – very comfy!

The menu (which came as an inch thick, wooden painter’s pallet) featured a non-vegetarian list (11 items) on one side, with vegetarian (7 items) on the other.  There was also a section for the breads and a couple of desserts.  Clearly, the most popular items are the array of kebabs, all grilled to order in the restaurant’s large open kitchen which is visible from the seating area – which further adds to the rugged and rustic appeal of the place.  If you can, definitely get a closer look at the action taking place inside, as you will be bewildered by the pace and furry of activity between the team of chefs and the wait staff on standby to carry out each dish to customers.  Hanging from the ceiling, waiting to be handled by the well trained kitchen staff, are rows of long metal skewers that are taken down individually, dipped in some baths of marinade before being plunged into the tandoor to be grilled.

An apron is provided as you eat with your hands (no utensils here!), to prevent you from getting it all over you, including the potential for spraying sauces or junks of flying meat/veg from your nearby dining companions – as this food can truly bring out the caveman in you.  For the eight of us at the table, the feast featured some of the Dal Bukahara (a blend of black lentils, tomatoes, ginger, garlic, finished with cream and a dallop of unsalted butter), Tandoori Phool (florets of cauliflower seasoned with yellow chili and spices, that were deep fried, skewered and chargrilled), Peshawari Kabab (boneless cubes of leg of lamb seasoned and marinated in chili powder, cumin, yoghurt, ginger-garlic paste and malt vinegar), Seekh Kabab (minced lamb mixed with ginger, green chillies, coriander, cumin and safron), Kastoori Kabab (boneless chicken marinated in ginger and garlic, spiced with black peppercorn), Sikandari Raan (whole leg of spring lamb, braised in a marinade of malt vinegar, cinnamon, black cumin, and red chili paste) and Murgh Makhani (tandoori chicken cooked in tomatoes, cream, butter, cashew nuts, ginger-garlic paste and served with green chili).  Thrown in the out-of-this-world sized Naan Bukahara (I swear it was the size of a small table!), and you can see it was quite the dinner.  Everything tasted incredible, aside from perhaps the cubes of lamb which were a bit overcooked for my liking and too dried out.  After this meal, I had a greater appreciation for the complexity and depth of flavor of dal dishes – on a subsequent trip to India that’s pretty much all I ate!

With its exclusive prices, wide spread popularity both in India and outside the country, and reputation for hosting the world’s VIPs, it surely ranks as a place for a special occassion and a fat wallet.  But for a once in a lifetime opportunity, make a reservation, and share the experience with friends – its definitely worth the price of admission.

Just remember to wash your hands.

Gold Wonton – Calgary, AB

Gold Wonton
5441 Falsbridge Drive NE
Calgary, AB T3J 3E8
(403) 285-8399


September 2008 re-visit post here

Original post below:

Hot Pot, Fondue, Shabu Shabu. All variations of the same theme.

Chinese Hot Pot, better known in Western Culture as Chinese Fondue, is one of the most regionalized meals available in China. Drawing its origins from the ancient Mongolian hot pot developed by the northern tribes, any type of meat, vegetable, or starch is conceivably a hot pot ingredient. With a variety of different broths to dip in. one could go as far as to say no two hot pots are ever the same.

The appeal of hot pot is the interactivity of the meal – it is a highly social activity. Suitable for 2 to 20, it is a slow-paced, interactive meal. In today’s modern age, it also happens to be a very healthy form of cooking. Lightly dipping various fresh ingredients in broth to cook, and then dip in a variety of different sauces, is the extent of the requirements for a good hot pot meal. Usually, it’s quite affordable to boot. A relative triple threat on a culinary scale.

With restaurants like Treasures of China going downhill, the hot pot scene in Calgary was in a very poor state. Hot pot was mostly an afterthought, a dish available on expansive menus that served a variety of dishes and cuisines. And it was getting expensive. Where would one go for hot pot!?

In the NE of Calgary, is a restaurant that specializes in hot pot. Gold Wonton. Not sichuan, peking, shanghai, cantonese cuisine… hot pot.

Gold Wonton is a fairly simple place. Clean in decor, they have basic booths and tables. Every booth has a hot plate in the center, and a control knob to control the temperature. The hotpot comes with a divider, giving you the ability to order two broths. There is, of course, an extra charge for changing up one of the broths.

The menu itself is the most complicated part of Gold Wonton. Able to order all you can eat (AYCE – $22.95), or by the plate, there are an infinite number of selections available – yes, wontons as well. Different broths, different ingredients. It is important to note though, that many premium ingredients (fatty beef, crab, lobster) are only available with an extra surcharge. An often hefty surcharge charge indeed. AYCE is the better option for first timers, or for a diverse crowd. If you know exactly what you want, you may be able to save a few dollars ordering by the plate. I prefer the flexibility and the variety of AYCE. Different flavoured broths, while requiring a small extra charge ($4 on average), are well worth the investment.

The ingredients are very fresh. Thinly sliced and well prepared, there are no complaints. “Gold” Wontons are good, the fish balls and cuttlefish particularly good. Even the tofu is fresh! There are a huge variety of broths. Different flavours, and spice levels to suit everyone. There are also a wide variety of sauces, including my favorite, the classic Sa-cha, vinegar, and soy sauce. The only common complaint is cost – for premium items, which taste better, you pay more. A lot more. There is nothing wrong with the quality of regular ingredients, it is only that premium ones are better. And the price becomes fairly sticker shocking for a meal as simple as hot pot when you go the premium route. Otherwise, you have a great hot pot.

Hot pot is one of those meals that spans all cultures. No matter what a person’s diverse tastes are, chances are, there is something they will like about hot pot. When you go for hot pot in Calgary, try Gold Wonton. It’s fresh, and it’s good. Just make sure you bring your wallet. It isn’t cheap – which for hot pot, is not so golden.

Gold Wonton on Urbanspoon

Tonkatsu Tenshin – Tokyo, JP

[UPDATE: As of January 2009, closed due to poor health of the head chef]

Tonkatsu Tenshin
2-8-1 Mita, Meguro-ku
Tokyo, Japan
Open six days a week (closed Wednesdays)
Lunch: 11:30am to 3:00pm
Dinner: 17:30 pm to 9:30pm

My first ever visit to this establishment was in spring 2001, and I’ve gone back many times since, and have recommended it to anyone who’s asked, “where’s a good tonkatsu (deep-fried breaded pork cutlet) place in Tokyo?”.

Clearly its one of my most favorite places to eat and its a dish I often make at home myself.  Served with sides of shredded cabbage, miso soup and steamed rice, it makes for a hearty meal, and Tenshin is clearly in a class of its own in my books.  I’ve only gone at lunchtime, but if you do, make sure to go as early as you can as the place is packed soon after the doors are opened.

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Long Beach Seafood Restaurant – Queenstown, SG

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Long Beach Seafood Restaurant
25 Dempsey Road, Tanglin Village, Singapore
Lunch: 11:00am to 3:00pm
Dinner: 5:30pm to 1:30am

Let me begin by saying I have no clue what the prices are here, as it was a business dinner with the other side doing all the ordering and picking up the final tab  But all indications are that its not cheap…

Long Beach is a chain of four restaurants in Singapore, with their claim to fame being that apparently they were the original creators of black pepper crab, along with being the first in Singapore to serve fresh live seafood on its menu.  The location we were at was on Dempsey Road, really close to the Singapore Botanic Gardens (a great free place to walk by the way).  For those driving to this location I would share a word of caution, as the parking space on this dirt lot and windy narrow road up a hill, is not really friendly to navigate and probably always ridiculously full.  If not for a few attendants who guided us through and even directed us to park in some tight spot like an amusement park bumper car, I am not sure how we would have managed.

The space had both an outdoor patio and an air-conditioned indoor section.  They had initially tried to pull us inside to a private room, but we were more keen on taking in the more boisterous scene on the patio, and won that argument.  I’d recommend this part of the floor for sure, as it just seems like a big festival feast, with strings of colored lights, the open air environment, abundant and hustling wait staff, and general colonial feel of the white colored structure. For the sake of brevity, I’ll skip through the long parade of dishes that came to our table, all ordered by our gracious Singaporean host.  Some of it was excellent, others a bit unusual, and others flat out ordinary on taste.  Last but not least, came the star of the show… the black pepper (Sri Lankan) crab.  Actually two of them arrived, and looking around our table of five, I could tell some were already bursting at the seams.  I was probably one of them, but how could I pass this up after all the hype I’d heard over the years.

Staring at me from the plate, one of the crustaceans was simply glistening in the mixture of black pepper and soy, with its massive claws folded neatly by its side and in front of its face.  I envisioned a battle might ensue at the table for those prized clampers, but as luck would have it, some of those who’d had enough easily gave up their stakes and I ended up with two!  Our host asked one of the servers to do us all a favor and take apart the crabs so they would be easier to eat – what a fantastic idea!  He took it to a side table and began breaking it down and after a short while, came back with one of them with its meat all piled up in a clean little pile served in the body shell.  The claws arrived on a separate dish, with plenty of the meat visible to just about everyone at the round table, making me think that I might have lost my second claw to a regretful diner.

Taking a spoonful of the meat that had been carefully carved out of the shell and smaller limbs, I knew right away this was very fresh.  Even the thinnest strands that I tasted were succulent and rich with flavor, and this came out despite the incredibly overwhelming power of the black pepper.  The more and more I ate though, I began to feel that the black pepper was quickly becoming a distraction, as it was so one-sided in flavor that each bite began to meld easily into the next without a real contrast in taste sensations.  In baseball analogy, it was like facing a fastball after fastball, with no sign of a curveball in sight.  If not for the amazingly meaty front claws that I had on my plate, which gave some change in texture, and even more flavorful scents of the crabmeat itself, I am not sure I would have enjoyed it as much after a while.  But all in all, I could see why this was the signature dish, as it certainly was a memorable experience in dining.

Just be lucky like me and be able to keep your wallet in your pocket when the massive bill comes to the table.  Don’t meals always taste better that way? 🙂

Dae Bak Bon Ga – Vancouver, BC

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Dae Bak Bon Ga Korean Restaurant
201 – 1323 Robson Street
Vancouver, BC

Perhaps a little lost amid the growing epicenter of ‘Little Koreatown’ on Robson Street, I would say more so for the fact that this establishment is not on the ground level and accessible from the sidewalk as many of its nearby competitors offering Korean food, is Dae Bak Bon Ga. With some warmer weather hitting Vancouver of late, I was in the mood for some refreshing and light mul naengmyon (buckwheat noodles in a cold beef broth). This summary is based on my one and only visit that took place recently.

Marketing itself as a mix of a restaurant slash karaoke place, I was pleased to see the karaoke section was in the back, and not overly visible upon walking in and being led to a table. Going in around 6:30pm on a weekday, it seemed the karaoke crowd was not yet around – I assume things really heat up after 10:00pm (every day) when the late hour happy hour menu comes into effect (40% off!). The space had an open feel to it, high ceilings and the uncovered pipes, vents, etc. made it have a cold industrial feel that was tempered by the rich browns and dark tones of the tables and chairs. Overall, very comfortable and reminded me of a few places I had been to in Seoul over the years.

The room was more than half-full as we were led to our four-seater table, coincidentally one that didn’t have an exhaust vent hanging from above – fortunately, barbeque was not in our plans on this night as my heart was set on the noodles. Originating in what is now North Korea, traditionally mul naengmyeon is served in a stainless bowl (I assume partly to help retain the cold temperature) and decorated with toppings such as thin slices of cold beef, half a boiled egg, and uncooked julienned vegetables, and slices of Korean pear. As additional flavorings, bottles of mustard and vinegar are brought to the table, to be added according to your own personal preference. As well, a set of kitchen scissors are used to help cut the lengthy strands of naengmyeon into more manageable portions.

Mul naengmyeon, despite its simple appearance, is really hard to get ‘right’, as more often than not, the soup broth will be ‘off’, and this happens even in Korea. So with a bit of doubt, I ordered the dish hoping that this would be a positive case. And as luck would have it, it was! A very authentic tasting broth, nicely chilled with ice, and the noodles were the right texture and silkiness that one seeks in this dish. I will definitely be back when I have another craving for it – listed menu price of $9.95.

The other dish that came to our table was the stone pot bibimbap ($10.95). I know, a big contrast to the cool mul naengmyeon. Bibimbap simply explained for those unfamiliar, is a dish that consists of a bowl of steamed rice that is topped with various ingredients such as beef, egg, sautéed vegetables and of course, gochujan (chili paste) for the spicy zing. It comes spread out evenly on top, and is visually a very pleasing dish to behold as its brought to one’s table, and before you mix it all up to incorporate the entire range of flavors into every mouthful. The hot stone pot variety gives it the added twist of making the rice hidden below a bit crunchy and adds a somewhat smoky flavor to it, and I prefer it to the standard version that is served in a regular bowl. The version at DBBG was nicely put together I thought, perhaps a bit more beef than I would normally like (I know, some of you will say how can you turn down meat in a Korean restaurant), and a bit less rice that I would have hoped.

Other thoughts on my visit include the ‘warning’, that during the busy periods of the dinner rush, you should expect perhaps less than attentive service. There were simply not enough servers to cover all the tables, and I could see they were always busy rushing around. Just bringing the dishes to tables is not all they had to do, as for some dishes that were actually helping grill, cut, and mix things together for customers, thus taking their attention away from the main floor. You’ll often find, here in North America and even in Korea, that really fake smiles and ‘let me get to know you’ attitude does not really exist among waiters/waitresses, so for those unfamiliar, you may feel that the service is cold and perhaps even business-like, but I can assure you its not the case, its just the norm. Throw in the fact that its likely the servers are mainly students here on short-term stays.

The starting quad of banchan (side dishes) did not get the meal off to a terrific start, as the kimchi and cubes of potato were not so good – the kimchi being much too sweet and totally adjusted for North American tastes. Usually its a bad sign when the opening freebies are bad, but that said, I was pleased with the two main dishes we had, better than other Korean restaurants I’ve eaten at on this same strip. Who knows, next time with a little soju in me, I might just wander into that karaoke room…

Dae Bak Bon Ga on Urbanspoon

Le Chien Chaud – Calgary, AB

Le Chien Chaud
3-2015 4 Street SW
Calgary, AB T2S 1W6
(403) 229-3641
Open Mon-Sat, 11am – 8pm, Sun noon – 5pm

Memories often play tricks on us. Dominant memories from our childhood – of taste, smell, and joy, are really just that; memories. Many foods of our youth are best left there. As a child, my local chip wagon made the best french fries one could imagine – skins on, doubled fried, in double brown bags with copious amounts of salt and malt vinegar, this was a oft-repeated treat. The chips my family loved. I’ve been searching for something that tasted as good ever since. I’ve never found it. The present never tastes as good as the past.

Just around the corner from my high school was a “premium” hot dog vendor. A small, dirty wooden shack set up in the corner of a parking lot, they dispensed a high brow version of  Bourdain’s “dirty water” dog – street meat. The pinnacle of premium was the “King” Dog. Chili, bacon, cheese, sauerkraut, onions, relish, mustard, ketchup and hot pepper rings, this was a veritable 3 course meal on a lightly toasted bun, all for $3.50. It may all be memory, but the times we skipped class, or dropped by after school for 2400 calories of companionship and joy were some wonderful days indeed. Since they’ve closed, I’ve been looking for another “King” dog.

Le Chien Chaud is a clean, tidy, and highly stylized storefront serving “gourmet” hot dogs.  Serving up 11 regular dogs, along with some daily specials, they have “ethnicized” street meat to try and appeal to the most diverse audience possible. From Italian, to Ukrainian, Mexican to Chilean, i feel like im dining at Buffet World.

Ingredients are fresh. I order a San Antonio dog ($5.50) – chunky vegetable and black bean chili, cheddar cheese and jalapeno rings in an effort to recreate the flavour of the King Dog. The all beef hot dog, also available in a variety of alternative fillings, comes on a soft, well-sized bun. The chili is warm, but mostly bland. The cheddar cheese, not in sufficient quantity to provide the gooey-ness that makes melted cheese its own food group. The Jalapeno rings lack punch. I am provided with a selection of homemade condiments to decorate my dog – these are good, but like the jalapeno rings, feel like they’ve been dumbed down for the masses.

Premium hot dog vendors are a bit of an enigma to me – they are trying to capitalize on the nostalgia of our youth, by deceiving us with modern toppings that might attract our attention in the present. Le Chien Chaud is not the panacea in my search for the King Dog. They serve up a nice quality product, at prices that do not belie the term “gourmet” in their name.  While they have a nice, tidy business, they fail to wow me, or even, hold my attention for more than a brief moment. Of course, it is all but impossible for them to compete with a memory, but life isnt always fair now is it?

Le Chien Chaud on Urbanspoon

Pho Dau Bo – Calgary, AB

Pho Dau Bo
110-4909 17 Avenue SE
Calgary, AB T2A 0V5
(403) 272-5160
Open Sun-Thu, 10am – 8pm, Fri-Sat 10am – 9pm

September 2008 re-visit post here

Original post below:

There is something to be said for the familiar. While branching out, being “adventurous”, getting a wider view of the world are important things, sometimes we want…comfort. Soothing. Reassurance. Familiarty. Pho Sate is one of those things. I can’t explain it. While i love a multitude of different Vietnamese dishes, more often than not, i always order the Pho Sate. Especially when it’s good. With a limited number of meals left in my lifetime, i want to enjoy every single one. Some days, it is rewarding to unearth new places – recognizing the proprietors that do right by the customer, and serve good honest food. Somedays, it’s just another bowl of Pho Sate. Especially at Pho Dau Bo.

A small establishment on “International” Avenue in Calgary, 17 Street SE, Pho Dau Bo serves up a very limited menu of Vietnamese specialties. While not particularly cheap, and definitely not undiscovered, they nonetheless serve up a winning combination – good food, quickly. The establishment is often packed with patrons of all races – speaking both to the quality of the food, and to the cross-nationality appeal that Vietnamese cuisine has reached.

With such a limited menu, i wish i could report on an extensive number of dishes. Unfortunately, i can’t. When I go to Pho Dau Bo, i order the Pho Sate (large), pay my $9.00, and proceed to enjoy what i consider to be a top 3 Pho Sate in Calgary (depending on my mood).  Loaded with perfect firmness of noodles, tender, thinly sliced beef, scallions galore, and a rich, heady, spicy peanut flavour, this bowl is familiarity. The freshness of the garnishes – crisp sprouts, nice ngo gai, Thai basil, lime, and bird chili, are a testament to the quality, and to the turnover, even 30 minutes before closing on a Sunday night.

Thankfully, other dining companions occasionally order other dishes. Take the Bun Thit Nuong (Grilled Pork) – thinly sliced, wonderfully charred, smoky, caramelized slices of pork with fresh vegetables on a softened pile of vermicelli. Delicious. Tasty. Wonderfully executed. Meat lovers rejoice – this is meat! Yet, it is not Pho Sate.

Maybe someday i will be able to do better, and report on more dishes. Maybe one day, i will truly attempt to sample the dozens of other Vietnamese establishments on the same strip (3 others in the same strip mall complex alone!). Or maybe, someday, will find me at Pho Dau Bo, seated at the same table, with the same order of Pho Sate, and the same grin on my face. That will not be the worst of days.

Pho Dau Bo Vietnamese Beef Noodle House on Urbanspoon

Wang’s Beef Noodle House – Vancouver, BC

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Wang’s Beef Noodle House
8390 Granville Street
Vancouver, BC

I’m not sure when the name changed happened on the external English signage, as I swear not long ago this place was just called ‘Taiwan Beef Noodle House’.  I understand that in the Chinese characters though, it does say Wang, so figure the owner just wanted to put his name up-front-and-center on the place now.  I don’t spend a lot of time in south Granville so perhaps a reader might have some insights on when this change occurred…

Looking for a quick meal before an appointment, I decided to stop by after seeing a few empty parking spots in front – an apparent challenge given the limited parking space of their lot.  The only other time I had eaten there, introduced by a friend who recommended it and joined me, I had a good meal so walked in confident but without a great deal of anticipation.  With only thirty minutes to eat and looking for a value proposition, it fit the bill for my needs on this occasion.

It seemed the menu had grown; two separate double-sided laminated sheets were handed to me, with one dedicated to a lot of fruit-based drinks.  Not sure if they are trying to become more of a dining cafe of sorts, but was glad to see their base food section with noodles was intact.  Sticking to the tried and true, I chose the Beef Noodles in Soup listed at the top of this section of the menu, and went with thick noodles – you have the choice from several, including thin, rice, vermicelli, etc.  Listed right below is a spicy version of this, and I know it’s a popular choice as well.  Last time, I had mistakenly ordered the large size, which was quite filling, so opted for the small size ($6.25) as I wanted to also grab a plate of the Sliced Beef Roll Pancake creation ($5.25) that blew me away on my first visit.

First out of the back kitchen came my beef roll.  A simple concoction but oh so tasty – with a nice crispy green onion cake-like exterior filled with green onions and slices of beef dressed in some sweet hoisin sauce, all rolled like a carpet creating a few layers of goodness.  It was cut into sections and each one was pierced with toothpick for easier handling, but I was amused that as on my first visit, they still had not cut through all the way to the bottom, making the task of eating a section at a time not as smooth as it could be.  Why cut it if you aren’t going all the way through!

The bowl of noodles came out soon enough and as I scooped out the bottom with the spoon, I easily counted six good sized chunks of tender beef brisket much to my delight.  The soup was a deep rich color, flavorful, with obvious tints of cilantro and what seemed to be a picked cabbage of some sort, finely chopped.  I was surprised to find the flat wheat noodles in the bowl were able to pick up some of the smaller pieces as I looped them up into my mouth, as I usually associate that kind of attribute with more crinkly, curvy noodles.

All of this coming with GST at just over $12, I am counting this as one of the cheapest value meals I’ve had in Vancouver.  One day, I have to make a trip to Taiwan, to eat this on the streets of Taipei to know how authentic it is at Wang’s.

Taiwan Beef Noodle House on Urbanspoon

Chen’s Shanghai Restaurant – Richmond, BC

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Chen’s Shanghai Restaurant
8095 Park Road
Richmond, BC
Open six days a week (excl. Wed)
11:00am to 3:00pm
5:00pm to 10:00pm

Expectations.  More often than not, they are always hard to live up to.  When it comes to certain cuisine or dishes, the pressure can come from many angles, and the online foodie blogging community is certainly one of the more formidable.  For a while now, I’ve read about the many high praises for the steamed Xiaolongbao (also known by shorthand as XLB, or soup dumplings) being served at Chen’s Shanghai Restaurant located in the city of Richmond.  Now I have only traveled to China a handful of times, but have had great Chinese cuisine, including Xiaolongbao, in nearby Asian countries as well, so do have some experience with eating this dish.  I’ve seen it come in several forms, large and small, some with more pronounced leaf-like edging on the skin caused by a tighter twist when forming, others with a thicker, less translucent skin, and insides filled with soup and meat generally, but I’ve eaten seafood filled ones as well.

So on a recent visit to Richmond, I decided to stop by and see for myself what marvels this kitchen was pumping out to generate such a positive buzz from all over the region.  Being in the area for the first time, it was easy to find just off a major road, though scanning the strip mall in which it was located took a few minutes, as well as finding a parking spot, just after six pm on a weekday.  Luckily once inside, I could see the front half of the place was filled, but a lady yelled and beckoned me to sit at a table in the open area where I could see the small glass enclosed stand where apparently the Xiaolongbao were made (nobody was stationed in there while I was in the restaurant however).  There were a few menus on the table as well as some serving plates, bowls, chopsticks, and coincidentally small dishes filled with rice vinegar with fine slivers of ginger (as if expecting me to order the Xiaolongbao).  Opening up the menu I was afraid it would be entirely in Chinese, and some sections were like page one.  Therefore, I asked if there was an English cheat sheet for this part and a server quickly brought me a one page English checklist of items like their dim sum, soup noodles, etc.  Hurray!

With my intent to satisfy my curiosity about the Xiaolongbao, I quickly checked that off, and feeling in the mood for some noodles but not in a soup form which would be harder to share with my dining partner, selected the Shanghai-style, pan-fried noodles.  Lastly, the smoked duck with Chinese tea and sugar item caught my attention, so went with that as well.  Now I know probably this is not the usual set one better versed in this restaurant’s menu would order, and I am sure some readers can confirm that for me.  Looking around, I could see that many tables had the steamed baskets on them, so took that as a good sign.  However, later realized that the soup noodle dishes were quite popular too, as they came streaming out of the kitchen – and thought maybe I had made the wrong call to go with the pan-fried variation.  As soon as the server took our order, I swear not thirty seconds later she was back at our table with a small printout of our order (no dollar figures showing though) – talk about quick!

The darkly coated noodles came out first, hot on the plate with strings of cabbage and onions, flavors were mild.  Not bad but nothing spectacular and made me think I had really gone wrong by not picking a soup version.

Next came the bamboo basket I was waiting for filled with six Xialongbao.  First impression, they seemed… well, a bit deflated; as I’ve seen others in the past that were made from the same unrisen flour that is still smooth/translucent but retaining a bold, upright structure and just filled to the max with soup.  These ones looked like the life had been sucked right out of them and I was beginning to worry about just how much soup was (still) inside, as I could not spot any apparent leaks.  First bite, wow, the soup is hot!  Should have waited a while before digging in, but luckily it was cradled in my soupspoon so no liquid lost.  I must say, the soup was the best part of the whole package, great flavors!  The skin after peeling it back, was a bit thicker than I normally prefer, though can understand the challenges of getting the right balance of thickness while still being able to retain the soup inside the packet.  The core ball of ground pork with a slight hint of ginger was so-so.  I think that is where my preference for seafood comes into play, as meat always seems to just shrink up and become a tight wad that is boring to chew.

The final dish to arrive, the smoked duck, was definitely the showstopper on this night and made my dinner!  The skin was so crispy and the half portion we ordered had a nice mix of meatier and fattier parts, with both the breast and leg meat represented.  Could definitely smell the tea flavor on both the skin and immersed within the meat itself, and the seasoning was amazing.  I could not help reach for more after I was done with each piece, and at the end, I definitely had more leftover bones on my plate than my dinner guest – lucky for me she knows that I am a unshy carnivore.

So as a wrap up tally… the main goal of checking out the Xiaolongbao was accomplished, albeit I came away from that particular dish without the overwhelming sense of satisfaction and comments laced with superlatives as can be found on other blogs/boards when describing this dish at this particular place.  I’m not saying its bad, as I am sure there are worse out there, but just that the reality did not meet the expectations for me.  Be it personal preference, true lack of understanding of the authenticity of Xiaolongbao, etc. who knows, but I must say its a dish I am not having a strong craving for on a constant basis, and honestly not something I’d go out of the way to have again in Richmond.  The smoked duck though, that I will go back for in a heartbeat!

Chen's Shanghai Kitchen on Urbanspoon

Sage Bistro – Vancouver, BC

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Sage Bistro
(not to be confused with a restaurant of the same name in Canmore, AB)
University Centre, 6331 Crescent Road, Vancouver, BC
Open Monday~Friday
Breakfast, 7:15am to 9:00am
Lunch, 11:30am to 2:00pm
Dinner, open for special events only

Certainly the many academic campuses that I have visited in my lifetime have been infamous for their usual array of dismal cafeterias and fast food chains dishing out pre-packaged, pre-cooked, preservative-filled, artificially-colored disasters that can be had for cheap – a key element in deciding what to eat for many a starving student.  So I was intrigued upon hearing of this restaurant that had boldly decided to set up right on the campus of the University of British Columbia, which for those who have never been, is positioned on one of the most beautiful pieces of land, not only in Canada, but I reckon around the world.  Sage Bistro, through the online community, seemed to be appreciated by those few who perhaps even knew about it, and I decided that it being the summer break and with me in the neighbourhood, that I would check it out for the very first time. My main interest was to see if the buzz I’d heard was truly deserved, or more based on being a ‘big fish in a small pond’ – getting its praise simply by being in a geographical space dominated by the aforementioned fast food competition, as well as being well off the beaten path.

Stepping inside, I expected a lot less people with main classes not in session, so I was surprised to see quite a full dining area.  A long table of about twenty people right in the middle of the floor seemed to be partaking in some kind of social gathering, while another whole section of the room was being set up and not being used at all.  Without a reservation, my guest and I were whisked away to the lounge area – seeing it in the light made it seem all the 1980’s tackiness I heard it was cracked up to be – with its red brick wall which reminded me of my old elementary school’s exterior.  This month’s lunch menu featured a choice of two appetizers, three salads, two pastas, four entrees and three vegetarian dishes.  Sitting next to us was an older couple, who apparently had not ordered any appetizers, and on the other side, a pair of gentlemen who had.  I guess for lunch, its really up to you, though figure an entree per person is just the right volume.

But wanting to get the most out of this visit, I brought a guest along and we both chose an appetizer to start off, to get the most exposure to this establishment’s offerings as we could.  A plate of three types of bread was brought to our table (a second basket would cost you $2.50) after we’d received the menus.  An opening volley to the meal was the day’s soup creation – a smooth asparagus soup with sliced almonds.  I thought it would be richer and thicker, but turned out to be just the right consistency for this part of the meal, with good flavours that were not too overpowering.  At $6.00 for the side size and $7.00 for the entree size, the latter I was told was just another cup more in volume, it seemed a bit steep though, and I know a cup was more than enough and can’t imagine how someone could have more than this for a meal.

As a second warm-up, a plate with a trio of Dungeness crab cakes ($8.00) with lime-chilli aioli, served with a slaw of red & yellow onions and cilantro, was brought to our table.  On first glance, the intense darkness in color turned me off as I thought for sure they were overcooked on the outside… and taking a bite, they certainly were.  Inside though, it was still remarkably moist and crumbled easily with a fork and the flavours were spot on, I especially liked the kick coming from the aioli!  The slaw was nice, not too sour and softened just right to match the creamy texture of the cakes.

Mains selected were the campanelli pasta ($14.00) with mussels and chorizo, tossed in a garlic/shallot/lemon juice/parsley sauce & a guajillo chile and lime marinated roast chicken ($17.00) – bone-in leg and breast portions –  served with a pineapple salsa on a rice pilaf with spears of green asparagus and yellow carrots.  Its been a while since I’ve tasted campanelli, and soon remembered why I was not a big fan as they just seem huge per bite and kind of flip flop all over the place when you try to stab them with a fork. 🙂  The mussels were tiny but not dried out, and the chorizo was fantastic!  Something from the sauce, think it was either the shallots or the parsley, however was a turn off, as it was just coming across as bitter and the more pieces I ate, the more this sensation grew on my taste buds, much to my dismay.

The roast chicken was well cooked inside, certainly not overdone, and the chile/lime sauce had caramelized well on the exterior skin and had dripped nicely onto the bed of pilaf, giving that more flavour components.  The roasted summer veggies added some more color to the plate, making the whole presentation stand out.  Not an overly experimental dish, but good solid, earthy tastes throughout, well fitting to the bright day we had that was still a bit on the chilly side with the blowing wind.

All in all, a pleasant experience, good though not overly outstanding food, with generally attentive service (getting some attention for the bill at the end was trying, as it seemed a bunch of others were wanting the same thing and the lounge was just staffed by one person, though two others had been around earlier delivering plates and refilling water).  Hard to be sure, but the clientele seemed to be more people who either worked on campus (e.g. professors, admin staff) or people living in the nearby neighbourhoods, and larger parties gathered for special occasions.  I am sure if on this day they had opened up the seating outside with the fantastic view of the water, they’d have more people coming for the view.  Perhaps its both a blessing and a curse to be located on such prime real estate, in a more distant part of Vancouver proper, though judging from the busy lunch crowd, it looks like Sage Bistro and Chef de cuisine Andreas Kodis have found themselves a nice little niche in this neck of the woods…

Sage Bistro on Urbanspoon

Bow Bulgogi – Calgary, AB

Bow Bulgogi House
3515A 17 Avenue SW
Calgary, AB T3E 0B7
Open Mon-Wed 11am-9pm; Thu-Sat 11am-11pm
September 2008 re-visit post here
Original post below:

There is something about the concept of the hole-in-the-wall establishment that most people find appealing. Maybe it’s the idea of a small, secretive place, quietly serving high quality food. The personalized service of a independently owned establishment. Or perhaps it’s the sense of superiority – the “i know something you don’t” attitude of the smug foodie. In many ways, Bow Bulgogi House qualifies as a hole-in-the-wall.

Located in a small stripmall on a busy commuter street in the residential SW, it is passed by thousands of commuters each day – many familiar with the bright yellow sign, but completely unfamiliar with the treasures that lie within. Ostensibly offering Korean and Vietnamese food, Bow Bulgogi serves up some of the most affordable, tasty Korean food in Calgary. A very small and busy location, reservations are highly recommended, lest you be faced with a very long wait.

Of all their offerings, the most popular is the ubiquitous “lunch special”. Once quite possibly the best  special on earth, recent price increases to match rampant inflation in Calgary means it is “only” a great deal. For $8.95, one gets 3-5 banchan and a bowl of “mystery chicken soup” to start. The main course arrives shortly after with paydirt – rice, vegetables, a deep fried dumpling or spring roll, and more importantly, a large serve of Bul Galbi/Calbi (BBQ beef short ribs), and BBQ Chicken.  To sum up the differences, a friend of mine put it best our last visit – “The flavour of the chicken is better, but the ribs are just so darn tasty, there’s no denying they are the best thing on this plate”. Sadly, this is only available at lunch, M-F.

Lunch special aside, Bow Bulgogi have what i would consider to be most of the standard Korean classics available ala carte for lunch or dinner. Bulgogi, Galbi, BBQ Chicken. Squid. Pajeon. Bee Bim Bap. Jap Chae. BBQ dishes are cooked for you and brought out, rather than cooked at the table. Their Banchan are distinctly average, and i would avoid the Vietnamese and Chinese inspired dishes on their menu at all costs. After all, when you go to a Korean hole in the wall, you should eat Korean food.

Bow Bulgogi is a small independently owned restaurant in an unlikely location. They serve up the best value Korean food in town. Compared to other Korean restaurants (Hangkang, Hikari, Sorabol, Dae Jang Geum etc…), they are also the cheapest. In many ways, they are your classic hole-in-the-wall. But what i’ve found is almost everyone in town knows about this place. And if you didn’t, you can add one more to the list of places you have to try. You’ll understand why after you go.

Bow Bulgogi House on Urbanspoon

Foodosophy – A Donburi Discussion

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Stepping off the restaurant-specific path that Foodosophy has taken its readership on since its launch, I thought I would change lanes and hopefully create a discussion at a more general level on a single genre of food, specifically Japanese donburi (rice bowl dishes). Probably one of the most simplest yet yaried styles of eating, donburi usually consists of some main ingredient (be it meat, seafood, etc.) and/or vegetables cooked (but not always) together and served on top of a layer of steamed rice in a open-faced bowl. More often then not, there is an accompanying sauce or flavor ingredient that is mixed in with the ingredients, usually dripping down in the depths of the bed of rice, adding more flavor below. Here in North America, the ones that are probably best known from their prevalence in Japanese cuisine restaurants are the Gyudon (beef/onion), Katsudon (pork cutlet/onions/egg) and the Chirashidon (assorted seafood). I am sure each of you have your own favorites.

In Japan, there is a sense that donburi are fast becoming the local equivalent of fast food. This can easily be seen by the high number of chainstores that are operating all over the country, usually found near train/subway stations, capturing those people who need a quick meal on the go. These joints are basically composed of a continuous counter of single seating, much like a bar, with staff working directly behind the counter, taking order tickets (usually paid for in advance from a dispensing machine at the entrance) and putting together the dishes in a matter of minutes. The main ones that come to mine are the Gyudon chains of Yoshinoya (which has even branched out to parts of North America) and Matsuya. Also, adding a bit of variation are Tenya (Tempuradon) and Maguro Ichiba (Seafood-don), and many others.

I guess in essence, you could create just about any kind of donburi, by picking and choosing whatever ingredients and cooking styles that would go well with simple steamed white rice. These single serving, and cheap (as low as 300 yen, and upwards of 1,000 yen per bowl) I think will never lose their appeal for many people in busy cities such as Tokyo, where time always seems to be at a premium. Probably more appealing to the single male demographic more than anything, I imagine there will be more and more creative donburi chains coming out in the future, as the saturation of the mainstays surely must be happening.

On my most recent visit to Japan last month, I found my way to Shinatatsu Goninshu – sort of like a foodpark that was specifically limited to donburi. Located just a few minutes from Shinagawa station, a major terminal in southern Tokyo, I had been to the ramen section on a previous visit, but wanted to try the other half this time. Shinatatsu prides itself on bringing together the best of the best, and/or famous establishments serving a particular style of food, in this case, donburi. There were five restaurants in total here (all famous in their own right), each serving a different donburi item as their mainstay: Sutadon (sliced pork), Hageten (tempuradon), Donya Hokkaido (seafood), Ajimeijin (tonkatsudon), and Shun (oyakodon). After debating for about ten minutes checking out the various menus, I opted to go into Shun, well known for its charcoal roasted chicken-based dishes. For 840 yen, I elected the Shamo-Oyakodon, which came out in a simple lacquered bowl, and on first glance I knew I was in for a great meal. The egg coating on top was still a bit liquidy, just the way I like it and the charcoal scent coming from the chunks of chicken inside could be smelt very easily. My friend chose the more seperate combination of the same chicken but cooked with garlic, with the egg more thoroughly cooked and served in pieces alongside some shreads of lettuce.

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Bon Ton Restaurant – Kuala Lumpur, MY

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Bon Ton Restaurant
No. 8 Jalan Conlay
Kuala Lumpur 50450, Malaysia
Mon~Sat 12pm to 12am
Holidays 6pm to 12am
Sun open for private events only

Billing itself as a “resort home in the heart of the city… simple yet stylish, a fine yet affordable place to wine, dine and entertain”, the Bon Ton Restaurant served just that very purpose for an informal dinner that I had with some external business partners and colleagues in Malaysia’s capital city. After spending too many hours in meetings rooms and hotels, it was nice to get out and stretch our legs with an energizing walk to this establishment, located not too far from the famed KLCC.

Bon Ton does have a decent premise, with its mix of “old & new, east & west”, quite fitting for this city with a huge ethnic mosaic and growing influence in the region thus drawing in visitors from across Asia and other parts of the world alike. The menu itself followed this trend, with both contemporary and traditional takes on Asian and Western dishes, and a wine list (not overly extensive) that relied more on the New World (much to the delight of two of our dining companions from Australia). Various set courses could be had, but all of us opted to go with a starter and main course, which quite frankly was filling and more than enough for me. I had decided to go with a not overly challenging Roasted Eggplant & Potato Soup, to get my appetite going. Hard to screw that up and they didn’t so as I was engrossed in the coversation and taking my share of a few bottles of wine, I was off to a good start, albeit it was not a completely social occasion so some of the joy of dining was not there for me.

Scanning the room after we’d been there for about 15-20 minutes, it was then that I realized that this Thursday night (around 7:30pm-8:00pm) was not going to be a busy night for the restaurant as I only saw two other tables of two that were taken up (our party of seven was seated at a longer rectangular table in the middle of the floor). Later on though, a larger group than ours of about twelve came in and were seated at a similar style of table to ours a few feet behind us. No other guests came in during the three or so hours we were there.

Returning to my main, I elected to stick with my quest to eat as much seafood as I could on this Asia journey, and chose the very bountiful Seafood Platter. It was comprised of gratinated fish fillet, sweet “Japanese” baby octopus, tumeric scallops, steamed mussels with ginger sauce, grilled prawns, dragon fruit salad, and parsley rice, all arranged on a single round plate. I recall that the scallops were nice and plump and well cooked and seasoned, the baby octopus was just too sweet for my tastes in some kind of honey-like glaze, the mussles a bit tiny and too dried out, fish fillet just average, as were the prawns. So essentially one for five in terms of the seafood items satisfying my craving on this night, which did not bode well for my thoughts on this place. If not for the glasses of nicely chilled white wine I was consuming, I don’t think I would have been in such a good mood. The others at my table had gone more for the meats on the menu, such as some roasted chicken and barbequed rack of lamb. I didn’t hear any complaints from them, so afterwards was thinking I should have gone the same route. Only one fellow had room for dessert, I think it was some kind of biscuits, ice cream and berry sauce. He polished it off nicely, so must have been satisfied.

Overall, the room fit with our needs on that night, a relaxed mood where there was no pressure to leave after two hours, attentive service with the wine (of which we had many bottles), and a nice end to a busy work day. I think any busier place would have just added to the continuation of us having to be mentally “on”, whereas on this night it was just fine to be in a quieter, less busy restaurant. With four nations being represented at the table, the varied menu seemed to work for everyone, though it resulted in a more Western skew in terms of choices for most. So obviously not the best scenario for dining, when you are in such a diverse and interesting food culture such as Malaysia, but this was the hand that was drawn for this particular occasion, with this group, and on this night. For those with similar conditions to work with, Bon Ton might work for you, but otherwise I would make a call and go to a more truly Malaysian food experience if you find your way to Kuala Lumpur.