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.
outside_tung_hing_1

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

Terra Breads (Kitsilano) Bakery & Café – Vancouver, BC


Terra Breads (Kitsilano) Bakery & Café
2380 West 4th Avenue
Vancouver, BC
(604) 736 1838

Terra Breads Cafe on Urbanspoon

Aside from the occasional pickup of some French baguettes and loaves, and multigrain breads, my forays into the original location of Terra Breads in Kitsilano and their bakery in the Public Market on Granville Island have been limited.  So on this day I thought I would expand upon the range of my usual purchases and check out some of their pastries and sandwiches.  Actually I was torn between trying out their daily changing savoury focaccias (on this day it was a simple tomato & pesto variety) but decided on a sandwich, in order to see if any of their other artisan breads suited my tastes.

The collection of pastries pictured above are the Apple Focaccia with caramel, sesame and thyme, a Blueberry White Chocolate Bread, Macaroons, and a Blueberry Scone.  It wasn’t a deliberate decision, but I found as I was eating my way through them with some friends that there was an interesting mix of textures and flavors among just this simple set.  The sweet focaccia with its great crispy portions and a softer chewy texture on the inside was probably my favorite of the bunch – I would get this again for sure.  The Blueberry bread was a bit more crumbly but not as much as my beloved scones.  I think you can clearly get a sense that blueberries are among my most favorite fruits.  The Macaroons were an attempt to battle my lifelong dislike for coconuts (I can handle them when they are made of sliced almonds) in foods.  Funny how I don’t mind the inclusion of coconut cream in Piña Coladas though…

A pair of sandwiches were chosen.  The first of which was the Roast Chicken + Bacon on Pain de Campagne.  Described as a roasted, free-range chicken, double smoked bacon,  roma tomatoes, organic mixed baby greens, and tarragon mayonnaise, I was quite satisfied.  The smoky properties of the chicken and bacon were a perfect match, and the veggies adds a cruncy textural element that completed the composition.  The bread was a neutral variety that wasn’t overly bold thus not overwhelming the ingredients sandwiched between.

The second meat and bread combination was the Roast Turkey + Chutney on a Pumpkin Seed Bread and contained slices of roasted turkey breast, cucumber, cranberry walnut chutney, organic greens, and mayonnaise.  I personally didn’t enjoy this as much as the earlier one, mainly for the fact of that sweet chutney.  I think eating this while taking bites of the pastries might have influenced my thinking here, but I didn’t really want any sweet elements in the sandwich.  The bread used was interesting, I think I will pick up some next time and try out with other fillings and condiments.

At this location, you can elect to eat your meal at the communal table that is plopped right in the middle of the café, or along one of the bar counters facing the street.  It seems to always be packed however, and I’ve never seen an open seat, though imagine there is some pretty fast turnover, just not when I am there.  As we left with our purchases we walked a bit further along 4th Ave, and popped into the Take 5 Café for some coffee.  Again, a similar scene as all of the seats were occupied.  They had similar looking sandwiches there available to order (as well as some soups), which made me wonder if they bought from Terra Breads.  Anybody know?

Terra Breads Cafe on Urbanspoon

One More Sushi – Vancouver, BC


One More Sushi
222-2155 Allison Road
Vancouver, BC
(604) 228 9773

One More Sushi on Urbanspoon

Located on the second floor of  mixed commercial/residential complex just behind University Village at UBC, One More Sushi is impossible to see from the road.  With three other places (Suga Sushi, Osaka Sushi, Omio Japanese Restaurant) in the same general area that also serve up their take on sushi, it makes for a very condensed location for Japanese food.  As such, unless you knew about it from actually walking in the area, I highly doubt you ever knew it exists and most people probably satisfy their sushi fix at one of the other better known and more visible places.

As it occupies a more spacious area, the seating floorspace is clearly the largest of the sushi serving restaurants in this geographical area.  A long narrow entranceway leads into this space, with the sushi bar along one side that leads back to the kitchen area, as well as a bar station that is located nearby as well.  As the lighting was incredibly dark, and we were seated at the opposite end, I could not be sure but it appeared like there were private rooms at the other side of the room.  The decor was your typical, North American interpretation of what a Japanese restaurant “should look like”, with cheap pictures and paintings hanging on the walls.  One more thing I would mention is that the heating, or lack there of, made the place very cold – something that people who have gone there on multiple occassions have told me never changes.   So dress warmly!

In the mood just to share a few appetizers and get a sample of their sushi, our table chose a basic spinach Gomae, which had a weak flavored but really thick consistency to their sesame paste/dressing.  Not the good first food impression we were hoping for.  This was followed by a serving of the Agedashi Tofu.  It had a very thin layer of coating and the tofu itself was fresh and very soft.  Perhaps they could have fried it a bit longer and provided a more flavorful broth to accompany it.  Two appetizers in, and I was disappointed at how lighthanded they were with the depth of flavor in both.

Not my selection, but this is the Yam Tempura Maki.  I don’t tend to like sweet things in sushi nor maki in general, so I am not the best person to be commenting on this plate.  The piece I had confirmed my preferences, not that I can’t eat it

Lastly, as I was somewhat hesitant to try any nigiri, I elected to go with the Chirashidon.  That way I could at least try to get a semblance of the quality of their product, freshness and skill in cutting.  It came in a rather smallish bowl which was fine as too many places put this in a large one and compensate by filling it with too much sushi rice.  It turned out the ingredients themselves were simply average – not horrifically bad that I couldn’t eat it, but not overly enthusiastic at the same time either.

Apologies for the poor quality of pictures, as they were taken with my mobile, but I hope you were able to form some image in your mind of what each dish looked and tasted like.  With its seemingly strong level of popularity with the student crowd at UBC, I imagine One More Sushi will continue to be a relatively busy place despite its shortcomings and pumping out just average/sub-standard fare.  I just know it won’t have me coming back, One More Time…

One More Sushi on Urbanspoon

Ba Le – Vancouver, BC


Ba Le French Sandwiches
701 Kingsway
Vancouver, BC V5T 3K6
(604) 875-6322

Ba Le French Sandwiches on Urbanspoon

inside_ba_le1

I have not yet found a lunch meal with a bigger bang for the buck than a Vietnamese sandwich. Bahn Mi, for me, is the ultimate in fast foods. You can walk in to a Bahn Mi joint and walk out within a couple of minutes with a fresh, (relatively) healthy and incredibly satisfying meal..all for less than $3 CAD.

outside_ba_le

I have two “go-to” Bahn Mi joints in Vancouver: Tung Hing on Kingsway (which is my favorite, if you must know – I will post on Tung Hing soon)  and the subject of this posting – Ba Le – also on Kingsway….right at “The Triangle” formed by the intersection with Fraser St.

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I judge Bahn Mi joints by the quality and freshness of their bread. Tung Hing, for example, bakes their bread on premises…and you can get a sandwich prepared with beautifully crusty bread pulled out of the oven just a couple of minutes prior.

Though Ba Le does not have a bakery on-site – their bread is still quite fresh (the crispy crust explodes with crumbs and the interior crumb is soft and fluffy.)

bread_ba_le

What they lack in baking facilities, they more than make up for in their filling: Ba Le makes their own charcuterie. Their specialty is their Vietnamese “bacon” – the rolled pork belly you see below. They have other fillings as well Cha Lua (the ubiquitous Vietnamese “ham” or “spam”, Char Siu Chinese BBQ pork, Liver paste and a number of others. Their pickled carrot and daikon (which is traditionally part of Bahn Mi) is very fresh tasting.

bacon_ba_le

Kingsway (which has quickly become Vancouver’s “Little Saigon” ) is dotted with very good budget Vietnamese restaurants and there are a quite a number of worthy destinations on this street. Ba Le is certainly worth the stop if you just happen to be in the area.

Ba Le French Sandwiches on Urbanspoon

Rice Bar – Vancouver, BC


Update – February 11, 2009

I passed by and noticed the signage had been replaced by a new one: Sun Sushi (Eat In and Take Out).  This makes it the fourth sushi place within a three block radius along this section of 10th Ave.

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Original post – January 27, 2009

Rice Bar
4512 West 10th Ave
Vancouver, BC
(604) 222 8868

Rice Bar on Urbanspoon

Housed in a space that used to be a cozy, free Wi-Fi cafe known as Think!, the Rice Bar emerged in its place and is what could best be described as a Hong Kong-style cafeteria… minus the constant flow of customers and a packed room.  When I first saw the nameplate go up outside, there was a small part of me that was hoping that this would perhaps be something refreshing for this neighborhood – such as a specialty Japanese sake drinking establishment – given the ‘rice’ plus ‘bar’ naming.  But alas, it was not to be.

On the occasions that I’ve passed by this past year, I’ve rarely ever seen people inside, either eating in or ordering takeout.  I thought it would not be long before the place was re-invented by another business on this relatively secluded, very west side shopping street.  Surprisingly, I believe its been many months now since it opened, and recently I thought I would give it a chance to see what it had to offer but I was not expecting much…

“Order Here”, the sign on the counter clearly states.  Too bad there’s no human to take my order.  All I can hear is the sounds coming from the small tv screen on the back wall, I think it was some Chinese television drama, as well as the C-pop coming out from the wall speakers.  A shame that’s the only source of noise to be found.  If not for that, I think I could have heard crickets.

After a few minutes, a person appeared and I was able to place my order.  I had hoped to get the Pork Ribs that I had heard a little about, but alas they were out.  Strange, it was still the early evening and had already run out.  In its place, I decided to go with what I thought would be a fairly safe bet in the BBQ Pork.  I know there are those who like it to be fattier, or perhaps a mix of lean and fat, but I prefer the healthier variety and find that the BBQ flavor is retained better in the leaner cuts.   I was asked for my decision on the sauce I wanted with it, and opted for a soy-based one thinking it was the most natural fit with the flavor of the pork.  As you might be able to tell from the image above, it was a simple few spoonfuls that was put on the rice, which the pork covered up.  It did nothing for amping up the taste profile.

The Chicken Wings I ordered thinking that I would easily get sick of the BBQ Pork after a few slices.  And at these prices (both under six dollars), I thought having a double dip wouldn’t be hard on the wallet.  The wings were really crispy, and had a nice salty and textured coating that I enjoyed.  I’m not sure exactly what else was in the breading but it did have some other flavor properties that you don’t get in western-style chicken wings.  I could have easily gone for another batch of three, and they could have deleted the rice.  I preferred these less greasy wings, compared to the ones I had at Wo Fung.  I’d come back for these.

Speaking of the rice, in both containers, it was pretty bland and really dried out.  I know this is more Chinese style, but I find it so lacking in flavor that I hardly eat any of it as I think its more suited for fried rice.  And the minuscule drops of “sauce” with the BBQ Pork didn’t help in this regard.  Each “main” came with the choice of a soup, salad or dessert.  I elected the bamboo shoot soup with both, as the salad would have been a boring mixed greens and I am not a big fan of Asian desserts.  The soup upon opening the lid, I thought would have a sour element, but it had none at all.  It was nothing more than average and very lukewarm by the time I got back home.

The Rice Bar has dedicated so much of its area to seating.  Tables with chairs, a counter with stools that lines one wall, another seating area by the front window, etc.  Its sad that there is no one to use them.  I am not sure what else they could do with all this space however, as their counters are already a pretty good size, and its not equipped to handle the actual cooking stations (which are in the back room).  I wouldn’t want to be the owner of this problem…

Any of you turn right around out the door after entering a restaurant that is dead empty?

And do really quiet places make you always choose to take out when you could just as easily eat-in?

Rice Bar on Urbanspoon

Angel Seafoods – Vancouver, BC


Angel Seafoods
1345 Grant Street
Vancouver, BC V5L 2X7
(604) 254-2824

outside_angel

Whenever I have the hankering for homemade sushi and sashimi, I head on over to Angel Seafoods. Angel is located in an industrial zone between Clark Drive and Commercial Drive in East Vancouver. Sushi restaurants from all around Vancouver source much of their sashimi grade fish from Angel. I happen to live nearby so it is a regular stop for me.

freezer_3_angel

Angel is in an odd setting. It doesn’t look like a typical fish store. It is located in what looks more like a warehouse. Upon walking inside, you will encounter their working clerical office. It feels a little strange at first….it is as if someone grafted a grocery store onto an insurance company office.

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Look to your left and you will find a long room of chest freezers containing a boggling assortment of Japanese seafood – sashimi grade fish, kasu (sake lees) marinated fish, roe, dried seafoods of all sorts. They also stock rice, and other sundries. At the front desk is a list of fresh items – often including oysters and fresh uni (sea urchin roe)…make sure to ask for what’s fresh in the back. It changes nearly daily.

freezer1_angel

The prices are quite reasonable – definitely lower than at other sources of frozen sashimi like T&T, the Chinese supermarket and Fujiya, the Japanese grocery just down the road.  Today I picked up an assortment of fish for tomorrow night’s family sushi night. We are having Yellow Tail, Albacore, Salmon, and  Toro. This little haul set me back about $25CAD….not bad. I just need to make sure my knife is sharp.

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BonQuLa Fusion Restaurant and Café – Richmond, BC


BonQuLa Fusion Restaurant and Café
Olympia Center, #165-8460 Alexandra Road
Richmond, BC
(604) 214 0027

BonQuLa Fusion Restaurant & Cafe on Urbanspoon

Lately, I’ve been giving more thought to and being more patient in checking out some places that I’d been following through word of mouth and online sources – especially those that have recently opened or are rumored to be still working out the finer details of their operations.  This does clash with the need for frequent and new reviews on Foodosophy however, so my balancing act is indeed a difficult one.  And lastly, my time and ability to venture to some of these places that are further away from my home base, also comes into play (the city of Richmond being one such example).

One uniquely positioned restaurant that I’ve been aware of for over a year and was following comments on through Japanese message boards has been Richmond’s BonQuLa Fusion Restaurant and Café. When it comes to Japanese home-style cooking and yoshoku ryori (Japanese interpretations of Western food) in Vancouver, I find getting the thoughts and opinions of ex-pats and foreign exchange students yearning for a taste of home, is the best method of pre-dining reconnaissance that one can do.

For those who have only been exposed to the North American classics such as sushi, tempura and chicken teriyaki, yoshoku is at times difficult to convey to those less familiar as they just simply refer to in their minds the western equivalents.  As such, I hope that places like BonQuLa continue to flourish and help spread the word that there is a lot more to Japanese cuisine that what is commonly portrayed in the media and the countless imitation Japanese restaurants that abound in greater Vancouver.

Early sentiments after it initially opened in June 2007 that I’ve heard were a mixed bag.  Most of the negative impressions that were left were based on the speed of service (both of food coming out of the kitchen and the waiters).  A lot of these complaints were from lunchtime customers, which I know are more demanding given the limited amount of time they have to grab something to eat.  On this visit, I think there are still some remnants with the service aspect, in particular the middle-aged Chinese woman who was lacking some knowledge of the menu and struggling with explaining some things and generally not “all there”  (as well, a bit of an English language issue).  The other server on hand, a young Japanese man, was interesting to observe when he came to our table, as we picked up on those little Japanese service nuances that you get when dining out in Japan.

More recent commentary has been a lot more positive, with many highlighting their satisfaction with being able to get such cuisine and at such a good quality, in Canada.  Even in published interviews, the female Japanese chef (a 2001 immigrant to Canada, graduate of the prestigious Osaka Music College, former piano instructor and graduate of Vancouver Community College’s Culinary Program) herself mentioned that they had some growing pains in their early days, adjusting to operating a business in Canada, with all the uncertainly that comes with entering the restaurant game.  With plenty of time having passed, I decided it was time to give this place a visit, as frankly I’ve not been over enthused by other yoshoku offerings in the city to this point.

Immediately upon being seated, I knew this place was indeed trying something different.  The interesting set menu booklet that featured a group of complete meals (appetizer through to dessert) were handmade, and utilized some recycled Japanese children’s books!  The background music pipped over the speakers was a mixture of slow and uptempo jazz, which fit into my image of the more old school yoshoku restaurants in Tokyo that I frequented.   BonQuLa was more modern in style but at the same time, very relaxed and homey.

With it being January and the start of a new year, mochi (Japanese rice cake) was a welcome sight on the appetizer listings in the main menu, only this had been incorporated with shrimp, and done in an agedashi-style (complete with a flavorful soy-based broth).

Our dining group was split into those who ordered from the main a la carte choices, and one who decided on taking a much more robust set menu selection.  With the latter, which was had the New York Steak as a main, one of the appetizers (the other was a trio of tasting items pictured earlier in this post – the homemade sesame tofu was divine! –  as well as a uniquely plated tuna salad – no image available) was this tray of Assorted Tempura.  Coming with a finely ground mix of matcha and a touch of salt, rather than the more stereotypical bowl of tentsuyu (dipping sauce), it really accentuated the crispy tempura and reminded me of this flavor combination one sees in Western Japan.  Given that the chef is originally from Kobe, its clear she has retained the tastes of the region.

The Ground Beef Steak with Teriyaki Sauce was my main target on this night, knowing its a great example of yoshoku and being at the top of their menu, I figured they had confidence in doing it well.  It came with a bowl of steamed rice, miso soup (light and not overly salty at all), some marinated pieces of konnyaku, simple green salad, and a deep fried shrimp and some onion rings.

The ground beef steak made from AAA Sirloin was beautifully done, a light and juicy ground meat patty, without any excess filler.  Topped with some slivers of deep fried potato and served with some bean sprouts and cabbage on a hot circular plate.

Pictured above is the Omurice Curry with Pork Tenderloin Cutlet.  The curry itself was spicy but a touch on the fruity, sweeter side, and was packed with flavor.  You could tell a load of vegetables had been cooked for many hours to generate that much flavor in each spoonful.   The cutlet was again much like the beef patty, the right level of heat making the interior meat tender and not dried out from overcooking.  Even for a hungry person, the amount of rice in the omurice was  more than plenty.

Perhaps this dish, the main component of the New York Steak set was the only letdown on the night.  I think our fried who had ordered it was expecting a more teppan-style, cooked and cubed, whereas this one was more almost steam-cooked making the meat more moist.  As a result, perhaps it was overdone and the meat itself wasn’t that great to begin with, thus there were some tough parts among the cuts in the hotplate.

Lastly, the dessert that was part of the New York Steak set menu was a homemade Matcha Purin (pudding).  It had a solid creamy texture without an overpowering sweetness (that you find too often in those instant packs to make purin), and was topped with vanilla ice cream.   The rest of us were given a choice of a mango, matcha or coffee flavored jelly, that was served in a mini wine glass, and topped with some vanilla ice cream, corn flakes and whipped cream.

The adage of “good things come to those who wait” certainly held true in my opinion by finally making the decision to dine here.  Our whole table enjoyed the outing and everyone remarked how happy they were with their food.  Luckily we were all in the mood for sharing and thus each of us had the chance to sample a bit of every dish that was at our table.  The balance of flavors really stood out for us, when they needed to be bolder they were, and the dishes that have flavorings requiring a more subtle level were similarly accurate.  The completeness, heart felt effort put into the food put out by the skilled chef was clearly felt by us all, whenever we found a new ingredient appearing or sensed by our palates.  In my research, it did not entirely surprise me that the chef had an non-food related artistic background – whenever I come across such a dedicated “artsy” person, it always seems to be that if you are talented in one creative area, that can easily translate to another.

Despite the name of the restaurant being derived from the Japanese characters contained in the words heibon (hence the ‘bon’) which means ordinary, kuu (hence the ‘qu’) which means eat, and lastly raku (hence the ‘ra’) which means enjoy; there is nothing ‘ordinary’ about BonQuLa.  For outstanding yoshoku, and I still have yet to check out the well heralded lunch items (e.g katsu sandwich), BonQuLa is an excellent location to fulfil your cravings for this often overlooked segment of modern day Japanese cuisine.

BonQuLa Fusion Restaurant & Cafe on Urbanspoon

Swiss Bakery – Vancouver, BC


Swiss Bakery
143 3rd Avenue East
Vancouver, BC
(604) 736-8785

Swiss Bakery on Urbanspoon

collection_of_pretzels_swiss_bakery

Someone once asked me if I knew of a place that sold authentic German style pretzels. At the time I didn’t know of any place in town…and not being an aficionado myself,  I asked around. A colleague of German descent told me about an relatively unremarkable bakery in an industrial zone just off the South Main district in Vancouver. They serve, he told me, the closest thing to a German pretzel that you can get in Vancouver.

Indeed they look interesting. These pretzels have what looks like a dark caramelized crust.

pretzel_swiss_bakery

The pretzel-making process is very similar to making bagels: after a rising the dough, raw bagel dough is first boiled in water sweetened with honey or maltose for about a minute prior to baking.  The sugars from the sweet solution caramelize and give bagels their crunchy-chewy outer skin.

The pretzel, however, gets its colour from a lye water bath. The chemistry is unclear to me…the starches and proteins of the outer surface of the dough are somehow changed by this alkaline solution so that it bakes to a deep mahogany brown. The results should be crackling crunchy, but not sweet like the a bagel’s crust.

The pretzels today were not as crunchy as ones I had previously purchased a couple of months back. We have been having some moist and foggy weather of late…perhaps this moist air contributed to this chewiness.

outside_swiss_bakery
While their pretzels seem to be their specialty, Swiss Bakery have some other worthy items for sale. They also sell decent crusty hearth breads (their Cranberry and Walnut Bread has become a family favorite – excellent toasted,  buttered and served with a sharp cheddar)….in case you aren’t a pretzel aficionado.

Swiss Bakery on Urbanspoon

Phnom Penh – Vancouver, BC


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

Phnom Penh on Urbanspoon

inside_phnom_penh

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.

sign_phnom_penh

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.

garlic_chicken_wings_phnom_penh

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).
butter_beef_phnom_penh

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).

shaking_beef_phnom_penh

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

Pho Hoang Vietnamese Restaurant – Vancouver, BC


Pho Hoang Vietnamese Restaurant
3388 Main Street
Vancouver, BC
(604) 874 0832

Pho Hoang Vietnamese on Urbanspoon

I know many of you are anxiously awaiting the return of the Foodosopher, who no doubt will have many fine reports on his culinary adventures in south east Asia, which he alluded to here in a rare posting. As a prelude to a likely review of some authentic Vietnamese cuisine upon his return, I thought I’d would talk about a recent visit to one of Vancouver’s better known spots serving this country’s food.

Before I begin, I wish to pose a question. Have you ever gone to a restaurant, not one that you routinely frequent so that you’d qualify as a ‘regular’, and end up running into the same people whenever you have gone? This happens to me at Pho Hoang on Main Street. Now over the past I’d say nine months, I’ve been here three times. And on each occasion, granted I am coming in on the same day of the week (Saturday) and usually around the same time (late morning), I have caught the eye of this same trio of people (two men and one woman) who are seated at the same table. On this most recent occasion, I caught the gaze of one of the men, and the look in his eye suggested the same disbelief I was sensing.

Not knowing for sure if they are regulars or if this is just shear coincidence, I just settled into my seat and then tried to recall my two previous meals here. Lemongrass chicken and rice, spring rolls, and pho have all been decent, but not in the amazing category that would make you want to come back frequently (so again, why was that trio here?).  My rational mind continued to struggle in figuring out why I was having this Groundhog’s Day experience over and over again.

With an empty stomach and a chill in the air, I settled on having a large bowl of pho with rare beef. Now my memory of the soup here was positive: a light broth, with none of that metallic tasting sensation that I tend to associate with a heavy handed chef shaking his MSG bottle. On this occasion, the noodles were a miss, noticeably overcooked and limp. And this was just after my first mouthful of them, so it was a disappointment knowing that I had gotten the large size and there was much more to go through. I have to wonder, does the person in kitchen know that a larger mass of noodles in the hot water doesn’t mean they have to give it an extraordinary amount of time to cook?

The soup was a touch oilier than I recalled as well, as you can perhaps gleam from the image above.  Also, and I can’t remember if it happens regularly, but the bean sprouts that they provided on the side plate were not raw, as they had been blanched slightly making them almost as weak as my noodles.  And finally, the slices of raw beef had come clumped together.  I really wish they had taken the time to spread them out allowing them to gradually cook evenly in the soup.  Now that I had more time to recollect, my previous time eating pho here had been with the well done beef, so I hadn’t noticed this before.

Lastly, I’ve noticed that there are a lot of comments regarding the service here made by others in the online community.  Perhaps its due to my limited number of visits and the day/time that they’ve been, but I’ve never had any issues.  The server, who’s been the same cheerful woman on each visit, has been quick, polite and responsive when I’ve asked for the final bill.   I noticed that the place is fairly spacious and is split almost in two.  Maybe sitting on the side where the entrance in the kitchen is, would help in getting more attentive service, especially when its busy and its hard to flag down a waitress – just a suggestion.

If I happen to be in the ‘hood again and have a pho craving, I will probably just stop by again, to see if I run into my same group of “stalkers”.  Otherwise, the food alone would not be enough to get me back…

Pho Hoang Vietnamese on Urbanspoon

Pearl Fever Tea House – Vancouver, BC


Pearl Fever Tea House
2182 Western Parkway
Vancouver, B.C.
(604) 221 9882

Pearl Fever Tea House on Urbanspoon

Its noted that the owners of Pearl Fever took their inspiration from the valuable gemstone that most people associate with their namesake. But it would also seem worthwhile to mention that their feverish desire to promote the world of Asian drinks has spread to their business goals as well, with the opening of their latest bubble tea shop on the campus of UBC three years ago (following their flagship store in Coquitlam and their second in Surrey).

As most people know, the origin of bubble tea is generally accepted to be the island of Taiwan in East Asia, and drinks are based on a chilled or hot blend of tea, juice, milk, and other liquids with various flavorings. With the most popular of these add-ons being the round droplets of gummy tapioca balls, hence the association of pearls. With a chewy bite, that when bad can be disgustingly chalky, I find that they have a strong polarizing effect, people either hate them or love them.  I’m one of the latter.

The pair of cups you see above are a Green Milk Tea with pearls, and a Lychee Green Tea with pearls.  The creamier milk variety does make for a thicker consistency obviously, whereas the straight tea goes down a lot quicker through the wide straw and I find I drink that much faster as a result.  The tapioca balls here are of a good consistency, not too tough and not overly cooked so they fall apart like powder upon biting into them.  The liquids themselves were smooth, uncomplicated and without surprises, pleasant in flavor and satisfying overall.

Some of our readers may recall a discussion that arose for a previous post on bubble tea in Vancouver, and the general “technology” that you find in these shops. I found it interesting that Pearl Fever had their very own, store branded seals that were affixed to each cup. I kind of like this subtle touch to mark their territory amid all the usual generic cups of bubble tea you see in the marketplace.

Incidentally, my night ended on a disappointing low.  I made the mistake of putting my guard down and picked up a burger at the next door Vera’s Burger Shack.  As I was eating it, I thought it wasn’t as dried out and overcooked as my previous experience, and was surprised that it was better.  Maybe that should have been my hint.  I am sure I had some bad raw sections as just four hours later in the middle of the night, I woke up with a tremendous pain in my stomach.  Suffice it to say, I was up for the next hour trying to regain control of my body.  Never again I say, never again…

Other bubble tea reviews from Vancouver:
Oasis Bubble Tea and Cuisine

Pearl Fever Tea House on Urbanspoon

Toride – Tokyo, JP


Toride
Shinsencho 20-23, Shibuya-ku
Tokyo, Japan 〒150-0045
+81 3 3780 4450

With the chilly weather and ongoing fog that has engulfed the west coast, it has me craving for a good bowl of ramen. Unfortunately, when it comes to ramen, my thoughts go back to Japan. No offense to the ramen operators in Vancouver, but there is just something that cannot be matched by the “real deal”. As I think about it, its not only just the difference in the taste, quality of ingredients, dedicated “masters” who put so much into their creations, but also the atmosphere that I have a yearning for on a cold winter’s night.

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Mr.Pickwick’s Fish and Chips – Vancouver, BC


Mr.Pickwick’s Fish and Chips
8620 Granville Street
Vancouver, BC
(604) 266 2340

Mr Pickwick's Fish & Chips (Granville) on Urbanspoon

To me, in many ways, restaurants can themselves almost be thought of as people. They each have their own personalities, special abilities, unique characteristics, and even credentials. I suppose in some ways, all of the things that you read and hear before your first visit, do help to shape your impressions as if the restaurants were an actual human being that you are interviewing for a job in your company.  I’d like to ask our readers, how much stock do you put in all the accolades that restaurants receive through more “official” channels such as local print and online media, in doing your “reference checks”?

Personally, I’ve always taken these with a grain of salt, or two.  Or three… well, you get the point.  Especially when they are overtly displayed inside the establishment (okay, one or two clippings I don’t mind, but more than that and all framed with pride – a bit overboard) and/or digitized and clearly displayed on their website.  If you’re like me, then Mr. Pickwick’s Fish and Chips might not be called in for an “interview”, as their small space (one of two in the city) was covered in framed certificates from sources such as the Georgia Straight, The WestEnder, and other local business and tourist organizations.  The fact that the business also had a human face associated on all of their branding and signage, made it all the more “personal” – which I think contributed to me feeling like I was not going to like this “person”.

The order board that hangs above the main counter had sort of a retro look with the old school fonts and magnets that are used to list items and their accompanying prices.  The lit up photos of their most popular fish and chips combos, just your regular run-of-the-mill fast food variety.  Being able to see entirely into the small kitchen and prep area, made me think of those narrow spaces that some of those french fry specialty places in shopping malls operate out of.  I’m not sure how it is every day or during more busier times, but the space was occupied by a single person who was doing the phone answering/order taking/frying and bagging duties all alone.

The menu featured the standard choices of fish in the cod (source: North Pacific; incidentally I believe its the eastern Atlantic cod that is facing extinction), halibut (source: Queen Charlotte Islands), haddock and salmon.  These could be ordered as 1pc, 2pc, 3pc and even 10pc sets.  You can also “mix and match” by selecting the West Coast (halibut & salmon), East West (haddock & halibut) or Whitefish (cod/haddock/halibut) set deals. As well, there were other seafood options such as oysters, prawns, clam strips and popcorn shrimp.  Further, probably in an attempt to differentiate themselves, there was a section called “sides and treats” which featured yam chips, poutine, “Newfie” chips, deep fried dill pickles, Mushy peas, and even a Deep Fried Mars Chocolate Bar!

In the end, I went with the tried and true cod and in a hungry mood chose the 3pc set ($10.98).  Personally I find the fattier, buttery texture of cod which “flakes” in larger pieces better and is more pleasing in deep fried food like this, as compared to say halibut (which I tend to associate more as a grilled fish).   The batter was indeed light and crispy as advertised, and I was quite glad as there is nothing worst than a thick, cake-y layer of  deep fried batter that seems more thicker than the actual fillet of fish inside.  The side chips were similarly light but still crispy and definitely not over-fried.  They were not really seasoned however, but I suppose that’s what the self serve packs of salt and pepper were for, but would have hoped they would have done it when they came out of the oil nice and hot, so that it would adhere better.

The tartar sauce which they dub as Rayana’s Tartar Sauce was fairly standard and nothing too different from many other tartar sauces I’ve had over the years with fish and chips.   They did give me a generous two portions with my order though, and two slices of lemons in my take-out order, that was wrapped up in a large sheet of paper and placed in a bio-degradable plastic bag.  I think Mr. Pickwick’s Fish and Chips are playing up their efforts for sustainability, as in the waiting area they had clearly displayed that they were involved in the Oceanwise sustainable seafood program, as well as working in a network called Green Table, which includes restaurants that are working to reduce their operations impacts on the environment… hence all that eco-friendly “packaging”.

I really need to do more exploring in Vancouver for comparable fish and chip offerings, as it seems thats my thing these days.  If you have any, please do drop me a note in the comments section, and I will be pleased to go try them out.

Mr Pickwick's Fish & Chips (Granville) 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

The Flair Bar – Seoul, KOR


The Flair Bar
572-2 Shinsa-dong, Kangnam-ku
Seoul, South Korea
+82 2 545 5554

Life imitating art. That’s what I thought the moment the performance show began at The Flair Bar.

At the end of a long night that included a fantastic barbecue dinner hosted by my local business associates at their favorite neighborhood restaurant, followed by a few pints at a local pub, my colleague and I were being walked back to our hotel by our gracious Korean hosts when I could see a look in their eyes as if to say, “do you really want to call it a night?”. I glanced over to my still awake colleague and gave him a “why not?” expression and our friends then proceeded to lead us down another busy street lined with shops still open and welcoming revelers still looking for another place to fuel up on more liquor and socialize.

Now I am sure many of you are familiar with Hollywood actor Tom Cruise, and perhaps one of his movies in which he portrayed a cocky bartender who learned to toss bottles of booze with the dexterity of a circus performer. Clearly, this place had patterned their place after the movie set and had the concept down pat as after we had sat down at a table and ordered a round of drinks, suddenly things came to life. The lights lowered, and a blast of music came on followed by a boisterous voice on the speakers. Looking closer, I noticed it was a young woman on the microphone who was standing towards one side of the long counter bar that anchored the room.

Although I had not a clue as to what she was saying, it was clear that the patrons sure did, and had probably been sitting waiting for the show to begin. It seemed like she began things by introducing her team of flair artists, who came from the back kitchen area one by one and did a short routine of throwing bottles up in the air. They then broke into a larger team routine in which team members juggled together. The MC then shouted out questions and some members of the crowd began saying things back, which turned out to be orders. The flair bartenders engaged in more difficult tricks all the while composing the drinks that were being ordered. Despite not knowing the language, the visuals themselves served to help me understand what was going on and to be that up front and personal to the show, was quite entertaining.

The show then evolved into a sort of auction. Special drink orders, even food items were being put up for bids from the engaged customers. My colleague even got into the action, not even knowing what was up for bid. I think people can easily get caught up in the lively atmosphere that is created – much of the credit goes to the MC, who was commanding the show and getting a lot of audience participation. In the end, my friend lost out on a bid for what turned out to be some special cocktail, but seeing our disappointment, and probably since we stood out as foreigners, we were presented with a 12 inch pizza as a consolation prize.

The flair bartenders were a talented crew. The array of tricks they performed was impressive, and coupled with the energetic mistress of ceremonies, this last stop on our evening turned out to be quite the high. I am quite glad that we stopped in, and appreciate the incredible luck we had in finding such an innovative establishment, that we probably never expected to find in Seoul. In places like this that have a “gimmick”, that alone is not enough though. The level of engagement that the crowd has with the performers, is a critical element in creating the atmosphere that we found so enjoyable. If you ever find your way to the Kangnam district in Seoul, I’d suggest you give this show a chance.