Swiss Bakery – Vancouver, BC


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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Phnom Penh – Vancouver, BC


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

Phnom Penh on Urbanspoon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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