5682 Fraser Street
The idea of a Signature Dish is a well known concept for aficionados of Chinese Food. It is no different in many other cuisines, I suppose, but in this city, the opportunities to sample such dishes seem boundless. Word of mouth is usually how I hear about a particular restaurant’s specialty so I try to keep an ear to the ground.
It is not uncommon to patronize a restaurant solely for one particular dish. Debates around Who Makes the Best What are rampant in Chinese community. Traditional dishes such as Soup Dumplings, Pulled Noodles, Peking Duck, just to name a few, require skilled and experienced cooks to be able to produce exemplary renditions. And then sometimes a restaurant’s signature dish is a unique, but un-traditional take on a classic often created by a mom-and-pop operation.
Koon Bo has been operating at this Fraser Street location for over twelve years. It has gained a good reputation as a solid Westernized Chinese restaurant that serves the usual – Chow Mein, Wonton Soup, Lemon Chicken, and so forth. But whenever you mention Koon Bo to anyone – the response is usually: “have you had their shredded chicken salad?”
Chinese Chicken Salad is a North American take on certain “traditional” styles of Chinese cold chicken dishes. Bang Bang Chicken, a dish originating from Sichuan province is the most likely inspiration. The dish as we North Americans know it can be traced back to California – perhaps from the 1920’s. The typical preparation is fairly standard – cold shredded chicken and blanched or fresh vegetables are tossed together in a sweet sesame oil dressing then topped crispy noodles. I would often see it prepared with iceberg lettuce, cucumbers, celery, almonds, pineapple, raisins, and other distinctly un-Chinese ingredients. It is really sesame oil dressing that gives this dish that Asian-ness and brings it all home.
Koon Bo’s version is unique in the addition of jellyfish shreds and a house-made sweet pickle. I couldn’t quite determine the main component of the vegetable pickle – it looks somewhat like shredded Mustard Green (Ja Cai) or Chinese Turnip. Instead of the usual pungent preparation (as in Tianjain Preserved Vegetable) the pickle is very, very sweet (almost cloying). It works very well in this dish.
The shreds of jellyfish are a textural element and add little to the flavour – it merely adds an interesting crunchy-chewiness. The crispy deep fried noodle topping completes the experience. Here, they use wider wheat noodles rather the more commonly used Chow Mein noodles (or, as in certain parts of North America, La Choy crispy Chow Mein Noodles from a can – gasp!)
Today, we also ordered a bowl of rice and some good old fashioned Chicken and Chinese Mushroom Chow Mein to fill out our lunch. The Chow Mein was good – but not particularly memorable. The Chow Mein not unexpectedly took a backseat to the salad – still it certainly hit the spot.
Koon Lock, just up the road, serves a very similar version of the Chicken Salad. Someone told me once that the proprietors of the two restaurants are related – brothers perhaps.
As a postscript about Chinese Signature Dishes – I note that the the new (Vancouver-based) Chinese Restaurant Awards has been specifically designed around the concept of signature dishes….they have 25 Signature Dishes chosen by a panel of judges. (Koon Bo’s Chicken Salad didn’t make the list…they actually won an award for a Spot Prawn dish that I have never had) I think that these awards is a good first step in truly recognizing the significance of this cuisine in this city. Considering the incredible influence Chinese cuisine has on this city’s gastronomy, it gets remarkably little coverage in the mainstream food press.