O’Tray (Tianjin Flavours)
2285 – 8181 Cambie Road
The topic of street food often comes up in discussion amongst this city’s food-obsessed. We longingly look to Asia where street food has been elevated to artform. Or even a few hundred kilometers south to the city Portland deemed a streetfood mecca by the American food press. Portland has hundreds of street carts serving fairly mediocre, but sometimes great streetfood. “Why do we have to settle for hotdogs and chestnuts?”, we ask rhetorically. Now that the City of Vancouver’s street food initiative is underway, we finally have some hope. But if you look hard enough, you will find street food here….but not on the street. Street food lives in the city’s Asian food courts.
Those who have been to Singapore know the story well. The city (perhaps my favourite city in which to eat) used to have thousands of quasi-legal food carts and stalls that served often sublime (but inexpensive) food. In the spirit of modernization, the Singapore city government forced all these stalls to operate within government regulated “hawker centres” or food courts. Many of these are built into the parking stall levels of mid-rise residential buildings.
When I travelled through China many years ago, the country was just waking up from the Cultural Revolution. Much of the streetfood culture was also virtually abolished by regulation. There were are number of areas in some cities where government officials (who couldn’t live without their lamb skewers) turned a blind eye. (I am glad to see that this has changed for the better.)
Vancouver has never had a street food culture. Our conservative regulatory bodies are sufficiently paranoid about our well-being that a street food scene as active as Portland let alone Singapore will probably never happen any time soon despite the new Streetfood Initiative. (I hope I am wrong, of course.). We do however have our very own hawker centers: the food courts at the various Asian malls scattered all over the city’s suburbs. Aberdeen Center, Crystal Mall, the Richmond Public Market are the most well known and there is certainly some great food to be found at all these places.
A recent quest to find roujiamo (Chinese Hamburger) lead me to food court President Plaza. I have been here before, and I have sample food at a couple of stalls. I had never thought to return becuase the place seemed too quiet to be any good. However, one great stall – Tianjin Flavours (O’Tray in English) – I had missed….perhaps because the menu is all in Chinese…not a word of English on it.
This stall serves food from Tianjin, in Northern China. (The proprietors are from Tianjin and the chef had cooked for a large hotel in Beijing prior to emigrating to Canada). Of note is their version of roujaimo. The bread is unusually soft and flakey and the braised pork filling is moist and deeply savoury. This is a “must have” item here. Delicious.
I had also noticed that a popular order is the combination of their Chinese Crepe (jianbing) and their soft tofu (doufunao). The crepe is filled with a deep fried cracker and flavoured with a Tianjin sweet bean paste (similar to hoisin). They make the soft tofu in-house – it is silky-smooth and served submerged in a warm slightly thickened meat broth with a few lashes sauce – one with sesame base, one with fermented bean, and finally chili oil. A perfect Northern Chinese breakfast.
In the short time I had re-discovered this place I returned four or five times to sample more of their menu. The cold noodles, the Sichuan-esque “ma la” noodles topped with meat, and the pulled noodles all beckon.
There definitely is already great street food here in town…just not on the street.