O’Tray (Tianjin Flavours) at President Plaza Foodcourt- Richmond, BC

O’Tray (Tianjin Flavours)
2285 – 8181 Cambie Road
President Plaza
Richmond, BC
(604) 267-0571

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.

O’Tray (Tianjin Flavours) on Urbanspoon

11 thoughts on “O’Tray (Tianjin Flavours) at President Plaza Foodcourt- Richmond, BC

  1. Yep, I’m glad you wrote about this place! O’Tray is a lot more exciting to me than whatever is promised by heavily legislated, municipal bylaw-mandated food stalls on pedestrian-abandoned downtown streets. This is where exciting food is.

    The meat n’ bread thing is called, I think, jiàngròu kǎobǐng 酱肉烤饼, right? I guess the name kinda explains the difference between it and ròujiāmó 肉夹馍– bǐng 饼 instead of mó 馍.

    I’m usually there for a late breakfast and get the bāozi 包子, which are exactly how I like them (doughy, each one weighing about 10 pounds), and a bowl of tomato and egg noodles.

  2. You are of course right in the definition of roujiamo vs jiangrou koabing. I’m playing a little loose on roujiamo’s definition and adding jiangrou kaobing under that subset of “meat between bread”.

    Yes – I think people are enamored with the idea of American style food trucks that they lose sight of the street food already available to them. I have (perhaps misguided) high hopes that over-regulation will not nip this nascent scene in the bud.

    Portland’s food cart scene does not suffer from over regulation. (If that structure was duplicated here, I think that we will see a lot Asian – predominantly Chinese – food carts cropping up because that what our market will eat.)

  3. How challenging is it for non-Asians to navigate the food courts in Richmond – this one, the public market, etc.? As a pasty white dude who speaks three languages (English, Canadian and American in a pinch) I’m fine with the Aberdeen food court, but the more authentic spots like these that I read about intimidate me somewhat.

    • I don’t read Chinese (though I have learned to recognized some key characters such as the ones for noodles, meat, lamb, chicken, etc etc). It is really a matter of having an open mind. This particular stall is run by a lady who is relatively fluent in English. Some other stalls are a little more challenging. In that case, I often just throw caution to the wind and order something from the menu by pointing to it. Luckily, everything is cheap which makes a mis-order easier to take.

      • I agree with Gastro …

        I’m Chinese and my reading skills are so-so (so is my Mandarin & Cantonese), but all functional. It’s discouraging if vendors practice their marketing in a way that can be exclusive to certain groups. Try to keep an open mind, approach them, be friendly and not be afraid to ask in English, point, gesture, etc. If they value customers and want your business, they will make the effort to bridge any communication gap. I would venture to say the majority of Chinese are encouraged by non-Chinese who make the effort.

        Always helps to learn a few simple Mandarin (and/or Cantonese) phrases like:

        “How are you ?”

        “Excuse me”

        “Please, may I ask you ……”

        “I like to eat …….”

        “Thank you”

        Food is so integral to the culture that, if you make some basic language connections over food, you’ve got friends for life !

    • A good question, one I’ve wondered about myself. I think this could be flushed out into a fuller post one day, talking about how one can navigate in ethnic restaurants when there is no common language nor complete English menu to help guide you. I’m sure many of us have had experiences like that (for good and bad)…

  4. I have recently been to O’Tray and I’m glad to mention that they have redone their menu and they now have English translations. They redid their menu to reflect an increase due to HST.

  5. Ever since highschool, I rarely have had chances to eat at food courts. There are so many places in food courts that I wanna try but I never get around to it!

  6. Since Richmond is bombarded with restaurant, it never really crossed my mind to find authentic and great food at the food court when I am there. Thank for blogging about it, and now I will definitely add it to the list of places I must try.

  7. I was lucky enough to be introduced to O’Tray by gastronomydomine himself during one of the very visits that generated this post. Although it was of course a great boon to have his assistance, I have since returned a number of times and ordered other things successfully, both here and at a couple of other stalls, and at Richmond Public Market. I even arranged a little food excursion out to RPM with a group of food enthusiasts and did all the ordering without any epic fails :-). So it can be done, even if you are a white chick who speaks zero Chinese beyond har gau and shiu mai!

  8. The jian bing is smeared usually with “tian mien jiang” (sweet bean paste which you can easily get from an Asian/Chinese grocer) and a chili paste (optional). It’s found in most areas of Northern China, not just Tianjin! It is delicious and just… a fantastic cheap little snack to eat on a cold winter day wandering through Beijing.

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