Balans Café – London, UK

Balans Café
Unit 1034, Southern Terrace
Westfield Shopping Centre, Ariel Way
London, UK
+44 020 8600 3320

Open every day for lunch and dinner
Monday – Friday & Sunday: 9:00am – 11:00pm
Saturday: 8:00am – 11:00pm

The London Underground, also affectionately known as “the Tube”, is a convenient way to navigate the city when you are car-less in London.  Ironically, not all of the rail network is even below ground.  With its distinct logo, the stations are easy to pick out from the street, making for effective navigation by tourists and locals alike.

In the West London district is an area called Shepherd’s Bush.  Walking around the green park common area, I found it had an interesting character – with a balanced mixture of small businesses and eateries, outlets of larger corporations, entertainment complexes and residences.  As I made my way up and down the streets, just exploring on my won, I saw an assortment of people, some young, some old, some working class and some dressed up like they have a white collar office job.  With the large hub of transportation (including a large bus terminal), the area seemed to my novice eyes as a transit-heavy spot, with intersecting modes and lines of transport shutting people into and out of the core of London city.

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Island Freeze – Honolulu, HI

Island Freeze
International Market Place
2330 Kalakaua Avenue
Honolulu, Hawaii
Tel: (808) 971-2080
Open Daily 10:00am-10:30pm

Smack dab in the middle of the tourist and hotel district of Waikiki, is an outdoor shopping centre called the International Market Place that has its own little food court area.

It is a reprieve price-wise, from all of the other eateries and restaurants that market to out-of-towners milling around on the nearby streets.  This eating area is no different in setup from any standard food court you find in a North American mall – only that the food tenants are all mom-and-pop and represent a wide variety of cultures.  Surprisingly, no commercialized McDonald’s or Starbucks inside.  Just rattling a few off from memory, I recall seeing food offerings that were Chinese, Korean, Greek, Mexican, Filipino, Japanese, Vietnamese, Thai, Hawaiian, and a few others.

As reported earlier, I was already in the area and wanted something cool and refreshing as the summer heat was still bearing down hard and I needed to rehydrate some more after my quick meal at Ono. The photo above was taken after the sun went down, facing the main entrance of the International Market Place.

Now I’d heard of Hawaiian-style Shave Ice before coming to the islands (and got some recommendations from my Honolulu-based friends of some of the best ones to try during my stay – look for future posts), and I headed straight to the Island Freeze.  I wanted to get a quick introduction to the various types and flavours that are part of this ice cold treat.

Here is a bare bones shave ice, undecorated by any other ingredients aside from some liquid flavourings.  Island Freeze allows you to choose up to three flavours to add, and I went with strawberry, lychee and pineapple.  As you can see, it came served in this flower-shaped, light plastic cup container, with a spoon and straw to help you eat it.

Now I realize its just ice, but the texture of it was different from say a 7-11 Slurpee or if you were to slash off fine layers of ice with a sharp blade.  Its neither too flaky so the flavourings aren’t absorbed, or too soft such as in a Slurpee where the liquid dominates.  I think its a combination of the way its shaved and the temperature of the ice that keeps it just so.  The trio of tastes made eating this interesting, as you could just shuffle the cup around to another section and scoop up a new flavour sensation.

All in all, a very refreshing treat!

Island Freeze on Urbanspoon

Prata Man Singapore Cuisine – Richmond, BC

Prata Man Singapore Cuisine
180-9020 Capstan Way
Richmond, BC
(604) 278 1348

Prata Man on Urbanspoon

My travels in the past three years (2006-2008) have taken me to Singapore a whopping six times.  And those are round trips from North America.  If I threw in the short haul trips back and forth from there to neighboring countries as well, that figure could climb up to twelve to fifteen.  Yes, the Lion City and I are good friends.

If you’ve ever done the flying, you know its a long haul.  A big part of what makes it all worth it though, is the great food culture that can be enjoyed there.  And for me, a great roti prata is one thing that I look forward too each and every time, morning, day and night…

The ultimate Singapore-style roti prata for me, is that delicate, light and crispy variation found in the famous places at Jalan Kayu, which I’ve commented on previously.  But unfortunately, Prata Man does the opposite, with its thicker, moister pancake type.  It felt almost like a green onion cake, with the oil having been absorbed and really noticeable when trying to tear it apart or when taking a bite.  These were massive too, IHOP pancake large.

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Oriental Restaurant and Bar – Sai Wan Village, HK

Oriental Restaurant & Bar
Sai Wan Village
New Territories, Hong Kong

[A return to the other side of the ocean with this post, as I try and catch up on my recent travels. Please enjoy them as Vancouver-specific posts will be rotated in, along with Foodosopher’s regular contributions from Alberta]

Venturing into the remote parts of the New Territories courtesy of a four hour long hike along a segment of the MacLehose Trail was a welcome reprieve from the urban madness and concrete jungle that travelers usually associate with Hong Kong. The entire trail measures over 100 kilometers long, and stretches over mountain peaks and valleys across lush forests that truly takes you away from the hustle and bustle of Hong Kong Island and Kowloon. Well into my journey, I came to a small little village called Sai Wan, that appeared as an oasis after long stretches of not seeing any signs of local civilization.

Having exhausted my water supply, I was dying for some liquid replenishment, but as I stepped inside the entrance of the Oriental Restaurant & Bar to buy a bottle of water, I realized that I was also quite hungry. Luckily my two other hiking pals were also in need of some food and we decided to take an extended break on the patio of this establishment, as the sun began to make its way into the late afternoon sky.

To our surprise, we soon saw a bunch of other customers sitting at the tables in the back of the building that faced the Pacific Ocean. Even more unexpected was the fact that all of them looked very refreshed and not drenched in sweat from having hiked the paths that our group had (we later learned that there was a bus stop just ten minutes away that these people had probably used to access this little village). Even in the midst of such splendid nature, these Hong Kongers were taking the easy route – those darn spoiled city folk!

Perhaps some readers would concur, but after some extended, strenuous physical activity, your cravings for food changes. For some, it makes you want to consume more having burned so many calories. Other times, coupled with dehydration, it makes you crave salty things. Both of these sensations had hit me as I sat down on the cheap plastic chair at our table and scanned the menu booklet.

As I closed my eyes to give myself a moment to calm down, I knew I could eat just about anything. But at the same time I was aware that I couldn’t expect too much from a place like this, that was literally in the middle of nowhere, so I opted for a safe bet – the Special Fried Rice. Again, I am not sure if it was my physical state at the time, but this was a delicious plate of fried rice which included simple ingredients such as green peas, onions, egg, etc. Nothing “special” about it per say, but for a hungry hiker, it really hit the spot! For me when it comes to fried rice, its the rice that is vital. Can’t be too mushy and each rice kerenel must have that little bit of a crisp exterior.

And the view didn’t hurt either!

Further adding to my sudden relaxed state was seeing one of the waiters carry out some cold bottles of beer to a small boat that was sitting in the shallow water and wishing I could be on that watercraft.  Talk about paradise!  But I knew my hike was not yet finished so indulging in that desire would have caused my friends to leave me for dead on the intense trail back to the nearest town site.

I love coming across these expectation-exceeding little spots on my travels. They don’t always have to be in these beautiful natural surroundings, a hole-in-the-way food counter in a side street in the city will do just as well. Great food, interesting scenery, amusing service staff, etc. they could all help make these kinds of experiences a long lasting memory. I hope to have the opportunity to continue to explore and find these places that stand out for me and I can fondly look back on many years later. Oriental Restaurant & Bar will certainly be one of them. Happy trails!

Presto Cucina – Vancouver, BC

Presto Cucina
2272 W 4th Ave
Vancouver, BC
(604) 731 7222

I love Italian cuisine, but I am often torn when it comes to dining out.  Mainly because it usually involves the see saw battle between a) unpretentious, affordable, in a casual environment but poor to average tasting; and b) fantastic recipes, skilled preparation and beautiful presentation though more expensive and in much more formal settings.  So I was cautiously optimistic when I received a friend’s suggestion one night when I was looking for a delicious but reasonably priced pasta/pizza dine-in option in Kitsilano, after spending the previous ten days in Hong Kong and wanting to avoid anything Cantonese.

On first glance, the outside of Presto Cucina is nothing spectacular, as it occupies a space in one of the many generic buildings along W 4th Avenue. A sandwich board with take-out menus stood upright just outside the front entrance, and taking a glance inside, I was pleased to see it looked fairly busy.  Stepping inside is where some confusion arose, as I could see servers in the back of the room, but they could obviously not see us.  After five minutes of waiting by the door, during which time I saw two servers walk around in the dining space and they could have clearly seen us, but continued back to the open kitchen area at the back.  Spotting a booth along one wall, albeit still dirty and not cleared, we decided to move to it in the hope that would finally grab their attention.  Not so.  Another five minutes later I was finally able to flag a person down, who then hurried back to the kitchen again, and then another server came by and lazily wiped down the table and disappeared again.  I was beginning to wonder if there was a batton they were handing off to each other and I was part of some magic act with all the vanishing going on.

After finally getting a chance to give our order – deciding to share one of the special menu pizzas ($10.99), with Tomato and Bocconcini; as well as a Shrimp Pesto Penne ($15.99) – I finally got a chance to fully scan the room.  Brightly lit and clean, the customers on this night seemed to be mainly couples, more friends having a meal rather than dates.  When the food did arrive, I was fairly disappointed in the bland tasting penne.  The pasta itself was cooked al dente which was fine, but it just had no flavor, and required a dose of table salt and pepper to try and improve it somewhat.  The shrimp, as you often find in casual pasta joints like this, was a bit tough and overcooked.  The accompanying piece of garlic toast felt stale, either that or severely overtoasted, with the sharp edges easily able to do some damage to the vulnerable parts of your mouth.  The pizza was slightly better, but at the same time simply just okay  Nothing horrible about the flavor of it (which was not skimpy on the ingredients), though I was torn over the lump of pesto that appeared in the centre of the dish, as it was really dredged in oil and had my doubts of its freshness.

Back to the service, clearly, the two wait staff were overmatched.  Every time they came by to deliver drinks, food, enquire how things were (once), and even when they brought the final cheque, it was as if they were on permanent drive-by.  Drop and go, is how I would describe it… a service of blurs.  For what it is, Presto Cucina (a four restaurant chain with other outlets in West Vancouver, White Rock and Abbotsford) does what it advertises itself to be – Italian casual.  Frankly the food though could be found in just about any family restaurant serving up pizza and pasta, and probably at a more reasonable price.  Amid all the Italian options in the city, I think Presto Cucina could do more to help itself succeed in this market, beginning with hiring of more service staff.  I really wish I could find a homey, rustic Italian kitchen that serves us authentic, flavorful dishes at wallet-friendly prices in the west side.  If anyone has any suggestions, I would be open to hearing of them and giving them a try.

Presto Cucina (Kitsilano) on Urbanspoon

Thasevi Prata – Jalan Kayu, SGP

Thasevi Food Original Jalan Kayu Prata
237/239 Jalan Kayu
+65 6481 1537

The Jalan Kayu area is very well known by locals at THE place for Roti Prata – usually just called Prata by Singaporeans (although some of my friends also swear by the places on Upper Thompson too, especially for the sweeter variants of this dish).  In fact, that’s probably all this area is noteable for as the street itself is nothing special without the main shops that sell this particular food, that originates from the Indian Paratha.  In the morning, it is a staple of the breakfast meal, and here at Thasevi Prata you can see young teenagers grabbing a snack on their way to school, middle-aged men eating before they head to work, and even seniors who have plenty of time on their hands to enjoy a relaxed morning.  Parking is limited to the stalls along the same street, or to a pay parking lot just up the road.  For me on this day, it was a stopover for a quick bite, on the way to wake boarding in the Straits of Johor.

The setup is very simple.  You go inside, place your order, give them your table number that is painted on your table, and wait to have it delivered to your table.  Many of the tables have used cigarette cans, so beware of that if you are adverse to smoke while eating and pick a table more near the centre of the area.  As well, don’t expect much for service, as the folks inside are quite busy and generally not a cheery bunch.  They have a tendency to make mistakes with orders (as they did again on this day) and they’re not so speedy with rectifying problems.  Try not to raise a big stink, as they’ve been known to respond aggressively.

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Tazza Grill and Deli – Calgary, AB

Tazza Grill and Deli
1105 1st St. NE
Calgary, AB
Tel: (403) 263 5922

[Prologue] A brief three day stay in the southern Alberta city has ended for me.  It was a whirlwind of activity, and in between actual work stints I managed to squeeze in a few new and repeat eating experiences – many in the company of the Foodosopher.  Suffice it to say, the Foodosopher is one of those folks who is willing and able to join you on dining escapades on any given day and at any given time – be it the unknown (a new spot), the recommended (by others), and even the dreaded (that rank in the mostly expected-bad category).  Kudos to the Foodosopher for another entertaining few days of sharing meals and I look forward to our next meeting and discussing our plans for Foodosophy.

Tazza Grill and Deli was the first place that the Foodosopher introduced me to in the Calgary food scene several years ago, during a quick lunch break meeting.  Though my memories have faded since that first visit, I do remember that it was not a place that I minded going to again, and hence, my first pit stop on this recent Calgary trip.  As far as I can tell, the Bridgeland area of the city has blossomed into a distinct neighborhood featuring many solid food and restaurants choices, and one that I enjoy visiting. Despite the growing development of the area, it still retains a cozy feel and I think this is reflected in many of the businesses and the people who run them.

Tazza fits precisely into this category as a family run operation. I am sure the Foodosopher could give a more detailed history on the establishment, but I will leave it at this. Its clear the moment that you step inside and give your order, that this place has the process down pat, almost military in its precision. Looking for an item to go, Chicken Shawarma (or on the wrapping, called a Chicken Shistawouk) was my choice – which strangely has replaced Vietnamese Pho as the most commonly had simple lunch item for me of late. The large chalkboards hanging on the walls near the entrance had that old school feel that contributed to that homey feel I had tried to describe earlier about this neighborhood.

Unable to eat it until about fifteen minutes later once I had settled into my accommodations for the night, I was pleased it was still somewhat warm and the extra grilling time to harden the wrap had held up as well. I can easily sum up the flavor after taking the first bite – a complete and well balanced mixture of creamy sauce, crispy vegetables, and both harder and softer pieces of chicken meat. I am sure it would have tasted even better had I eaten it on the spot, but even still, this was one of the best shawarma’s I’ve ever had. The regular size was probably just right for a meal, though the larger variant would be easy to devour on an empty stomach.

A delicious start to my Calgary eating. More reports to follow soon…

Tazza Deli & Grill on Urbanspoon

Kitsilano Sushi – Vancouver, BC

Kitsilano Sushi
3105 West Broadway
Vancouver, BC
Tel: (604) 737 0181

In my ongoing quest to explore, document and capture visually the Canadian west coast food scene, I rely on a myriad of methods.  For instance, simple random stops alone when I spot a new location while walking or driving around town, listening to recommendations/suggestions from others that I personally know, reading informative online sources introducing places I’ve never heard of from people I’ve never met, and probably the most enjoyable, an invitation from friends/acquaintances to join in on a group meal.  With such a diverse system, you can imagine it is quite the shotgun approach; and just like Forrest said about his box of chocolates, “you never know what you’re gonna get”.

On a recent rainy evening (no surprise for Vancouver in the fall), I had the pleasure of dining out with my friends who have a young family, including two little boys aged four and one.  It seems the children are fans of rice and in particular sushi rolls, so we headed out in search of a kid-friendly, Japanese food serving establishment in Kitsilano.  This part of Vancouver is probably known as a neighborhood with a good concentration of restaurants across a spectrum of cuisines from around the world.  There are still many I have yet to try and given the boom-and-bust cycle of the restaurant business, I am sure there will be some that I will never get to eat at before they disappear into the restaurant cornfield of dreams.

We settled on Kitsilano Sushi – I know, not a very inventive name but it served as a bright beacon for us as we scanned the streets for something that met our needs in terms of location and the food being served.  Unknown to me, it was a very popular place for dinner, judging from the mostly full dining area as well as a line up at least five people deep who were either placing takeout orders or waiting to pick them up.  There were at least four people behind the sushi counter, which you see immediately upon entering the front entrance, as well as some staff whose main role appeared to be shuffling between the kitchen and tables, but with a lower emphasis on paying attention to the immediate needs of eating customers.  Either they are in need of more bodies to man the fort, or feel that service should just be about bringing things to tables and clearing empty dishes away.  Friendly, personal attention is not to be expected here – think more cafeteria service.

Personally, I am not a fan of maki (roll) sushi.  But for many Canadians and young children, I know its quite popular.  Maybe with parents, as it seems to be easier for their little ones to eat and rolls enable them to get some vegetable-based nutrients into them as well, it makes for a common selection.  The dreaded Dynamite Roll that we ordered, played right into my argument that maki do not often make for good eats.  For just minutes after we had placed our first round of sharing orders, two rolls of this were delivered to our table.  This shocked us, as it was going to be obvious that these had been made in advance, thus the prawn tempura inside would be cold and the outer crispy layer would be a oily, and soggy disappointment.  This was indeed the case.

The Alaska Roll (salmon, artificial crab, cucumber and avocado) was slightly better in terms of taste.  Though they did skimp out heavily on the outer dredging with Masago.  The rice, as with the earlier Dynamite Roll, was again overly soft for my personal liking.  Combined with the pressing needed to make the maki, it just made the rice seem more mushy than it should be.

The Assorted Nigiri set was just average, not much to comment on here.  Nothing had a hint of fish-gone-bad though, so passed on that front.  I think the high turnover they have here, would help in that regard, no matter what the quality of their ingredient may be.

The boys loved the Assorted Tempura.  Not to let this review have to depend on the preferences/pallates of those under four feet tall, I must include that it was not up to my favored standard.  The exterior batter was too thick, and deep fried in too hot of an oil – reminded me of the kind of deep fried veggies you get in a run-of-the-mill Chinese buffet.  I continue to find it difficult to find a really well done, light but still crispy tempura in Vancouver on a consistent basis.  The only exception being the yam tempura that I had at Octopus Garden.  They know how to do it right there in my opinion.

For quick, basic, and convenient (for take out) maki sushi, Kitsilano Sushi is a safe call and the price is definitely right and very affordable, which makes it the McDonald’s of Sushi on this road.  Though I will not purposely go back as price is not a real huge factor for me when I am craving quality sushi.   The previously reviewed Sai-z that sits across the street, is on the opposite end of the cost spectrum.  That said, they make an interesting combination in such close proximity, with each carving out a niche and clientele base that seemingly supports both of their businesses.

Kitsilano Sushi on Urbanspoon

Shikiji Japanese Noodles and Sushi – Calgary, AB

With the relatively well received post (in terms of our internal hit counter) on ramen, I thought I’d take our readers on a nostalgic jog down memory lane to the location of my first North American exposure to this Japanese noodle-in-soup dish, at a place called Shijiki.

But before going there, let’s step back a bit further, to my childhood. Ramen as I knew it then was the plastic wrapped, fried slab of noodles that came with a small packet of salty powdered soup mix, that you had to cook in hot water, adding in your choice of toppings such as cooked ham and veggies. At least that’s how it was in our house. The brand of choice was the Demai-Ichi. Shoyu (soy sauce) was the only soup flavoring I knew. I didn’t think much of it, until the one time I went to a neighbor’s house and I saw them eating instant noodles like this but without the soup, and the packet of soup mix being used as a dry dusting over top of the cooked noodles on a plate, to give it “flavor”. Suffice it to say, I was shocked. But still, I was in no position to say how great these noodles really were, even when made as per the instructions. As after all, it is “just flour and water”.

Fast forward to college. It was in the early part of winter in the years just before the global Y2K worries. The Liberals seemed invincible with Jean Chrétien as Canada’s PM, the price of regular gasoline was hovering at around 45 cents per litre, and I can remember thinking my recently acquired Pentium II-powered computer was the fastest thing I had ever seen. Oh how times have changed. And for the good… well, mostly for the good. Returning to my narrative of my fateful first experience with ramen in a proper shop. I was hanging out with some exchange student friends of mine from Japan at the university. They suggested a day trip down to Banff, that tourist hot spot better known for skiing and snowboarding in the winter. Being that none of us were into those particular winter sports, my bewildered mind posed a question…

“Why should we go down there?”
Their reply, “to eat ramen”.
“Ramen?”, I said, “they actually have that there and its not the instant kind I can make at home?”
“Yeah, its just like you can get in Japan.”

Well, that was enough for me and the four of us crammed ourselves in my two door sports car and made the drive down from Alberta’s capital city. The journey took almost five hours on not-so-great roads and we made it there just before the lunch hour. Pulling up in front of what is known as the Clock Tower Mall on Banff Avenue (the main strip that juts its way through the heart of this town), we piled out and I was led inside by my pals. Towards the back of the first floor space, was a tiny restaurant that was partitioned off by glass panels (today, it houses the Pad Thai Restaurant). Immediately inside the entrance was a small open window leading into the kitchen, with some short curtains hanging on them to prevent a clear view inside. A head popped out with a bandanna wrapped around it, and a man bellowed out “welcome” in Japanese. My friends had obviously come here before, as they immediately recognized each other. Leaving it up to them to order, they did just that and we soon squatted down as one of the open tables inside.

A short while later out came the steaming bowls of ramen. My friend had gotten me a Shio (salt) based broth, with lots of toppings. I immediately recognized the Cha-shu, but my experience at that time just associated it with Chinatown and the big slabs of barbecued pork, and I did not expect to see it as one of the toppings. I was by no means complaining though, as it was quite tasty. The noodles to me were obviously not the same instant noodles I had had all these years. I remember drinking down the entire bowl of soup while madly slurping up the noodles. I was in heaven. Knowing that we wouldn’t be making this a regular occurrence, after a few hours of checking out the town site, we came back and had another bowl before we made the long drive back. I was forever grateful to my friends for letting me know that there was something like this in Alberta, albeit not a place I could visit regularly, even with it barely costing twenty dollars to fill up my gas tank in those days.

Shikiji, had found a place in my heart.

Jumping back into Doc Brown’s DeLorean again, this time adjusting the flux capacitor and setting the date box to circa 2004. I had learned that Shikiji had moved to its current Calgary location in the early part of this decade after a landlord situation and a better economic climate in the bigger city drew the owners out from the confines of Banff. By now, Shikiji had established a name for itself predominantly within the ex-pat Japanese community and Japanese tourists in this picturesque town, but was looking for a more regular and wider customer base. The owner/chef, a stern looking but kindhearted gentleman originally from Akita prefecture in northern Japan runs the show. His son is often seen there as a server. Numerous articles adorn the wall, showing that the media has caught wind of this place amid the growing Japanese restaurant scene in this oil town.

The menu is now much more diverse, now including space for a sushi bar, and other popular cooked dishes coming out of a much bigger kitchen. I won’t comment on that here, though I’ve had many items from the menu and came away without complaint.

Instead, I want to revisit the ramen offering.

Perhaps its because I am older, have a better understanding of ramen after time spent traveling to Japan to eat the “real deal”, or my memories have a halo hanging over them, but this dish is clearly not the same as I remember it being in terms of my satisfaction. I had the Shio Ramen again, which comes with toppings such as green onions, wakame, the unorthodox Bok Choi, and slice or two of Cha-shu; price is $10.60. They also provide a small Japanese grinding bowl to break up some sesame seeds, to put into the soup as well. The noodles are a slightly thicker straight variety, with decent texture/consistency. With Shio soups, I am not as concerned with it being crinkly to pick up the soup, as its not as thick as compared to say a Tonkotsu or Miso broth. The soup is average, but nothing to write home about. There is not a great depth to the flavor profile of the liquid, and I can tell its simply made from just a basic chicken stock.

But for Alberta, having to deal with a lower skill level/understanding in making ramen soup and poor availability in getting authentic noodles, and despite being made in a Japanese-run restaurant, this is probably as good as you are going to get. Trust me, there are are much more horrible ramen impostors in Alberta – The Tokyo Noodle Shop in Edmonton comes to mind. That place should be ordered to take that off the menu!

Shikiji Japanese Noodles and Sushi
1608 Centre St. N.E.
Calgary, AB
Tel: 403-520-0093
Hours: Mon/Wed-Fri, 11:30am to 2:30pm, 5pm to 9pm; Sat, 11:30am to 3pm, 5pm to 9pm; Closed Tue & Sun

Shikiji Japanese Noodles and Sushi on Urbanspoon

Sushi Vancouver – Vancouver, BC

The name alone should tell you something about this place. Much like all the pizzerias (or “pizza parlors” as our friends south of the border are apt to call them) that try to outdo their rivals by putting a series of letter A’s onto the beginning of their business name in an attempt to get to the front of the line when it comes to the Yellow Pages, the generically named Sushi Vancouver is just trying to get noticed. After a pair of visits, I can confirm now that unfortunately, I think it will be for all the wrong reasons.

My latest visit was on a Sunday, typically a day when most Japanese restaurants, and a lot of others, close their doors for a day of rest. Having a craving for some sushi though, this did not deter me, and hence, my stop at Sushi Vancouver after seeing their open sign up. My first take out meal there a few months back when they first opened did not leave me with a memorable impression. I figured, it was worth giving another try to see if anything had changed, with the expectation that this is just a grab-and-dash sushi establishment.  Quite frankly, my determination to grab some sushi could have led me to just about any open door that was serving this up on this day. I know, I must learn to be more selective and know when to put a stop to my tunnel vision, as I’ve been hurt more times than I care to count.

For a multi-person sharing order, my choices were made from nigiri (hand-formed sushi) choices, two here, four there, etc. These ranged from the low end of 99 cents each for the shake (salmon), maguro (tuna) and tamago (egg) to the $1.60 for the ikura (salmon roe). By the way, the most expensive nigiri on the menu is the mirugai (geoduck clam) at $3.  In total, I think I had just over thirty individual pieces.

The restaurant itself was empty, as it was the first time I had walked inside.  Placing the order was relatively pain free as it was just giving some numbers to each piece.  Since the man behind the counter was obviously the same person who would be making it, was looking for some work to do, I figured he’s be snappy about it and get right on it.  Guess again.

From talking to his wait staff, to playing with his kid behind the bar, opening up this container and that, and searching for things in the refrigerator, I am not sure if he was truly interested in making my meal or was just treating the thing as a bothersome task.  With some loud Chinese ballad playing over the speakers, he then proceeded to start singing as if he were alone in the shower, which broke the last straw of my patience.  With his back to me the entire time, I began to really get worried about what exactly he was doing.  His arm movements suggested that he was not really smooth with creating the nigiri, each action a painfully, slow step.  The rhythmic motion of creating the shari (rice ball) and placing the cut piece of neta (topping) on top and forming the nigiri, I just couldn’t see him doing naturally.  Part of me thinks the way he has set up his counter, not allowing customers to openly see his working style, suggests that he is lacking confidence in his abilities.

After what was about a forty-five minute agonizing wait, during which time no other customers came inside, I was finally given my order to go.  The bad taste that was left in my mouth after this brutal service experience, made me wonder if I would have the appetite to eat my portion of this meal.

First glance, things did not “look” horribly bad.  Until I got to the toro (fatty tuna) pieces.  Some strange red strings were hanging from the fish slices from some of the nigiri.  It looked like thin blood veins to me.  Shocking to see this, as one piece was just covered/embedded with them.  How the so-called chef could serve these kinds of pieces to a paying customer is beyond me.  To add to my dismay, the rice was so compactly formed with each piece, that it took an extra effort to chew through.  I really dislike it when sushi’s rice is so hard that it might as well been pressed down in a work worker’s vice.  The rest of the toppings were unremarkable, just average to slightly bad.

The only saving grace was the relatively generous amounts of tobiko (flying fish roe) and ikura.

My fellow diners to whom I brought these boxes of “sushi” gave me enough dirty looks to ensure that I won’t be going back ever again.

Sushi Vancouver
3416 West Broadway
Vancouver, BC
Tel: (778) 371 1337
Hours: Mon-Sat, 11am to 10pm; Sun, 12pm to 9:30pm

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Menya Japanese Noodle – Vancouver, BC

Menya Japanese Noodle
401 W Broadway
Vancouver, BC
Tel: (604) 725-9432
Hours: Lunch, 11:30 to 3pm; Dinner, 5pm to 9pm

Menya Japanese Noodle on Urbanspoon

May 2010 re-visit post here

Original post below:

Hakata ramen. with its roots deeply implanted in the Kyushu island ramen culture of Japan, is responsible for the establishment of the milky white and creamy tonkotsu (pork bone) soup as one of the most popular ramen broths, rivaling the stalwarts of shoyu (soy sauce), shio (salt), and miso.  It has also had an impact in creating hybrid soups, such as the well liked tonkotsu-shoyu, that you find most often in the Kanto (e.g Tokyo) region.  My first exposure to tonkotsu ramen was in the spring of 1997.  I was in Fukuoka (capital city of Kyushu island) and was taken to the eye-opening outdoor ramen stall alley found in the district of Nagahama.  It is a well known tourist site, bringing in ramen fanatics from across the country, and is located on a side street near a major wholesale food market.  It operates at night, and when it becomes dark, the lights from inside the various tents and stalls on this road come on and attracts diners like moths to a flame.  There are also more proper in-building ramen shops operating in the area, but for me, the lasting impression of the street stalls remains with me to this day.

So I was strongly looking forward to the opening of Menya Japanese Noodle on West Broadway, near the Cambie Street intersection (the one with the dreaded, ongoing Canada Line construction), after hearing rumors that tonkotsu was their soup of choice.  With the growing base of places to eat ramen building in the downtown west end, it was refreshing to see another option that was not located in the city core.  Opening its doors on September 8th, I planned to wait at least a month to allow them to settle down, but a recent rainy day made me long for a nice hot bowl of tonkotsu ramen, so I broke with my intended plan.  Despite the dreary weather, the room was full as I stepped inside during the lunch hour.  No doubt, word had spread already about this place, and many other curious people had joined me in trying it out.  Couples, families with children, people of all ages and ethnicities were here, providing evidence that ramen has become more widely accepted in the city as another definitive dish from Japanese food culture.  An inquiry to a member of the all-female serving staff led to a good piece of information as I sat down with the menu – the owner/head cook had actually worked and trained in a Fukuoka city ramen shop (name withheld).

The top of the menu board featured a Nagahama Ramen ($6.75); in Kyushu, Hakata-style and Nagahama-style ramen are basically inter-changeable in terms of vocabulary, as both are tonkotsu-based.  Next to it was a Tonkotsu Miso Ramen ($7), as well as a Ramen Set ($10) that would give you a bowl of ramen, one onigiri (rice ball), and gyoza (I think four pieces).  Rather than fill up on these extras, I decided instead to add some more toppings in the form a nitama (flavored boiled egg; $0.75) and chashu (slices of pork belly; $3, which came with some marinated bean sprouts).  I split these added toppings with my dining companion, who also ordered the Nagahama Ramen.  The tonkotsu broth was what I’d classify as mid-level in terms of heaviness. I detected some slight pork fat added to the mixture, giving it a slightly more oily consistency than what you’d typically find in Hakata-style ramen (you see this more often in Tokyo-style).

It was very creamy and a respectable representation of a solid tonkotsu broth, and to top it off, there was none of that distinctive pork scent that you can find at times in tonkotsu soups.  The Nagahama Ramen did come with the usual toppings of beni shoga (thin slices of ginger that is pickled) and konbu (kelp), along with chopped green onions and bamboo shoots.  The beni shoga is a key one here for tonkotsu-based ramen, as its used as a refreshing element and to help mask any notable pork scent coming from the soup stock.  Lastly, I did notice another element that is found in this style of ramen in Japan was missing, a spoonful or two of some garlic-infused flavored oil.

Kyushu region ramen commonly uses a thin straight variety of noodle.  This holds true at Menya.  In ramen joints in Japan, it is often possible to order oomori (e.g. a large serving of noodles).  But here in lies the problem with an bigger volume of noodles in a bowl of hot soup.  The thinner the variety, the less its able to hold up over time.  Even a few extra minutes of sitting in the hot soup can be detrimental, and cause the noodles to completely lose all of their texture, become overcooked and turn into limp strings.  To get around this, ramen shops in Kyushu came up with the concept of kaedama (literally translated as “replacement ball”).  At Menya, they have also implemented this into their menu.  Basically, once you have consumed all of the noodles, you can order a followup serving of only-noodles, to add to the soup that you still have remaining (provided you are not one of of those overzealous types who drink down all of the soup as you go).

I appreciate all that Menya has done in their early days, bringing to Vancouver a pure representation of Hakata-style, tonkotsu ramen, as well as including the little nuances of ramen culture into their menu setup.  By focusing on this soup broth, and this alone, I think it can carve out its own niche.  Geographic distance from the Kintaro kingpin in this market will also no doubt help.  Judging from the packed house, it seems there are plenty of ramen fans who will come to this non-downtown location.  But ramen is such a personal preference.  Myself, I do enjoy tonkotsu, as well as shio soups.  I tend to prefer a more crinkly noodle, and probably consume more lighter broths than denser ones.  At times, I enjoy a fuller bowl with lots of additional toppings, which often goes better with miso broths.  If it is a complete mishmash for me, I am guessing I am not alone in enjoying variety in my ramen.  But Menya deserves consideration for your tonkotsu option in your Vancouver ramen preference set.

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Andale’s Mexican and Spanish Cuisine – Vancouver, BC

The now controversial animated cartoon figure, Speedy Gonzales, is a memory from my childhood of watching Looney Tunes television shows on Saturday mornings in my pajamas and clutching a box of cereal. His famous phrase “andale, andale, ariba, ariba!” remains in my head to this very day. The flashback came to me as I stepped inside Andale’s Mexican and Spanish Cuisine on West Broadway for a quick take out lunch recently. With not much time to spare, I was indeed hoping it would live up to its name and be fast, though I certainly had some trepidations about the authenticity and quality.

Deciding to play it safe just to be sure, and to get something filling and easy to take away, my first choice was a beef burrito with what they called a “colorado sauce”. It was a good sized, soft flour tortilla stuffed with a thick combination of beef and shredded sauteed onions. The entire package was dredged in a slightly thick but mainly watery consistency brown sauce, almost gravy like. It was totally missing any heat or depth of flavor, which threw me as I expected something I’ve had elsewhere with a sauce named similar to this one, which had red chilies in it.

As a result, the flavors were dependent on the bland burrito contents, and to make things worse, the whole thing was getting quite soggy from the sauce as I got about halfway through. The accompanying black beans were also really dull and tasteless.

The chicken quesadilla was not much better, in fact, I think I preferred the beef burrito. The fillings of cheese and chicken breast meat were again not really seasoned well, missing a strong semblance of heat as well. The slices were also draped in what was supposed to be an ancho sauce minus the heat, as all I could really taste was some onions and garlic, along with some herbs like cumin and oregano. Again, your run-of-the-mill quesadilla that could have been made in any of the city’s chain restaurants, or even at home by a half-decent home cook. The same forgettable black beans that came with the buritto were here again.

Both items came with a small mixed salad, but the take-out packs did not have any side portions of rice, or the free chips and salsa that were available through dine-in.

I’m not sure what the city’s best options are for true Mexican food, but this clearly was not it – just generalized, simplified, and taste-reduced Tex-Mex to me.  It made me long for the great meals I had at the home of an old college classmate from Mexico, who first introduced me to the cuisine of his country a decade ago.

As a positive, I’ll say it was fast, coming out of the kitchen ten to fifteen minutes after the order was placed. The sunny day brought out the patio lovers (mostly business lunches it seemed), but the inside was completely dead. I am curious what its like at night, both in terms of the clientele, the atmosphere (maybe the darkness hides some of the dreary and tacky symbolic plastic beer bottles handing from the ceiling, or the wall of sombreros tacked to it), and of course the food. If none of it seems any better, I’ll be outta there faster than my old pal, “the fastest mouse in all of Mexico”!

Andale’s Mexican and Spanish Cuisine
3211 West Broadway
Vancouver, BC
Tel: (604) 738-9782

Andales Mexican Restaurant (Broadway) on Urbanspoon

Ginger and Chili Szechuan Cuisine – Vancouver, BC

Szechuan (Sichuan) cuisine, is best known for its liberal use of Szechuan (Sichuan) peppercorn and thus generally thought of as being very spicy.  This regional cuisine also uses in copious amounts, both ginger and chili.  This neighborhood Chinese restaurant took these ingredients as their house name, and occupies a decent sized establishment in the Point Grey area of Vancouver, close to other area favorites such as Burgoo, Candia Taverna, Provence Mediterranean Grill, and Enigma.

Ginger and Chili Szechuan Cuisine is proud of those popular North American-Chinese dishes: Ginger Beef and General Tso’s Chicken, and call theirs the best versions of these dishes in town.  I’ve had this chicken-based creation ($10.50) which is stir-fried with a mix of vegetables – it’s not bad.  But I refuse to try the Ginger Beef.

Every time I’ve been inside, customers have been a mix of Caucasian and Asian diners.  Takeout represents a good portion of their business, judging from the walk-in-and-pick-up customers, the constantly ringing phone, and the female manager with a Bluetooth earpiece to handle the flood of calls.  Delivery orders are also possible within a 3km radius and a minimum order of $20 and after 4:30pm.

On this evening, I ordered a trio of dishes, all of ample portions, from the menu that is separated into sections labeled appetizers, soups, seafood, chicken, pork & spareribs, beef, lamb, hot pot, vegetarian, rice, and chow mein & rice noodles.  In total, in typical Chinese menu fashion, they are all numbered and amount to 165 different items, with the most expensive individual item being the whole barbecue duck that goes for $21.95.  Most other dishes go for around $10~$15.  There are even two options for a combination dinner for one ($13.75) and family dinner sets (2 to 8 people) that range from $23 to $92.

Firstly, the Deep Fried Squid with Peppery Salt ($13.25).  This dish is one of many marked with a red chili symbol on the menu, signifying the heat factor.  The finger-length long strips of breaded shrimp were crispy (thought probably would have held up better if eating at the restaurant itself), but not overly so, and tossed with small bits of onion and garlic.  The peppery salt, though not very visible, was evident once I started taking some bites.  The heat coming from the salt was of that sharp piercing variety.  This dish was decent in my books, the squid was well sized, and was not rubbery or chewy.

The second dish was from the pork section – Sliced Pork with Hot Pepper & Dry Spinach ($10.50) – again with the red chili mark.  This was stir-fried in a bland thick sauce, and despite the claim of having some hot peppers, there was not heat coming off this dish at all.  The combination of pork and spinach was a first for me, and tasted well together but the false advertising on the spiciness left a bad taste in my mouth.  Near the bottom of the container, there was this thick layer of oil, very unappealing.

Finally, to get some more substance, the House Special Chow Mein ($10.50) was selected.  This was described as a pan-fried skinny noodle, topped with meat, vegetables and sauce.  What this really entailed was pork, squid, scallops, broccoli, mushrooms, and green peppers.  Perhaps because it was the take-out version, the noodles were really soggy with the sauce, as I hoped they would be a lot more crispier.  A very mediocre dish overall.

As I was afraid of again, the overall high use of vegetable oil in all the dishes, really turned me off this place, despite it being the best of the limited neighborhood lot when it comes to Chinese takeout.  I have some friends who used to go a lot more often and now don’t venture in anymore because of this.  I think I will join them in the boycott crowd, as by just taking a sample of each dish onto my plate, I was getting that heavy, weighed down feeling from the over oily food, and the limited heat just did not measure up either.

Ginger and Chili Szechuan Cuisine
4423 10th Avenue West
Vancouver, BC
Tel: (604) 222-2223
Hours: Tue-Sun, 11:30am to 3pm & 4:30pm to 10pm; closed Mon

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No.1 Beef Noodle House – Burnaby, BC

I recently dined at another place that boldly put its house specialty into the name of their establishment, but this place took it one step further by adding in a boastful “ranking” to its name: No.1 Beef Noodle House.

My education in the Taiwanese cuisine available in the Greater Vancouver Area, and in particular beef noodles, has been under the tutelage of an experienced traveler to the island. With his guidance, I have previously visited another Taiwanese establishment in the city, and have checked out others on my own armed with some insights gained, though I am still learning. As well, the Foodospher is tempting me with the idea of taking a tour of food culture in Taiwan with him… very enticing, as Taiwan is part of the world I have yet to visit.

Chinese cuisine to me sometimes provides a challenge when ordering. And here, I’m not talking about the inability to read Chinese characters (which is indeed a problem), the strange English translations you find at times on the menu, or not knowing what a certain dish is. Rather, it is the portions. Listed prices or placement in the appetizer or mains sections does not always clearly represent the actual volume of food that will be coming out on a plate, in a bowl, etc. I tend to find that most Chinese restaurants are quite generous with their serving sizes, perhaps as it is more commonly a family-style, sharing mode of eating that persists in Chinese households. I can understand this, but sometimes I wonder what the chef must be envisioning in their head, as to how big the people are that are eating his meals.

Looking to try something out of the ordinary, I saw a whole page of uncommon chicken parts that looked like appetizers, and boldly claimed, “let’s get the gizzards”. I think my dining companion was shocked with my choice and probably wondering what the heck I was thinking – either I surprised him with my strange like for this ingredient or he thought this was going to be a bad pick. The chewy, rubbery texture of chicken gizzards I know turns some people off. But for me, there is something about this that appeals to me, especially when they are simply boiled and flavored in soy, ginger and garlic as they were on this night.

Salty, deep-fried chicken. Not the most healthy choice, but hard to resist, and when I have had it in Taiwanese cuisine, it has been hard to look the other way. Rather than be overloaded with large pieces, my friend wisely suggested we get a smaller plate of the stuff, so that we would have enough room in our stomachs for other dishes. Luckily, No.1 Beef Noodle House gave diners this choice. With a nice crispy exterior, and cut into bite-sizes pieces, with a good balance between leaner and fattier sections with skin still on.

Continuing with the classics, another dish we shared was the beef roll. The combination of the flaky green onion pancake, and the tender slices of beef draped in a sweet Hoisin sauce, is one of my favorites. The offering here was both smaller and the pancake portion was thinner than I am used to, as well it was not overly dressed in the Hoisin (unlike the one I had at Wang’s). A more subdued taste as a result, but still very tasty. I was also glad they served it fully cut through into individual pieces, a pet peeve of mine from other places that do not.

Lastly, the beef noodles with well-done beef brisket. As expected, a strong, rich beefy broth topped with generous chunks of brisket, finely diced green onion, cilantro, as well as long stalks of bok choy. Perhaps it is the result of me eating a lot more Pho lately, but whenever I revert back to Taiwanese beef noodles, I am struck at how thick and starchy they seem to be. At No.1 Beef Noodle House however, they were not as overbearing and chalky as the noodles had at Wang’s Beef Noodle House, so in a head-to-head battle, I have to give it to the cook here.

To sum, No.1 Beef Noodle House deserves the right to put this dish in their name, though saying they are the best might be a stretch. Though seeing how busy this place was, it clearly has its fans, which is even more amazing considering its strange location (it is recessed in the building so hard to see from the road) in a mini strip mall, with a greatly undersized parking lot making it a challenge to leave your car and get inside. With the rainy autumn days of Vancouver soon approaching, a bowl of hearty beef noodles does hit the spot, so I just might be back.

No.1 Beef Noodle House
4741 Willingdon Avenue
Burnaby, BC
Tel: (604) 438-6648

No. 1 Beef Noodle House on Urbanspoon

Prima Taste Restaurant – Vancouver, BC

True Singapore Cuisine. It is what Prima Taste boasts about serving, and this text appears on their menu, their business card, and heck even the final bill. The restaurant side of the Prima Taste business empire started up apparently in 2000 and has now spread outside of Singapore to outlets in Vietnam, Sri Lanka, Taiwan, China, the US, and right here in downtown Vancouver. I had been hoping to visit this place for a while after hearing good things, but until this day never quite finding the right time or opportunity. With my most recent visit to Singapore being this past May, it had been a while since I have had a sampling of some Singaporean fare, so I was excited as I stepped inside. After my eyes adjusted from coming in from the bright sun, I was surprised to find a modern looking and clean interior, thinking it would be more of a cafeteria-like setting and perhaps a lot more run down – too many trips to hawker stalls overseas must have formed these pre-conceived ideas in my mind.

With a non-hungry companion in tow, I settled down and scanned the menu knowing that I would not have the benefit of another hungry diner to allow me to try more items. It was clear that well-known dishes such as satay, roti prata, beef rendang, laksa, and nasi goreng appeared on the menu, along with many seafood dishes, and even some platters that centered around one specific meat protein. Rather than risk something that would disappoint, I decided to go with a tried-and-true Singaporean offering in the Hainanese Chicken Rice, and a single small plate appetizer that I could nibble on while I waited, some Breaded Prawn Balls.

For $5.95, these deep fried formations had an interesting appearance, almost like circular shaped miniature Rubik’s Cubes, and were the size of a large gumball. They were a nice golden color and had a crispy exterior but a dense minced shrimp core that really perked up when a bit of the chili-mayo dip was added (I’m finding that this spicy and creamy mixture of flavors as a condiment is making waves across many of the ethnic restaurants in town these days). The portion size was probably just right for a single appetizer serving, though not enough if shared.

The Hainanese Chicken Rice ($9.50) was cleanly poached, and came with a small bowl of fragrant chicken flavored rice, and the important trio of dipping sauces (dark soy, ginger, and chili). For me, it is this first thick sauce with its rich sweet properties that really did it for me on this day, although the others were fine too in creating interesting taste combinations since we all know chicken meat is generally very bland. Back to the chicken itself, I received a completely boneless section, with a thin layer of skin that was not overly gelatinous, with lean meat that was silky smooth, moist and not stringy. Certainly, there are differing opinions on how the chicken should be prepared, finished off, with some preferring a more fatty composition, a thicker layer of skin, and I believe some even make the case on the boned or de-boned debate. Again, there is no clear cut answer to this, and personal taste will come into play, but I did enjoy the offering here at Prima Taste and would definitely go back for this as its probably the closest interpretation in Vancouver that I’ve seen to those I’ve eaten in Southeast Asia.

Service was decent; we were greeted immediately at the door and led to a table by one of the young boys working the bar area. Tea came out soon enough and ordering was fine as we were given enough time to read the menu before being pressed about what we wanted to eat. Its the in-meal service that was somewhat lacking, as it was difficult getting the attention of anyone for refills, extra napkins, having plates cleared as well as receiving the final bill. It seemed that rather than one dedicated server per table, they platoon staff across the floor so each request that I made was in fact, carried out by another server. If that is deliberate, or a way to compensate for the seemingly overwhelmed service team, I am not sure. It just lacked some of the personal attention I thought, given the greater-than-cafeteria setting, I assumed they would want to follow through with a higher degree of performance.

True Singapore Cuisine? Perhaps, but diluted a bit in terms of the wide range that you can get on the peninsula, but that can’t be helped as the menu does have to take into account many factors. Such as the availability (or lack of) many necessary ingredients, the need to condense things to a manageable level, while simultaneously trying to represent the country’s cooking in a single establishment. As such, I would have to rate Prima Taste as succeeding, though additional visits are required to confirm this by tasting other dishes, that I could only visually interpret by scanning nearby tables.

As a treat on the way home, we popped up to the food court of the H-Mart (Korean Grocery Store) located on the same side of the street as Prima Taste, and shared a patbingsu dessert. A refreshing combination of shaved ice and sweet azuki, topped with matcha ice cream, diced watermelon, mangoes, and kiwis; perfect for this hot summer day.

Prima Taste Restaurant
570 Robson Street (corner of Robson and Seymour)
Vancouver, BC
Tel: 604-685-7881
Hours: Mon-Thu, 11:30am to 2:30pm & 5pm to 10pm; Fri, 11:30am to 10pm; Sat, 12pm to 10pm; Sun, 12pm to 9pm

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