Rice Bar – Vancouver, BC

Update – February 11, 2009

I passed by and noticed the signage had been replaced by a new one: Sun Sushi (Eat In and Take Out).  This makes it the fourth sushi place within a three block radius along this section of 10th Ave.


Original post – January 27, 2009

Rice Bar
4512 West 10th Ave
Vancouver, BC
(604) 222 8868

Rice Bar on Urbanspoon

Housed in a space that used to be a cozy, free Wi-Fi cafe known as Think!, the Rice Bar emerged in its place and is what could best be described as a Hong Kong-style cafeteria… minus the constant flow of customers and a packed room.  When I first saw the nameplate go up outside, there was a small part of me that was hoping that this would perhaps be something refreshing for this neighborhood – such as a specialty Japanese sake drinking establishment – given the ‘rice’ plus ‘bar’ naming.  But alas, it was not to be.

On the occasions that I’ve passed by this past year, I’ve rarely ever seen people inside, either eating in or ordering takeout.  I thought it would not be long before the place was re-invented by another business on this relatively secluded, very west side shopping street.  Surprisingly, I believe its been many months now since it opened, and recently I thought I would give it a chance to see what it had to offer but I was not expecting much…

“Order Here”, the sign on the counter clearly states.  Too bad there’s no human to take my order.  All I can hear is the sounds coming from the small tv screen on the back wall, I think it was some Chinese television drama, as well as the C-pop coming out from the wall speakers.  A shame that’s the only source of noise to be found.  If not for that, I think I could have heard crickets.

After a few minutes, a person appeared and I was able to place my order.  I had hoped to get the Pork Ribs that I had heard a little about, but alas they were out.  Strange, it was still the early evening and had already run out.  In its place, I decided to go with what I thought would be a fairly safe bet in the BBQ Pork.  I know there are those who like it to be fattier, or perhaps a mix of lean and fat, but I prefer the healthier variety and find that the BBQ flavor is retained better in the leaner cuts.   I was asked for my decision on the sauce I wanted with it, and opted for a soy-based one thinking it was the most natural fit with the flavor of the pork.  As you might be able to tell from the image above, it was a simple few spoonfuls that was put on the rice, which the pork covered up.  It did nothing for amping up the taste profile.

The Chicken Wings I ordered thinking that I would easily get sick of the BBQ Pork after a few slices.  And at these prices (both under six dollars), I thought having a double dip wouldn’t be hard on the wallet.  The wings were really crispy, and had a nice salty and textured coating that I enjoyed.  I’m not sure exactly what else was in the breading but it did have some other flavor properties that you don’t get in western-style chicken wings.  I could have easily gone for another batch of three, and they could have deleted the rice.  I preferred these less greasy wings, compared to the ones I had at Wo Fung.  I’d come back for these.

Speaking of the rice, in both containers, it was pretty bland and really dried out.  I know this is more Chinese style, but I find it so lacking in flavor that I hardly eat any of it as I think its more suited for fried rice.  And the minuscule drops of “sauce” with the BBQ Pork didn’t help in this regard.  Each “main” came with the choice of a soup, salad or dessert.  I elected the bamboo shoot soup with both, as the salad would have been a boring mixed greens and I am not a big fan of Asian desserts.  The soup upon opening the lid, I thought would have a sour element, but it had none at all.  It was nothing more than average and very lukewarm by the time I got back home.

The Rice Bar has dedicated so much of its area to seating.  Tables with chairs, a counter with stools that lines one wall, another seating area by the front window, etc.  Its sad that there is no one to use them.  I am not sure what else they could do with all this space however, as their counters are already a pretty good size, and its not equipped to handle the actual cooking stations (which are in the back room).  I wouldn’t want to be the owner of this problem…

Any of you turn right around out the door after entering a restaurant that is dead empty?

And do really quiet places make you always choose to take out when you could just as easily eat-in?

Rice Bar on Urbanspoon

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!

Ramen Santouka – Quarry Bay, HK

Ramen Santouka – Hong Kong branch
1F, JUSCO Kornhill Store
Kornhill Plaza (South), 2 Kornhill Road
Quarry Bay, Hong Kong
+852 2967 4044

Now if you are at all familiar, you know that authentic Japanese ramen in Hong Kong is hard to come by, even in that food crazed place. Amid all those miserable, wannabe places serving up their Hong Kong-interpretations of the dish, many of them with weak, one-dimensional broths that are always dreadfully lukewarm (why is that?!?!), you will appreciate Ramen Santouka coming into this market and straightening things out before the perception of ramen in SE Asia hits rock bottom. In essence, I am looking at Santouka as the guardian of ramen in this part of the world with their recent entries (July 2008 – Hong Kong; January 2008 – Singapore), and appreciate their efforts in this culinary fight against more poor “copies” out of China.

With their humble beginnings in Asahikawa, located in the upper part of the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido, Ramen Santouka began as a simple nine-seat shop in the spring of 1998. The proprietor started out the business with a basic premise – to serve the best ramen he could to his family – I know, it sounds like something out of that cult classic flick “Tampopo“. They further built upon this motto by striving to achieve what they call a ramen that “is easy to understand, and that can be eaten many times over the years and you won’t tire of”. With this simple start, an capitalizing on the popular boom in shio-tonkotsu ramen, the Santouka empire has grown over the past twenty years into what is fast becoming an expanding global operation – as along with its 44 outlets spread throughout Japan, it now boasts 8 overseas branches (6 in the United States, 1 in Singapore and 1 now in Hong Kong). I’d say they have achieved their early goals.

Having been familiar with Santouka’s offerings from eating at their Shibuya and Shimokitazawa locations in Tokyo over the years, I was pleased that my recent visit to Hong Kong enabled me to sample it in their latest overseas venture. With the extreme popularity of the JUSCO hypermarket (run by the Japanese AEON group), I immediately learned that Santouka will not have any issues with foot traffic. I believe in America, they have followed the same strategy by placing their outlets within existing Japanese food/cuisine-friendly confines such as shopping centres catering to the local Japanese community, etc.  As you fight through the hoards of traffic, the moment you enter the main doors and walk down the steps to the first floor, you run smack dab into the window display and entrance way of Santouka. Their distinct noren, complete with their trademark backwards spelling of their name is retained, along with some supporting flags bearing the same characters.

Nearby are other notable Japanese shops that have been transplanted here, selling sweets, desserts, etc. but Santouka clearly garners most of the attention here. An impromptu waiting area made up of about twenty stools closed off by a taped-off series of poles, try to prevent waiting customers from getting in the way of the people headed to the supermarket section of JUSCO. On this day, the seats were all occupied as I arrived on the early Saturday afternoon (regular business hours are 11am to 10pm with last order called at 9:30pm), causing one staff member to come outside and pass out menu booklets to give those waiting a chance to see what could be had inside and also pre-order.

A smart strategy, as it not only built up the anticipation but also helped give the hurried kitchen a chance to know what was coming. For those in a rush and unable to wait, on the other side of the place was a take away window, though only ramen dishes were available. I am not sure if they put the soup and noodles in separate containers for this, but wonder why anyone would want to eat ramen as take away, as for me part of the experience is eating inside a ramen-ya.  You would think that non-ramen dishes would be better suited for take away, but hey that’s just me.

As I was more interested in catching up with an old friend who had come down from Guongzhou just to see me on my trip, I didn’t really catch much of what was going on around me – though I did feel the tables were fairly closely put together (resulting in plenty of stares when I whipped out the camera from my bag and started shooting away). After about a twenty minute wait after being seated inside, our meals arrived. With the last of the late-summer heat still present outside, I elected to go with the Tsukemen (cold noodles, with the hot broth used as a dipping sauce), and an Ikuradon to add more volume as I was feeling quite hungry.

The noodles were of a thicker variety (as you get in their Japan outlets), perfect for this dish as the broth clung beautifully to it, probably aided by the difference in temperature between the soup and the noodles. The tonkotsu-shoyu soup was as bold, fragrant and teetering on the delicate line between sweet tones (from the vegetables and sanma used in making the broth) and savory as I remembered it. Inside was a boiled egg, menma, onions, nori, and chashu. For some people, I could see them saying that this is on the salty side, but for me, who prefers stronger flavors, it suited me just fine. It is always so nice though, to find that even after several years, and in a different country to boot, that the memories I had of the soup were intact and well represented by the Hong Kong branch.

The second component of my meal, the Ikuradon, was nothing special. The rice was a tad undercooked (or had dried out from sitting in the bowl during prep), but the ikura itself was fresh and full of that tantalizing pop when you bit into each morsel. For its small size, it was just right in terms of adding some more volume to the combination meal. I think others around us had not seen many people eating a ramen bowl and a rice dish together, as I got some inquisitive looks (and this was after my camera was put away).

The challenge in making sure an original dish is duplicated successfully by the same food operation is critical in any expansion plans. For without it, you will run into those customers who know the basic offering and compare it negatively to any offspring and say that its not the same. That alone will end your path to business growth. Not to mention the countless other first time customers who will come away saying that it is not good, without even knowing the rich history and taste properties of the main menu items that exist at the home base. I suppose whenever I visit a branch outlet of a personal favorite/well known restaurant, I am reminded of a quote from Michael Jordan that went something to the effect of “I play hard every game and give it my all, because there will always be someone out there in the crowd who is seeing me for the very first time”.

I think food and restaurants should hold that same standard, if they are courageous enough to operate and even more so, when they are actively growing their operations organically and taking steps out of their home base (or country for that matter), for many will have an impression built up in their minds of the original and demand it, time and time again. Santouka has succeeded in this regard in my opinion, bringing to Hong Kong a solid ramen selection, that is on par with what you get in their Japan-based outlets.  Job well done!