4850 Imperial St.
Alvin Garden is not the best name for this place. The name “Alvin” reminds me of chipmunks. I much prefer this restaurant’s former name — “The Xiang”…it is far more evocative. Xiang (“Xiangjiang”) is the name of the major river that runs through the Hunan province and flows into Lake Dongting. (The more famous Yangtze River also flows into that lake).
Alvin Garden has actually gone through two resurrections in the last few years. It is really a reincarnation of Crystal Hunan formerly located on Kingsway not too far from this new location.
The menu at Alvin Garden is unapologetically Hunan in composition. There are over a hundred dishes to try and nearly all of them are rustic Hunan dishes. Hunan cuisine is a rare beast in this part of the world which is dominated by the familiar Hong Kong inflected Cantonese cuisine. Alvin Garden is one of only three truly Hunan restaurants in this region that I know about. I have not yet been to the other two: Hu’s Hu Nan in Vancouver, and Gordon Park in Richmond. I have heard good things about them and I am looking forward to trying them out.
Hunan cuisine is fiery hot…with sourness, chili heat, and smokiness dominating the flavour profile. Many dishes use pickled Hunan pepper and smoked meats similar to Western bacon and ham. The hotter dishes initially pummel you with the quick acting sour heat which, to the relief of the diner, subsides quickly as you keep eating. After a while, all you feel is sort of chile-induced euphoria.
I have noted the use of Sichuan peppercorns and a few nods to Sichuan cuisine in a couple of dishes. This should not be entirely surprising since Sichuan province is right next door. The use of Sichuan peppercorns (an essential ingredient in Sichuan cuisine) is relatively rare and is reserved for only a couple of Hunan dishes. The Hunanese find the flavour of the peppercorn obtrusive.
I truly think that this place is a real treasure and thus I have been patronizing this restaurant’s various incarnations over the years. Often I am dining alone or with one other companion….which comes with some obvious disadvantages. Like in many fine Chinese restuarants, Alvin Garden’s/Xiang’s/Crystal’s best dishes come in banquet sized servings. In some of my past visits I would often compromise and order smaller and perhaps less interesting dishes….or when I know I am on my way home, I would deliberately over-order with leftovers in mind. This particular strategy raises a few eyebrows from the server and the neighboring diners as dish after dish would arrive at a table of one…I have learned to not be embarrassed.
When some Vancouver denizens of the online forum Chowhound chose this place as the next Chowdown, I was ecstatic. Finally I would be have a full dining experience there. So the other night, nine Vancouver area Chowhounds converged at Alvin Garden for an evening of dining, and convivial discussions about food. One of the attendees is a notable expert in Chinese cuisine here in town and it was great to hear his take on the food here.
We ordered eleven dishes. I’ll try to recount as many as I can remember: the Dongting Chili Soup Fish (Tilapia); Five-Spice Pork Heart; Lamb with Pepper, & Cumin; Beef with Pickled Pepper; Dried Tofu Skin & Chinese Celery; Potato Shreds in Chili Oil Dressing; Hunan Braised Pork; Fried Pork & Green Beans with Chilies; Hunan Bacon with Garlic Stems, Hunan Smoked Duck; and Home-Style Tofu.
My favorite dishes were the Hunan Bacon with Garlic Stems, the Chili Soup Fish, The Five Spice Pork Heart….but all dishes were great, really. None of the dishes suffered from the typical murkiness you would too often find in Hunan dishes cooked at Cantonese restaurants. Cantonese cooks employ certain techniques that do not complement Hunan cuisine – for example, they would often augment their dishes with a master stock instilling a certain “sameness” and lack of clarity to a Hunan dish. (The context is different – those techniques work for Cantonese food where the fresh flavours of the main ingredients are meant to stand out) Here, the flavours were clean, distinct, bright and bold. Each dish stood on its own and yet complemented each other.
All told…we paid $20 per person (this includes the tip) – an amazing deal. I noted that the place was packed on this Tuesday night so business must be good. Great news to those of us who love Chinese regional cuisines.