Lucky Noodle – Vancouver, BC


Lucky Noodle
3-3377 Kingsway
Vancouver, BC
(604) 430-8818

The recent influx of Mainland Chinese has brought over more than just an increase in our real estate prices – they have also imported a taste for spicy Chinese food that until fairly recently, was relatively foreign to Vancouver. As recent as three or four years ago, I recall thinking how precious few places served authentic spicy Chinese food. And those that did specialize in these cuisines are often cloaked Cantonese kitchens that catered to the milder Cantonese palate – serving food that would not have satisfied the Mainlanders’ spice cravings. Over the recent years, with the increasing immigration of these “Northerners”,  the number of spicy Chinese restaurants has been steadily increasing to the point where I think we now have enough of a selection to have a solid week-to-week rotation of places to eat.

I still think we don’t have an exemplary Sichuan restaurant (especially after losing a very good one in Chuan Xiang Ge in Richmond), but I think we have Yunan covered (S&W Pepperhouse in Crystal Mall and their less able branch in Richmond), and we now have two very good Hunan joints to choose from: Alvin Garden (Burnaby) and Lucky Noodle (Collingwood).

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Hot Lady Hotpot – Richmond, BC


Hot Lady Hotpot
#1185 – 8580 Alexandra Road
Richmond, BC
(604) 303-0086

I need to get this preamble out of the way first…This restaurant does not have an official English name. The banner in front reads 麻辣妞妞火鍋專門店. Urbanspoon translates these characters (perhaps via a contributor) to mean “Hot Lady Hotpot”. My Chinese friend prefers to call this place “Spice Girls Hotpot”.

The characters 麻辣 translate to “ma la” or “numbing and hot “, the signature spicy Sichuan flavour  combination. The next two characters 妞妞 “niu niu” both stand for “little girl”. The next two characters 火鍋 are “hotpot”. Finally the characters 專門 mean “specialist” and 店 means “inn” or even “place.”  So…this restaurant tis called “Hot and Numbing Little Girls Hotpot Specialist Place.” Hmm…

I think I’ll stick to “Spice Girls Hotpot” – Urbanspoon bedamned.

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Kalvin’s – Vancouver, BC


Kalvin’s Szechuan
5225 Victoria Dr
Vancouver, BC
(604) 321-2888

As far as Food Trends go, Pork is an odd duck. After many years (even decades) of virtual banishment from many restaurant menus, this “other white meat” has surged with a vengeance. Pork Belly Anything, Pulled Pork on Anything, and Bacon Anything is all the rage in restaurants from casual breakfast joints, all the way to fine dining establishments. It is getting quite tiresome to be honest. The Chinese diner, insulated and bemused by these strange Western trends, have never shied away from this beautiful meat. Kalvin’s – a relatively unsung Chinese restaurant on the East Side of Vancouver serves two of the finest examples of Pork dishes in town.

Kalvin’s Szechuan, is a Taiwanese-run restaurant that specializes in Sichuan cuisine by way of Taiwan. Taiwan became an incubator for Sichuan-Taiwanese cuisine when the civil war forced the defeated Chinese nationalists to retreat to the island of Taiwan and declare the Republic of China (Taiwan) as a sole governing authority over all of China. The connection to Sichuan (and thus its cuisine) is a primarily symbolic and spiritual one as Sichuan province was the last stronghold of the Republican forces and the last to fall to the Communist troops. Chongqing (in Sichuan province) was also the home base of Chiang Kai-Shek’s Republic for many years.  The two dishes examined here, however, are not Sichuan in nature – they both probably originate from other parts of China. We will have a look at the Sichuan inspired dishes here in a later post.

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Bushuair – Richmond, BC


Bushuair
121-4600 No 3 Road
Richmond, BC
(604) 285-3668

Those who are familiar with Bushuair know that it is infamous for two things: its many names (it has been called Gordon Park, Aroma Garden, the Xiangcai Museum/Pavilion, and now finally Bushuair); and its menu is peppered with hilariously endearing Chinese to English mistranslations.

Hunan cuisine will probably never attain the level of acceptance of Sichuan food in this part of the world. Hunan and Sichuan share some similarities – they are both known to be spicy cuisines that rely on the chili pepper for much of their flavour profiles. Hunan cuisine is more assertive in its use of chilies. Hunan cooks use fresh and pickled chilies about as much as dried. One type of Hunan dried chili – Hunan White Chili is particularly incendiary in the Scoville scale of chili pepper heat. It is this heat – which can go on unabated throughout the meal – that provides a challenge for the prevailing Cantonese palate here. Sichuan cuisine has the potential to reach this level of spiciness, but more often than not, the dishes are mitigated by a a balance of sweetness and spiciness…and most importantly of ma la – or the numbing heat introduced by Sichuan peppercorn. (The Sichuan peppercorns provide an antidote to the chili pepper’s capsaicin.)

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Lucky Strike – Portland, OR


Lucky Strike
3862 Southeast Hawthorne Boulevard
Portland, OR 97214
(503) 206-8292

I’ve always been more than a bit suspicious of Chinese restaurants whose appearance doesn’t scream “Chinese,” – meaning the divey dumpling joint with specials written on the walls only in Chinese characters or the slightly-tacky upscale Cantonese seafood palace/aquarium – as if compromise in decor suggests similar in the kitchen.  Lucky Strike is a Sichuan restaurant with an unfortunate name and a decor which screams “Portland” despite the Chinese theme. Portland oozes hip from seemingly every pore, and no number of dragons is sufficient as camoflage.  Countering my normal skepticism were a number of strong reports of real Sichuan food.

Balance is certainly one of the hallmarks of great food no matter what price point or region.  Cantonese food seems to balance the sublest flavors like a game of Jenga in a windstorm – the smallest wrong move and the whole thing comes tumbling down. Sichuan food balances flavor Jenga blocks the size of entire buildings, with flavors almost bigger in scale than appropriate for humans. It’s no wonder that some Sichuanese (apocryphally?) wonder why all other cuisines taste so bland.  Two of the key flavors are ma, usually translated as “numbing” but to me has a strong hint of “tingling” as well, and la or spicy/hot. The former comes from huajiao or Sichuan peppercorn (among a whole list of names).

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Golden Spring – Richmond, BC


Golden Spring Restaurant
Suite 160
4200 No. 3 Rd
Richmond, BC

Golden Spring Szechuan Restaurant on Urbanspoon

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Sichuan food is a bit of an obsession for me. My introduction to this cuisine was not in China, but here in Vancouver at a popular restaurant on the East Side called Szechuan Chongqing many years ago. The first time my parents took us to this restaurant’s original location, I instantly fell in love with the robust flavours and the fierce heat of the food they served. Over the years, this place became a regular spot for our family. We would meet there at least once a month when we were attending university.

It was not until much later when I came to realize that the food I had been enjoying at Szechuan Chongqing bore only a passing resemblance to the cuisine of Sichuan Province in China. What we have been eating was Sichuan  food that evolved in a parallel universe far from its roots.  It is a hybrid of the common “Chinese-Canadian” cuisine with some sort of distant interpretation of Sichuan cuisine. The “Szechuan” dishes that we are most familiar (for example, Orange Peel Beef, Ginger Beef, etc) are very different or is non-existent back in China.

For many years, the real deal was hard to come by in the Vancouver  area where the Chinese food was dominated by Cantonese – and to a much lesser extent – Shanghainese cuisine. Trudeau-era immigration policies and Expo 86 were largely responsible for this predominance. This second-wave influx of  Chinese immigrants (mainly from Hong Kong) elevated the level of Chinese-Cantonese cuisine here. This area has been long famous for having some of the best Cantonese-Chinese food in North America (and some say the world).

As Chinese immigration patterns changed over the last decade, the prospects for Chinese cuisine from other parts of China improved. In Richmond BC, Vancouver’s  Chinese ethno-burb, the changes became slowly apparent. More and more, you started to hear Mandarin and other Chinese dialects being spoken by restaurant staff (instead of the ubiquitous Cantonese). Nowadays this area is blessed with some of the best Regional Chinese food anywhere.

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Golden Spring Restaurant in in the epicenter of one of the best areas to eat in the Lower Mainland – just off the soon to be completed Aberdeen Centre Skytrain Station. I have dined here a number of times now, and I still have barely touched the surface of its extensive and uncompromisingly Sichuan menu. Its menu has many of the Sichuan region’s favourite dishes and a number of unusual sounding dishes that use ingredients unfamiliar to me.

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Today, I ordered fairly conservatively as I was feeling considerate for my rather unadventurous dining companion. We had the Tofu and Century Egg appetizer which not necessarily a Sichuan dish, but I thought it would act as a nice mild counterpart for the more spicy dishes up ahead. It was drizzled with a pleasant, subtly-sweet sesame-oil and chili-oil dressing.

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Century Egg is one of my favourite ingredients (I have it often with congee) so I thought I’d post a gratuitous macro closeup here.

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The Water Convulvus stir fry was simply prepared with dried Sichuan chilies. It was not as spicy as I have had it in the past (dried chili is notoriously unpredictable that way).

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The Twice-Cooked Pork is a dish I often order at Sichuan restaurants. The Twice-Cooking technique involves slow poaching of pork belly or ribs in a flavoured broth. The resultant poached meat is sliced thinly and then wok fried with vegetables and aromatics — fermented Broad Bean Paste, Chile,  and Sichuan peppercorn. This was a very good rendition which included Chinese Leek and firm Tofu.

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I had ordered a Smoked Pork with Garlic Shoots, but we were presented with Slivered Pork with Garlic Shoots instead. No worries, it was good, but I was really looking forward to the other dish. I will make sure to point to the right item on the menu next time. This was not the first time I had experienced a miscommunication due to the language barrier here.

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Finally, Dan Dan Mian (or “Tan Tan Noodles”). The menu listed two types for Dan Dan Mian…one is labeled “Authentic Dan Dan Mian.” Once again, I believe there was a misunderstanding. The last time I was here, I recall that their “Authentic” version is dressed in a “proper” Chili-oil and Sichuan peppercorn-based dressing. This one uses dark sesame paste in its sauce with peanuts and the requisite ground Sichuan peppercorn (an elemental ingredient in Sichuan cuisine.)

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This particular rendition is a common preparation in Sichuan Province (in Chengdu in particular). It is not the most common preparation type of Dan Dan (the version with the Chili-oil dressing is the most common). It was good, so I’m not really complaining.

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Despite the recurring language-based service issues I experience on this day (and on previous visits), I will continue to patronize this restaurant. The food is good and authentic and its menu still still an unexplored frontier to me. This place seems to fly under the radar for some reason….but if you are ever in Richmond and you like Sichuan cuisine, give this place a shot.

Golden Spring Szechuan Restaurant 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


Ginger and Chili on Urbanspoon