by Claire Lassam | Having spent many years working late nights in Vancouver kitchens, it would follow that I’d be pretty familiar with the venerable institution that is The Gyoza King. I’ve succumbed to its pull many, many times. The food is good and simple enough for tired kitchen staff, the booze is cheap, and it’s open late. “The King” is a wonderful staple, but it only recently occurred to me that I’d never eaten there before midnight. Nor had I ever eaten there sober.
It wasn’t what I was hoping for. The prawn stuffing was chewy, overcooked and a little fishy-tasting, and the pork was under-seasoned (although the sauce was good). It was not the epic gyoza I had been hoping for, the ones I’d often looked forward to on late, boozy nights of yore.
So with Gyoza King not living up to my expectations, I had a new mission: find a suitable replacement. I started in East Van, near my home on The Drive. The closest to me was Kishimoto Izakaya, but their’s were too bland. I moved on to Toshi’s (on Main), but found their sauce nowhere near acidic enough. And so I returned to the West End, where within just a few short blocks at the base of Robson there have got to be at least a couple dozen izakayas and ramen joints. One among them had to offer perfect Japanese dumplings!
I found some wonderful ones at Hapa Izakaya; stuffed with pork, wrapped in lotus root, and tempura-ed so they were crunchy and flavourful. They were, however, hardly traditional, so I headed across the street to the cult-like Santouka, hoping it might be the restaurant I was looking for (1690 Robson). That it was incredibly crowded boded well, as did the fact that I was the only non-Japanese person in the room. With everyone yelling, slurping, and chewing around me, I felt confident that I’d come to the right spot on just my fourth go.
It turned out that I had. Santouka’s gyozas came with a trio of sauce dispensers so I could mix my own, which I loved (you can take the cook out of the kitchen…). The dumplings themselves were meltingly tender but for their undersides, which had been pan-fried to perfection (the sesame oil still bubbling on the surface upon delivery). The fillings were mild, as Japanese food so often is, and seasoned gently but evenly with ginger, garlic and chives. These were the real deal.
By the time we’d devoured our fill of them and drank ourselves a little silly with sake, the line up that had been 5 bodies long when we’d arrived was now closer to 15 deep, all with eager faces betraying a shared thought: what we’re waiting for is worth it.
Claire Lassam is a baker, blogger, and freelance writer based in East Van. She has been cooking and baking her way through the city for nearly five years, working in restaurants ranging from Cioppino’s to Meat & Bread. She currently toils at Beta 5 Chocolates and runs the baking blog Just Something Pretty.