by Andrew Morrison | Amidst all the new development in Chinatown it’s especially noteworthy when an existing building gets a new lease on life. Case in point: 550 Main Street. This address was most recently the headquarters of Green party candidate Pete Fry, but before that it was – for as long as I can remember – home to Ten Ren Tea & Ginseng Company. There are studios upstairs in what used to be the Park Lock Seafood Restaurant. In the 1960s, it was the legendary New Delhi Cabaret, a live music, striptease, booze-in-a-brown-bag joint in the 1960s. Cheech & Chong’s Tommy Chong used to play in a band that did regular sets there and – amazingly – LaWanda Page, aka “Aunt Esther” from the 70s TV show Sanford & Sons, used to do a dance act there that involved live flame. She was known as the Bronze Goddess of Fire (which explains Chong’s t-shirt in this famous photo).
But I digress. The main floor space has been picked up by young, first-time restaurateur David Wu, who in the first stages of building a new eatery there called Rhinofish. The concept focuses on a Taiwanese street vendor mainstay: beef noodle soup, or niu rou mian. If you’re unfamiliar with the stuff, it’s basically a big bowl of egg noodles in a complex, salty, super aromatic broth loaded with pickled greens and wine-braised beef (typically shank). Think of it as a sort of Taiwanese cross between ramen and bourguignon — a restorative indulgence, to say the least. (It + cold + rain = win.) My go-to version is at Dinesty on Robson Street, but the best I’m aware of is out in Burnaby at Lao Shan Dong.
The 45 seater will launch this winter with a focus on at least four different versions of the soup. Wu wants to keep the menu short for quality control, but in all honesty four is already pretty ambitious — a good sign. There will be several side dishes and snacks as well, but Rhinofish will be a noodle bar first and foremost. Wu was born and raised in Taiwan to a family of food-lovers, and he speaks of his project with passion and confidence. “There is no single classic niu rou mian recipe,” he says. “What’s considered ‘traditional’ is the way in which your own mother makes it.”
He told me stories of his Dad taking him out for noodles when he was a kid. You can tell it’s very personal — you know his Mom is totally on board. At 28 years old, Wu struck me as a wise, eye-wide-open kind of guy. “You have to go for it when you’re young,” he explained sagely. He’s no stranger to the trade, of course. His first kitchen job was working for a street vendor in Chunghua, his home town. He’s been cooking at Miku for the past year. It’s not always easy to recognize industry lifers in their 20s, but this one is obviously ensnared.
The fellas from Milltown are already eye-high in construction, as you can see from the shots below. These guys do fantastic jobs with contracting (see Grapes & Soda, Au Comptoir, Wildebeest), but what I’m especially keen to see is the design by Scott & Scott Architects. This is the duo that gave us the very attractive Bestie, Kin Kao and Torafuku restaurants, so I trust it’ll be the most stylish niu rou mian purveyor in Vancouver, if not the world. Expect plenty of wood, leather, brushed steel, and an open kitchen bar.
What’s in a name? While there is a Pacific species of scorpionfish colloquially referred to as a ‘rhinofish’ (off. rhinopias), Wu is employing it more as a symbolic compound here: “A rhino symbolizes courage, which I need to do this,” he explained, reminding me that this was his first business. “A fish, meanwhile, is adaptable and flexible, two things I’ll also need to be,” he continued. No kidding! He also sees the duality of the terrestrial and aquatic worlds as a reflection of Vancouver and Taiwan, which to him constitute two equally different realms.
Nomenclature aside, I’m really looking forward to this project. Beyond the immediate satisfaction that comes with knowing that this particular corner isn’t going to be turned into same-same condos, there are few things in life more delicious than a well made Taiwanese beef noodle soup. To enjoy one in an environment that doesn’t feel like it was patched together with furnishings acquired at a failed fast food chain auction is an experience that has likely escaped us all to date, and so we wait, chopsticks at the ready.