Never Heard Of It is a collection of reviews of the countless and often extraordinary hole-in-the-wall restaurants of the Lower Mainland that don’t get anywhere near the attention they deserve. Explore the NHOI archive here.
Go way back into Vancouver’s collective culinary memory. Way back. Before the Olympics. Before Expo. Beyond the 80’s. Past the 70’s. And now go back even further. If you were alive then, say in the 1960’s, try to remember what the Chinese food was like.
My, how things have changed.
During the run up to the transfer of Hong Kong sovereignty in 1997, the Lower Mainland saw a large influx of Hong Kongers moving themselves and/or their families to this city as a hedge against (then) imagined restrictions on capitalism and democracy by Beijing. (Their fears weren’t completely unfounded, as it turns out). In one year alone (1994), over 16,000 Hong Kongers emigrated to the Lower Mainland. Our dining scene has fundamentally changed as a delicious consequence.
It all happened very quickly, with a lighter, more cosmopolitan HK palate driving the ride. Shiny new restaurants – patronized and financed by the affluent newcomers – offered more modern takes on Chinese food than we’d ever seen. Before then, our Chinese food experiences could be traced back to the days of the Gold Rush with few injections of modernity along the way. Think “chop suey”, “wor wonton soup”, and “egg foo young” — all the dishes you ate when you and your family visited Chinatown. To a surprising many Vancouverites, that’s what “Chinese food” still is.
We are fortunate to have a small handful of restaurants still serving pre-Hong Kong handover Chinese food that are worthy of our attention. One of these is the venerable Koon Bo Seafood Restaurant on Fraser Street. It’s a snapshot of what “Chinese Food” used to be in Vancouver.
It’s not easy, of course, to define what that means. Koon Bo isn’t a “dim sum” joint and, despite the suffix, I wouldn’t call it a “seafood” house either. Nor is it the “chop suey” sort of spot that panders to western palates. Instead, it serves the food our Chinese compatriots would have actually paid to eat back in the day. Some of the dishes it serves aren’t exactly traditional, but many are. (Dedicated foodies might find reference to some of these dishes in Yan-Kit So’s classic cookbooks on southern Chinese cuisine).
Koon Bo’s signature dish is their Chinese Chicken Salad – a staple of potlucks in the 60’s and 70’s. They serve it here with strips of jellyfish and an irresistible house-made sweet pickle (“shredded chicken and fried wonton salad”, $15.95). Also of note is their sweet and sour pork, which is often inaccurately decried as an “inauthentic”, westernized dish. You will also find familiar favourites like chow mein and wonton soup (among others).
The best stuff, however, is in the “Chef’s Special” section. Aim for these: stir-fry with beef and young ginger ($15.95); honey garlic pork and deep-fried pepah tofu (which are shaped like “pepah”, a Chinese lute, $14.50); beef with young ginger ($15.95); Winter Melon Soup ($16.95); and honey garlic beef with walnuts ($17.50). They also plate some of the best deep fried squab in the Lower Mainland (pre-order, market price). For dessert, there are two finishers that haters of Chinese desserts might actually enjoy: ginger milk ($3.50 each) and the sago pudding ($14.95).
Koon Bo is best experienced in a larger group – say, six to eight diners – but if you are dining alone or with one other person you may want to partake in the comforts of the truly old school stuff like egg foo young ($15.95), lemon chicken ($15.50), and crispy chow mein ($16.95). All blasts from a tasty past.