by Ken Tsui | Tucked between the Radisson Hotel and T&T Supermarket in Richmond, the food court at the Presidential Plaza feels like a complete afterthought of a space and yet food stalls like O’ Tray Noodle keep it bustling all day.
O’ Tray’s claims to fame are a pair of archetypal breakfast street foods from Tianjin: a wrap (jianbing guo zi) and a tofu pudding soup (daofunao). They are two uniquely regional breakfast specialties. The satisfying and addictive wrap sees cracked egg, crispy fried wafer, bean paste, cilantro, chili sauce and scallion folded in a warm crepe. The soup sees tofu pudding in a savoury broth with bamboo, wood-ear fungus and a hint of chili heat. It’s a savoury departure from the southern Chinese dessert-style of tofu pudding – the same kind that one can get nearby at Excellent Tofu.
The two eateries are only a stone’s throw from each other, but they represent culinary traditions that are hundreds of miles apart from one another in China. Tianjin is a bustling northern metropolis, and the people there take their breakfast very seriously, devouring it all in a lively, ad hoc scene amidst folding tables and short plastic stools. You’d be hard-pressed to find that kind of energy here, but O’ Tray has the food down pat.
2285-8181 Cambie Rd | Richmond, BC | 604-267-0571 | No Website | Cash Only
by Ken Tsui | Comedian Chris Rock once famously quipped that “after you have Popeyes, you need one of those ‘Men in Black’ memory sticks to erase your memory or else you will just keep coming back to this place every day.” I feel the same way about LA Chicken. Really, the only thing stopping me from a daily visit is the fact that it’s located in a banal strip mall buried deep in Richmond. They follow the fundamental of good fried chicken: a crispy exterior guarding a juicy, tender interior, all without being too greasy. A two piece supper complete with fries, salad, and “down home” gravy is just $10. Bonus: onion chips, McCain cake, and sun-bleached fast food decor from the 1980s.
LA Chicken | 11780 Thorpe Road | Richmond, BC | 604-278-4737 No Website
by Ken Tsui | “It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” says Sundance award-winning filmmaker Julia Kwan about her new documentary, Everything Will Be. Playing at this year’s Vancouver International Film Festival, the film focuses on the past 3 years of Vancouver’s evolving Chinatown and the diverse collage of people who now call it home.
Julia grew up in Chinatown. Her parents found work folding linens at the Keefer Laundry and waiting tables at restaurants like Foo Ho Ho. “My mother was always nervous outside of Chinatown,” Julia lamented, “but put her in Chinatown and she’s in her element.” She remembers the strong sense of community when her family hopped from grocer to grocer on the weekends, shopping for provisions and running into friends along the way.
For Julia, the transformation of her childhood Chinatown is a personal ache; where the film’s inspiration finds its ignition. The documentary is a time capsule; it’s a process piece that studies the pivot when tradition meets change.
Julia was drawn by the resilience of the people in her neighbourhood, but she also acknowledges that her film captures the end of an era for Chinatown’s traditional shop culture. Some of the businesses featured in the documentary have already closed, even before the film’s release. “I really wanted to document the shifts in these people’s lives”, she says. “I wanted it to be an immersive experience and give people a feeling like they’ve been sitting on a stoop in Chinatown.”
Everything Will Be moves beyond the streets and gives the audience a unique look within the guarded cultural enclaves of Chinatown. The access and requisite trust didn’t come easy. Local Chinese herbalist Mr. Lai, whose storefront sits on East Hastings, initially refused to be featured in the film. And there were others, too. They were afraid that “it would effect their livelihood”, Julia recalls. Even the decision to hire Mr. Lai’s own daughter to work on the documentary didn’t sway him. It took more tenacity, not to mention months, but Mr. Lai finally agreed to let Julia document him and his business. “That’s the difference between fiction and documentary,” Julia says. “I feel like I’m constantly begging and asking for more.” The process was ultimately rewarding, and not only for the sake of the film. Genuine friendships have bloomed as a result.
The film also challenged Julia to work outside her comfort zone. She learned to relinquish control as a director and to recognize that amazing things happen if you are open to them. Throughout the film-making process, Julia learned how to better recognize authentic moments that will speak volumes in what audiences will surely view as an elegiac snapshot of the collective memory and legacy of Vancouver’s Chinatown.
Everything Will Be screens at the Vancouver International Film Festival September 29th, October 1st and October 3rd.
by Ken Tsui | In the midst of preparing for another busy night at Main Street’s Burdock & Co., the kitchen crew are working on hiyashi chuka, a chilled noodle salad and a Japanese mainstay on hot summer days.
Chef Alden Ong takes the lead, working on the salad’s dressing. As Chef Gabe Meyer begins working on the vegetables for the salad, she jokes around, saying that Ong is known around these parts as ‘the marinade master’. It’s easy to see why as he starts frying up some spices to make a flavoured oil. While he lets the oil steep, he begins making the sauce. With a dash of soy, a healthy pouring of rice vinegar, a spoonful of miso and a little bit of tahini, the dressing comes together quickly as he tastes and adjusts. Arman Roland-Khosravi, a young gun of 16, works behind Alden balancing between cooking the ramen and putting together a frittata. The crew understands that the egg is an essential topping for a good bowl of hiyashi chuka.
All the vegetables, noodles and dressing converge in one big, silver bowl. Chef and co-owner Andrea Carlson arrives just in time to set out the plates as Arman tosses the noodles in the dressing, raising the tongs well over his head to mix it through. Despite the giant bowl filled with salad, it all disappears as quickly and effortlessly as it was all made.
by Ken Tsui | Tofu gets a bad rap for being bland but Excellent Tofu & Snack is all about changing those expectations with clean and refreshing flavours.
The Richmond counter-service joint is dedicated to skating to one song and one song only: doufu fa, or tofu pudding. It’s a soft, delicate snack served in many guises across China; a blank canvas, really, one that can be served savoury, spicy, sweet, hot, or cold depending on what region of the country you’re in. Excellent Tofu makes theirs in-house and serves it in the Cantonese fashion, as a dessert (complete with optional condiment squirt bottles). I was raised eating it thusly, as a jiggly treat topped with either red bean or black sesame paste.
The bar here is always a popular spot for locals to escape the summer heat and a catbird seat for anyone interested in watching how they make the dessert. It’s also where you can find two essential squeeze bottles of ginger and clear syrup that are integral to adjusting how sweet you want your dessert to be.
4231 Hazelbridge Way, Richmond, BC | 604-232-0268 | ExcellentTofu.com
by Ken Tsui | In the dog days of summer, chef/co-owner Brian Skinner and the kitchen team at Main Street vegetarian mainstay The Acorn are sweating it out as they prepare for another busy night. But before it all goes down, the staff are banding together and keeping to the spirit of making great vegetarian food by tapping into Indian traditions, the O.G. of vegetarian cuisines.
This afternoon’s meal is an elaborate one. It’s a long list scrawled on paper and simply labelled “Indian Staff Meal”. It’s an involved feast with plenty of components that tasks each staffer with making some of the classics, among them raita, papadums, khadi, palak paneer, grilled apricot chutney, mango lassis, pickled eggplant salad and pakoras of zucchini and cauliflower.
Brian leads the charge, guiding the crew based on lessons learned during his time in London. Today, the palak paneer (pureed spinach with crisped Indian cheese) is his responsibility. As the team puts the finishing touches on their respective contributions, the mixture of heat and movement looks and feels like controlled chaos, making it hard to keep track of all the fragrant and colourful plates coming out of the kitchen.
Meanwhile, co-owner Shira Blustein is holding court in the dining area. As the food comes out, the team gathers around her table to feast. Before long, Brian himself gets to lean into the spread. “I have a feeling I’m going to overeat…”
by Ken Tsui | Mr. Red Cafe has only been open in Hastings-Sunrise neighbourhood for a few months now but it’s already being praised as a rare taste of what Northern Vietnamese cuisine has to offer. It starts with Pandan jasmine tea, which is served unsolicited as soon as diners sit, giving them a soothing first sip of the eatery’s approach to hospitality. It continues with dishes like xoi xeo ga (sticky rice with chicken pate) and their banh mi pate, a vietnamese sub loaded with meatloaf, cucumber, carrot and a healthy spread of chicken pate topped with crispy shallot.
The pho is also a great standby. They trade the flavour crutches like sugar and MSG for time, heat, and bones, and for a little extra zip to the broth, they replace the archetypal southern Vietnamese squeeze bottle of hoisin for an addictive rice vinegar steeped with chilies and garlic – a traditional northern Vietnamese condiment.
Rose, the incredibly sweet owner, works out front in the unassuming dining room. She loves to talk about the food her husband Hong cooks in the kitchen. The pair keep themselves busy by making everything in-house to ensure quality. From the chicken pate to the three different stocks they craft from scratch daily, they pride themselves in being purists who deliver the same authentic flavours found in the food stalls of Hanoi. It all combines for a place that always makes you feel welcome with honest cooking and genuine service from hands-on owners who are passionate about sharing their cultural roots through food. If you’d never heard of it until now, pay them a visit and enjoy.
Mr. Red Cafe | 2234 E. Hastings St. | Vancouver, BC | 604-710-9515 | No Website
by Ken Tsui | Before chefs Shelome Bouvette and Allison Flook kick-off another fully booked dinner service at Mount Pleasant’s Peruvian-inspired Chicha eatery, they step aside to make way for general manager Kumiko Umeno, who will be putting together the night’s staff meal with her mom, Sayuri, as back-up. Together, they’re making mizutake and freshly folded gyozas for the team.
Mizutake is a Japanese chicken noodle soup – a comforting classic and exactly what the team needs before a busy night. As the chicken gently simmers in a traditional dashi stock, Kumiko and Sayuri fold gyozas with Shelome, who jumps in to help. Everyone has a good laugh when the chef’s first few dumplings look more like pierogis than gyozas, but with a bit of coaching from Sayuri, Bouvette quickly gets the hang of it.
When the chicken is almost ready, Kumiko drops enoki, tofu, cabbage and daikon into the bubbling broth and gives it all a stir. As the soup comes back up to a simmer, Kumiko adds udon while Sayuri pan fries the fresh gyoza. As the udon and first batch of gyoza finish cooking, Kumiko mounds shaved daikon into each bowl, flavouring it with soy, yuzu and spicy togarashi before ladling the restorative soup over it all.
Kumiko brings it all out to the hungry crew, who patiently wait in the dining room. The gyozas are scooped up quickly but Sayuri has the motherly foresight to pack some away, “the crew is going to need a late night snack after service,” she says while closing the lid of the box with a smile.
by Ken Tsui | Persian eatery Zeitoon is well known on the North Shore for its delicious koobideh kebab. It’s a mixture of minced beef and spices hand-squeezed onto skewers (note the ridges) and broiled until perfectly juicy and tender. Sandwiched between fragrant flatbread with a light dusting of sumac and fresh basil, it makes for an especially flavourful series of bites. Besides this signature classic, you should also look out for the fesenjoon, a laboriously prepared stew of tart pomegranate and chicken, and the addictive tahdig. The latter is a rice dish that’s flavoured with saffron and toasted to a crisp (it literally means “bottom-of-the-pot”). It’s so good that I could easily see it snapping the Persian social etiquette of t’aarof (the repetitious cycle of hospitality involving a host’s offer and a guest’s rejection based on politeness). Once its on the table, all bets are off! Bonus: there’s a location 1795 Pendrell Street in the West End.
1615 Lonsdale Avenue | North Vancouver BC | zeitoonrestaurant.ca
by Ken Tsui | When I was a kid, my parents would regale me with mouth-watering tales of “siu yeh”, the Cantonese-style late night menu reserved for those who’d suffered through a night of heavy drinking or too many rounds of mahjong. Today, I can experience the real thing at Hou Lok in Richmond. It’s a late night snack destination (open till 4am) that typifies the magnificent night owl-friendly sub-genre that is as ubiquitous in Hong Kong as dim sum.
Hou Lok dishes up an impressive mix of small, affordable, shareable, and mostly wok-fried late night plates. These range from a variety of seafoods to offal galore. Unlike the sloppy slice of buckslice that you could rudely shove into your face while standing on a Granville Strip street corner, Hou Lok is a celebration of the salty and spicy flavours common to late night meals in Hong Kong.
The menu can be daunting to first timers (a double-sided laminate sheet of $5 options), but if you’re looking to jump in, go for the scrambled eggs with bitter melon or pickled turnip; clams in black bean sauce; fried roe-filled smelt; and pepper-salted whitebait. Go with friends and make sure to pair everything with a bowl of congee.
With its fluorescent lighting and rushed service, Hou Lok isn’t much for atmosphere, but they more than make up for it with authenticity.
Hou Lok Restaurant | 8231 Cambie Rd. | Richmond, BC | 604-279-8896 | No Website
by Ken Tsui | The first Sunday of the 3rd annual Food Cart Fest went down this past weekend. Located at 215 West 1st Ave (on the seawall just west of Olympic Village), the new summer tradition is anchored by a laager of 20 food carts dishing out their best. Diners will be happy to learn that the organisers added more seating and new activities this year. Lisa Giroday was on hand from Victory Gardens with her trowel, for example, hosting workshops, while Michael Unger – formerly of the Biltmore Ping Pong Club – was hosting several outdoor on multiple games. As always, there was music, plenty of people-watching, and – naturally – a deep selection of delicious foods. Take a look!
by Ken Tsui | After being closed for two days, Tuesday afternoon is a busy push at the award-winning, South Granville restaurant Farmer’s Apprentice as chef/owner David Gunawan and his team are hard at work preparing for another fully booked night. For Gunawan, staff meal is all about the challenge of putting together a delicious meal from the odds and ends of the restaurant’s myriad ingredients.
Today, David begins to build a simple yet restorative Korean stew by telling one of his chefs to fetch the sausage leftover from the weekend’s brunch. The spicy stew is a low maintenance onepot wonder. As it starts to come to life, David feeds the red, bubbling pot handfuls of diced potato, sauteed shitakes, and other ingredients.
As he leaves it to simmer and cook down, the sausages are gently warmed in a crowded pan. David continues gearing up for the dinner service, occasionally walking by the pot to taste and adjust. When the stew and sausage are ready, David brings it out to the dining area along with rice and a large bowl of housemade kimchi. The front of house staff serve themselves and sit. while co-owner Dara Young takes it upon herself to ladle out a bowls for the kitchen crew, who are too buried with their prep to serve themselves.
by Ken Tsui | Kingsway’s efficient and unassuming Ningtu eatery focuses on Shanghainese cuisine. While there’s a lot to love on the menu (particularly their award-winning crab and rice cakes), it’s their vernacular breakfast items that draw me in on account of their quality and rarity.
Unlike the Cantonese steamed goodies found on a typical dim sum cart, Ningtu serves something simpler: the incredible trifecta of shaobing, Chinese donuts, and hot soy milk. The shaobing’s light sesame exoskeletal crunchiness envelopes a crispy-then-chewy Chinese crueller ready to be dipped in your choice of house-made savoury or sweet soy milk. I highly recommend the latter for something differently delicious.
Other ubiquitous breakfast picks include flaky, shredded daikon cakes that pair well with a dab of chili oil, and plump, crispy-bottomed shengjian buns ready to be dipped in black vinegar. Be a champion and try eating it all without making a mess. The crumbs from the shaobings alone are enough to explain why each banquet table is wrapped in crinkly plastic a la American Psycho.
2130 Kingsway | Vancouver, BC | 604-438-6669 | www.ningtu.ca
by Ken Tsui | In the kitchen at Kitsilano’s Maenam, chef Angus An and his team are putting together their greatest hits for tonight’s staff meal. Jen Chiang is wok frying duck for lettuce wraps, Jay Huang drops a batch of Korean fried chicken into the fryer while Daly Giles is hard at work on an arugula salad amped up with bison sausage, fresh mozzarella, puffed wild rice, crispy chicharron and nam prik dressing. An is working on his own dish, lobster sticky rice, a specialty reserved for special occasions. In the dining room, Aimee Corno is behind the bar shaking up a refreshing kaffir lime spritzer.
As he waits for his chicken to fry, Jay pulls out a tupperware of kimchi, eliciting smiles in the kitchen. “Jay’s mom made the kimchi,” Angus says, “she won’t give him the recipe because she’s worried he’ll stop coming home to visit her.” The kitchen crew chuckles. Jay isn’t the only one hitting up their families for the goods, Angus’ lobster was supplied by a seafood shop in Chinatown owned by Jen’s parents.
As the Maenam team gathers around the table, Angus brings the lobster rice to the table. He lifts the lid of the steamer, which releases a burst of aromatic steam around the table. He takes a moment to enjoy the savoury fragrance and nods with satisfaction before everyone digs in…