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…
by Ken Tsui | It’s early in the afternoon at Commercial Drive’s La Mezcaleria and Chef Alexander Cruz is getting ready to feed his crew after hours of preparations for the coming dinner service. Today, he’s making chilaquiles. “It’s a Mexican lunch classic,” says excited co-owner Ignacio Arrieta, who can’t wait to dig in himself.
Cruz begins by putting a big pot of red guajillo pepper sauce on the stove. As it begins to heat up, he whisks a big bowl of eggs, pouring them into a satisfyingly sizzling hot pan before folding in a healthy dose of refried beans. Meanwhile, bar manager Pablo Schor is making fresh orange juice, Arrieta is setting the table, and the rest of the night’s staff begin to trickle in for the staff meal.
With the sauce now bubbling, Chef Cruz ladles it over each plate and nestles big spoonfuls of refried beans next to crispy totopos (corn tortillas) before garnishing them with sour cream, raw onion, cheese, and fried eggs.
Chef Cruz calls his duo of cooks out of the kitchen as everyone gathers around the table to eat and crack a few jokes. Once the crew mops the last of the guajillo pepper sauce from each of their their plates with bits of bread, they hop back to work preparing for the evening’s onslaught.
by Ken Tsui | Ask any Torontonian and they’ll tell you that the Jamaican beef patty is a classic found just about everywhere; it’s even more ubiquitous than the famed peameal bacon sandwich. In Vancouver, however, they’re very rare — the unsung hero of our handheld takeaway options. The Patty Shop in Kitsilano has been in the business of making Vancouver’s best Jamaican patties for decades. The shop is an over-the-counter institution specializing in moon-shaped pockets of flaky pastry filled with a variety of goodness. I’ll always suggest my favourite, the time-honoured curry beef, but even if you’re not a vegetarian you should also try the patties filled with curried potatoes, peas, and corn (pictured above, nice and spicy). Just ring the bell for service and a friendly lady wearing an apron (lightly dusted with flour) will poke her head out of the kitchen to help.
The Patty Shop | 4019 Macdonald St. | Vancouver, BC | 604-738-2144 | No Website
by Ken Tsui | Pho Tam is a restaurant that proves not all bowls of pho are created equal. Tucked away in an unassuming strip mall in Surrey, the tiny noodle joint is eternally bustling, and with communal seating, you’ll be rubbing elbows with the rest of the slurping masses. From the kitchen, good humoured cooks can be overheard chattering in Vietnamese whilst floor staff swoop through the room delivering bowls of noodles from trays. Their lightly flavoured beef broth laced with fragrant aromatics is a deceivingly nuanced fundamental and a true testament to quality. Order the Pho Dac Biet (the house special) for a bowl fully loaded with beef balls, rare beef slices, brisket, tendon and tripe. The Bun Bo Hue is a fiery alternative, while the crispy spring rolls stuffed with taro are a delicious variation of the plain old veggie standby.
10302 135 Street | Surrey, BC | 604-589-4223 | No website
The Staff Meal photo essays detail the stories behind the family-style meals that some of Vancouver’s busiest restaurant crews get either before or after service.
by Ken Tsui | Before unlocking the doors to usher in another fully-booked dinner service, Wildebeest chef Ashley Kurtz is putting together a staff meal based on his memories from the time he spent in South Korea. While travelling the country, he discovered tteokbokki, a dish of rice cakes cooked in a spicy sauce.
Today, this ubiquitous Korean street vendor staple is at the core of the meal. As the sauce bubbles, Kurtz effortlessly moves around the kitchen, throwing kalbi (thin, marinated slices of beef short rib) on the grill, fluffing the freshly cooked rice while occasionally returning to the giant pot of tteokbokki for a quick stir. As the sauce thickens, he doles out his house-made kimchi, soy marinated bean sprouts and sesame leaves as side dishes.
When the meal is served, the staff gather around a long table, ladling out tteokbokki and wrapping sesame leaves around the rice and short rib. Kurtz sneaks a bowl of puffed wild rice onto the table for a bit of added crunch. Co-owner James Iranzad sits down to the spread, looks across the table and jokes, “OK, but where’s the beer?”