by Ken Tsui | Vancouver’s Chinatown is a neighbourhood with over a century of cultural history crammed within a handful of blocks. There are countless Chinese stories embedded in the architecture and within the street front businesses. Though it’s on the cusp of being a certified UNESCO historical site, change is still very much afoot in Chinatown, making right now a very interesting time to explore it. The neighbourhood – it’s very plain to see – is flourishing with new businesses. Young entrepreneurs from across the city are opening up alongside traditional herbalists, restaurants, butchers, green grocers and kitchen equipment suppliers that have operated in Chinatown for several decades, making it a diverse mix of the treasured old guard and the welcomed new. This is a (by no means complete) guide to some of these most treasured places. Take your empty belly and a couple of hours out of your day to explore…
Chinatown Supermarket | 239 Keefer Street | 604-685-5423
Navigating the myriad of neighbourhood grocers in Chinatown can be an intimidating experience, but this place is a friendly one-stopper. With fresh produce, meats, and classic Chinese ingredients, it has practically everything you need to put together a delicious and authentic Cantonese meal.
New Town Bakery | 158 E Pender Street | 604-681-1828
New Town is a regular haunt for Chinatown elders and a stopover for out-of-towners who flock to Pender Street for their steamed bun fix. It’s the definitive Chinese bakery, offering a wide range of sweet and savoury classics such as BBQ pork buns (some of the best in town), pineapple buns, and egg tarts. New Town has columns of steamers stacked full of pillowy steamed buns ranging from Sichuan pork and “Chicken Deluxe” to a vegetarian alternative.
Dollar Meat Store | 266 E Pender Street | 604-681-1052
Don’t let the name fool you! The award-winning Dollar Meats is an old guard butcher shop that serves up some of Chinatown’s most delicious Chinese BBQ and cured meats. BBQ ducks and a crispy whole hog usually hang in the window while sausages and Chinese bacon cure to deliciousness in the shop. In operation for over 30 years, Dollar Meats takes pride in their artisan products and remains a Vancouver institution for traditional Chinese barbecue
Matchstick Coffee Roasters | 213 East Georgia St. | 604-336-0213
Expanding from their original Fraserhood location to Georgia Street this year, Matchstick Coffee boasts the best coffee in Chinatown (it’s also one of the few places in the neighbourhood where you can get a cup of coffee before 8am). Along with the standard baked goods (excellent croissants), Matchstick Coffee offers a toast bar and dinner options like Mac and Cheese, plus a selection of local beer on tap.
Phnom Penh Restaurant | 244 East Georgia St. | 604-682-5777
Butter beef, deep fried lemon pepper chicken wings, and hot and sour soup are the regular barn burners that keep people coming back to this Vietnamese/Cambodian treasure. When former New York chef-turned-celebrity food writer Anthony Bourdain was asked where he liked to eat in Vancouver, he simply replied “Phnom Penh.” He’s not alone, as evidenced by the fact that its large dining room is eternally bustling, even at unlikely hours.
Bao Bei Chinese Brasserie | 163 Keefer St. | 604-688-0876
The award-winning Bao Bei Chinese Brasserie strikes a fine balance in preserving culture through food. Chef Joel Watanabe’s menus are inspired by traditional Chinese flavours and ingredients but are prepared with modern culinary techniques. Bao Bei is a reflection of the modern Chinese experience, a delicious meeting place between the new and old.
Tinland Cookware | 260 East Pender St. | 604-608-0787
Chinatown would not be complete without an unpretentious kitchen supply store. You won’t find brand name cookware here but they’re equipped with just about every single size of pot, pan, clear plastic storage container, ceramic bowl, and cooking utensil. Tinland has practically every tool you’ll ever need to outfit your kitchen at an affordable price.
Bestie | 105 East Pender | 604-620-1175
Clinton McDougall and Dane Brown’s sausage and beer parlour specializing in currywurst is one of Chinatown’s most exciting new developments. It’s a perfect example of the new style of up and coming businesses that are taking a chance on the area. It just so happens that they’re also some of the friendliest, most charming folks on the block. Bestie may not be a typical Chinatown destination, but it gives Vancouverites of every stripe good reason to visit Pender Street.
Continental Herbal | 278 East Pender St. | 604-677-3334
Continental Herbal is filled floor-to-ceiling with every herbal remedy and traditional Chinese dried good imaginable, including dried starfish. Even if you’re not entirely sure how to use any of it (including said dried starfish), Continental Herbal has you covered. They keep an in-house herbalist in the back of the store who is always ready to fill a prescription. Beyond herbal remedies, Continental also has an impressive tea collection and a staff that gladly walks anyone who is interested through it.
Bamboo Village Trading Company | 135 E Pender Street | 604-662-3300
Bamboo Village, located on Pender Street, is chock-a-block with cheap and cheerful antiques and homewares. The shop is a vibrant encapsulation of all things decorative, walking a very fine line between practicality and Chinatown kitsch. From an impressive array of paper lanterns and ornately painted ceramic bowls to Mao propaganda posters, exploring the visually striking, wall-to-wall collection at Bamboo Village is an adventure in discovering the things you never thought you were looking for.