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.
This tiny, enigmatic, family-run restaurant on Victoria Drive is no secret to Vancouver foodies. First opened in 1993, it is nearly always packed during dinner service and you should expect to wait a bit during lunch. (Make sure to make a reservation in any case.) And yet it does not get the attention it deserves. Considering the consistent crowds and great reviews, maybe it doesn’t need it.
Ostensibly, Kalvin’s is a Szechuan restaurant, but its food is fundamentally Taiwanese, a cuisine with diverse influences. The menu is replete with top-notch examples of dishes from various regions in China and featuring those from Sichuan — all cooked and executed with a Taiwanese touch.
Having developed on an island located off the southeastern coast of Mainland China, Taiwanese cuisine is heavily influenced by southern Chinese cuisines, most notably from Fujian (Hokkien). Colonial-era Spaniards, Dutch, Portuguese, and Taiwan’s indigenous peoples (who may have been the descendants of modern Polynesians) have also left their mark on the food. Imperial Japanese troops occupied Taiwan between 1895 and 1945 (the end of the Second World War), leaving subtle influences of their cuisines, too.
But it was the period after the Chinese Civil War (1930-1945) when Taiwanese gastronomy began to rapidly change. The Republic of China (led by Chiang Kai-shek) was defeated by Mao Zedong’s Communist People’s Republic of China. The Republic (from about 1945-1949) was uprooted from its capital in Nanjing to the Taiwanese capital of Taipei. Chiang Kai-shek and about 2 million loyalists from all around China fled and re-established themselves in Taiwan.
This sudden and massive influx of people quickly revolutionized the island’s food. Taiwan became a culinary laboratory where regional Chinese cuisines morphed into hyphenated Taiwanese renditions of themselves (Sichuan-Taiwanese cuisine is of particular note). Taiwanese Beef Noodle Soup — arguably Taiwan’s national dish with roots in Sichuan province — originated during this era.
Kalvin’s deep, extensive menu lists many Taiwanese classics alongside dishes with muddled origins. The Taiwanese food they serve here is exemplary, but not canonical. It is in the style of Taipei Sichuan cuisine that was popular in the 1970’s and 80’s. My Taiwanese friends are divided with regard to its “authenticity” — whatever that means given the sketchiness of the context. The food here — for the lack of a better term — is “old school”. It contrasts with the newer, more modern Taiwanese joints that have opened in the Lower Mainland recently.
I have tried nearly all the dishes in the two decades I have eaten here. The kitchen rarely disappoints with its unwavering consistency and high level of execution. It will be difficult for me to list all of my favourites, but I will try: The Deep Fried Red Fermented Pork ($6 for the appetizer size) is one of their signature dishes — think pork cheek marinated in red-rice wine lees then dredged in a sweet potato starch-based crust and deep fried till crispy on the outside. Their Five Spice Beef in Chinese Pancake ($5) is perhaps my favourite version of the dish in the city. The wrap is made in-house and surrounds well-seasoned slices of cold beef shank with just a whisper of hoisin-like brown bean sauce. It is not as cloyingly sweet as most versions you will find in town. Their Smoked Duck ($19, $37) is done in a Sichuan style: smoked in tea leaves, sugar, wood chips, herbs and spices until the bold smoke flavour penetrates deep into the meat. Lastly, the Shredded Pork with Yellow Chives ($11.75) is a masterclass in wok frying.
You and a friend can have a great lunch here, but in order to really get the full experience you will need to do dinner with a larger group — say six or eight. Order from the “Pre-Orders” menu, most notably the Pork Shank in Brown Sauce ($24). Also try the Lily Flower with Pork Spare Ribs Soup ($12) which has a light broth made tart by dried tiger lily buds. Adventurous eaters will delight in the offal offerings: dishes of kidneys, stomach, intestines — all the organs represent well.
Kalvin, the gregarious chef-owner, tries to come out to greet every table. He has a good memory for faces, but not names and will chat with you for a few minutes to tell you about the food and to remind you to always make a reservation. Take heed.