This ever-evolving list is the anchor of a new Scout series that seeks to map out Vancouver’s best and most legendary comfort foods. Expect to see new items added every week. We encourage readers to steer us towards their favourite Vancouver comfort foods in the comments or by using the hashtag #ScoutYVR on social media.
The enjoyment of food is a wholly subjective pursuit. Your perspective, experience and palate will be different than mine, as might your idea as to what constitutes comfort food, so take this map and guide with as many grains of salt as you need. If I’ve missed something awesome, let me know. This feature was designed to grow, just like our bellies! Now dig in…
The Porchetta Sandwich at Meat & Bread
You know how maps denote the relative size and importance of towns and cities with little dots — the larger the dot, the bigger the city? On this atlas, Meat & Bread’s perfect porchetta sandwich deserves an encircled star instead of a dot, as if it were a capital or a unique destination of special consequence. It’s really that good, and very likely the chief reason why there are now half a dozen locations of the chain. Porchetta is a street food specialty of Ariccia in Lazio, the region of Italy that includes Rome. Traditionally, it’s a whole deboned pig stuffed (usually with liver, garlic, wild fennel, fat, skin) and roasted over hardwood before landing in paninis, picnic baskets and – one presumes – swooning love songs. This one is a much simpler slab of salt-rubbed pork loin and belly stuffed with rosemary and parsley. The rolled-up result is hit with high heat to blister the skin, resulting in toothsome crackling that will make your knees buckle. It’s given a thorough chop to order, loaded onto a springy ciabatta bun and dressed with a gentle salsa verde. The tasty thing sits supreme in the pantheon of Vancouver’s best sandwiches, like a juicy Jupiter with a big ‘ol plop of mustard.
The Bacon Cheeseburger at Hawksworth
I’ve probably enjoyed well over a dozen burgers in the cocktail lounge at Hawksworth over the years. If I even have a whisper of an appetite when I’m within a block of the place compulsion tends to do its thing. I’m sure some of that has to do with the coddling comfort of the lounge itself and the good service within, but I’m there for the burger, not the scene. According to my notes from several years ago, the grind is a mix of tenderloin, ribeye and chuck with plenty of fat, plus some onion, garlic and long peppercorns. The perfectly formed disc wears a glistening coat of the house sauce (a blend of Worchestershire sauce and brown sugar lit with smoked paprika, ancho chilies and herbes de provence). On top is a melt of aged Canadian cheddar, thin slices of double smoked bacon, a single perfectly deep fried onion ring (with a diameter that exactly matches that of the patty), iceberg lettuce, pickles and tomato. It’s all delivered between the halves of a toasted sesame seed bun. Beyond the taste of the thing (superb, it goes without saying), the draw is sustained by an appreciation of consistently perfect presentation, the kind of attention to detail expected of a fine dining establishment.
The Decadent Milkshakes at Fable Diner
Are milkshakes food? I think so, especially at Mt. Pleasant’s Fable Diner, where they exist sweetly on an especially decadent plane. My regular sees chocolate ice cream mixed with peanut butter and pretzels, all topped with Nutella whipped cream (it’s really the thing of dreams), but from the “Banana” (vanilla ice cream, bananas, salted cereal, caramel and vanilla whip) to the “Coffee” (vanilla ice cream, malt powder, coffee, salted cereal, chocolate syrup and vanilla whip), they’re all ridiculously indulgent inventions that overrun the palate in such an immersive way as to make an actual full meal at the restaurant temporarily moot.
Liège-Style Waffles at Cafe Medina
There’s something very stabilizing about sitting alone at the bar at Cafe Medina and tearing into a pair of perfectly sugary and soft, round-edged Liège-style waffles with my fingers and dipping the pieces into a gleaming white ramekin of caramel (either salted or raspberry will do). Having a hot cappuccino at the ready is a personal choice, but it’s really all about the shredding and the dipping — so simple and decadent! If caramel isn’t your thing, dip with dark chocolate, milk chocolate lavender, white chocolate pistachio rosewater, mixed berry comport, fig orange marmalade or creme de fruit de passion. Pro tip: sitting at the bar alone is how to best avoid Cafe Medina’s famous queue…plus you don’t have to share.
The ‘How Is This a Salad?’ Cobb Salad at Red Wagon
Including any kind of salad on a map that leads to our city’s best comfort food dishes might seem a little…er…wrong, but shut up and look at this thing! The fully stacked Cobb at East Hastings’ Red Wagon is a layered bounty of crispy buttermilk fried chicken, chunks of blue cheese, bright little bursts of tomato, uniformly thick and chewy shards of bacon, crunchy wedge cuts of refreshing iceberg lettuce and plenty of Green Goddess dressing slicking little radish coins, soft-boiled egg halves and slices of avocado. The jumble of flavours and clash of textures are underpinned by a wilful suspension of disbelief and the indulgent notion that it’s somehow all good for you. This can be super comforting, if a little hopeful. Because salad.
The Electric, Souped-Up Corn on the Cob at Beetbox
I went over four decades stubbornly thinking basically-buttered and salted corn on the cob could not be improved upon. This has been changing of late, my palate either maturing or getting bored. The most recent corn experience to disabuse me of this old notion was the ridiculously flavourful corn at Davie Street’s unassuming Beetbox, the colourful, plant-based cousin to Chinatown’s Juke Fried Chicken. Each piece of corn ($6 per order) is dusted with a special seasoning (vinegar powder, freeze-dried corn powder, various spices) and generously treated to a smear of – stay with me here – vegan mayo fortified with fermented Korean chilies, miso, confit garlic and calamansi juice. The effect is bright and mildly spicy with a gentle acid tang, all up in a creamy texture reminiscent of melting butter. For certain, few things this cheap taste anywhere near as good!
Pepperoni Slice at AJ’s Brooklyn Pizza Joint
While ravenously appreciative of Vancouver’s authentic Neapolitan pizzerias and the many dedicated pizzaiolos who like to experiment with local and seasonal ingredients, I’m also a sucker for a classic New York-style pepperoni slice. They can be deeply satisfying, even when eaten in a rush. (They’re also cheap as chips.) You’d think we’d have plenty of superb options for this on account of the many dozens of mentionable pizza-making operations in the city – several of which make pepperoni pizzas – but in reality there are only a handful that really nail the foldable, low-moisture mozza-topped and bright sauce-slicked triangles. The chief exemplar can be found at AJ’s Brooklyn Pizza Joint on East Broadway, where slices sees a thin layer of explosive flavour and a crispy/chewy texture that match all my late night New York City memories (so much so that it feels weird to buy them using Canadian currency). Bonus: they’re generous with their imported ‘roni cups’, or the little pepperoni slices that curl up at the circumference to create little cups containing precious drops of hot oil.
Hot & Sour Pork Noodle Soup at Fat Mao
This feels a little like I’m cheating. I’m certain I’ve written about the Hot & Sour Pork Soup at Fat Mao on a previous occasion, but goodness knows it belongs on this map as I find very few dishes anywhere near as comforting! I like other bowls at chef Angus An’s Chinatown restaurant (not to mention the roti), but I swear this crushed peanut-dusted one has magic restorative powers, brightening shitty days and fleetingly making things right when I need it. If you’ve never had it before, it’s a lit up Thai-style hot and sour Dom (or Tom) Yum soup — super fragrant but not-very-spicy stuff that stays with your palate for as long as it wants. It comes fully loaded with bean sprouts, fried garlic, green onions minced pork and slices of both Chinese BBQ pork and Vietnamese ham. Likely best with clear rice noodles, though flat egg noodles are also an option.
Snappy Wieners at What’s Up? Hot Dog
This small, punk rock-loving Hastings-Sunrise snackbar is anchored by a selection of six delicious hot dog variations that range from the traditional to the kinda weird. The Chicago-style ‘Wrigley Field’ is my personal go-to (tomato, onions, pickle, sport peppers, celery salt, mustard, relish), but no matter the condiments the star is always the wiener — big, juicy, snappy beauties made from grass-fed, hormone-free Two Rivers beef. (There are a couple of veggie options, but we haven’t tried those.) Bonus comfort: soft and warm waffles fries!
Lobster Roll at Popina
There’s nothing quite like a fresh Lobster Roll. The bunned-up, hand-held, ubiquitous standard originally from New England (also long popular in our Maritimes) has never been much of a Vancouver thing, but there are a few local restaurants that have given them a good try over the years. The best among the current efforts can be found at Popina on Granville Island. The key to it is the flavour of the salad in which the full pound of lightly seasoned lobster meat is tossed. It’s all about the punchy mix of shallot, chive, celery, parsley and razor-thin radish coins brightened with lemon, all of which is set in mayonnaise. The bun, flattened on both sides for optimal exterior toasting, is super soft and a little sweet, giving the entirety a real treat-like feel. (The restaurant’s waterfront location adds some extra authenticity to the experience, even if it is the wrong coast!)
Bikini Sandwich at Como Taperia
Here’s a tip to making a grilled ham and cheese sandwich even better: use thinly sliced Serrano and some zesty Manchego. Oh, and one more thing: black truffles. The stratified trifecta is called a Bikini Sandwich. It’s something of a Catalonian tradition in Barcelona, where street vendors have been selling versions of it for years outside the Bikini Concert Hall. Vancouverites can find an them at Mt. Pleasant’s Como Taperia where – at the time of writing (during the Covid-19 shutdown) – the deeply flavourful thing can be had as a grill-it-yourself takeaway item.
Cubano Sando at Havana
The allure of the Cubano sandwich at Commercial Drive’s Havana restaurant isn’t its fealty to authenticity or how close it is to the one in the movie Chef. We love it only because it tastes so damn good. This is why we previously broke it down in our Stacked series and why Maciel Pereda went even further and taught herself how to make them at home in our How to Cook Vancouver series. For a recap, it’s a stratified wonder of thinly sliced deli ham, Swiss cheese, roast pork (in this case, porchetta) and pickles on a plancha-squished, housemade Cuban bun that’s been liberally spread with yellow mustard. Simple, comforting, and only available via takeout at the time of writing (due to Covid-19).
Prawn and Chicken Paella from the Paella Guys
While it’s not a little odd to write entries to this guide under the isolated duress of a global pandemic, opportunities to indulge in swaddling, comforting deliciousness abound. Case in point: the drool-worthy paellas from the Paella Guys. At the time of writing they are operating via three pick-up locations with an assist from the good folks at La Taqueria. When done right, the transportively aromatic, super savoury, sublimely saffron-y rice feast with its curled shrimps and chunks of well-roasted bird is one of the world’s most impactful food experiences, and this stuff is straight out of a Valencian sunset.
Southern Fried Artichoke Sandwich at Arbor
The Southern Fried Artichoke sandwich at Main Street’s Arbor typifies what the casual restaurant is all about: vegetarian and vegan comfort food made with high quality ingredients. The ciabatta bun is slicked with a vegan mayo and a gently kicking housemade hot sauce. More direct spice comes from thinly sliced jalapeno coins, but this is cooled by a carrot and cabbage slaw and a creamy mousse made of avocado and lime. There are salty, smoky eggplant bacon shards to appreciate, but the crispy fried artichoke chunks are the real stars. Seasoned with paprika, cayenne, onion and garlic powders, they can play tasty tricks on the teeth of Southern fried chicken fans. At the time of writing (during the Covid-19 pandemic), this beautiful sandwich is only available via the restaurant’s take-out program.
Spaghetti & Meatballs at Pepino’s
Spaghetti & Meatballs is arguably the most classic and broadly adored dish on the Italian-American menu. It sits in a special place of prominence in the comfort food pantheon, where it is kept eternally warm by a bright light that shines upon it from the heavens. The one from Pepino’s Spaghetti House on Commercial Drive is Vancouver’s exemplar. The big meatballs are made with a combination of beef, pork, three cheeses (pecorino, grana, ricotta) and just enough garlic and chili flakes to make their presence felt. The pasta is a touch softer than al dente (proper mangiacake-style) and the tangy, well-salted, basil-flecked tomato sauce is one step down from being way too much. The presentation is finished with a snow of grated parmesan. It is about as satisfying as comfort food gets, and those with average appetites will be hard-pressed to finish the whole thing.
Nashville Hot Chicken Sando at Downlow
The 2018 arrival of Downlow Chicken Shack and its properly prepared Nashville-style ‘hot chicken’ hit Vancouver like The Beatles, resulting in daily crowds, swoons and anticipatory sweats. The deliciously spicy stuff was first developed as a means of revenge in Depression-era Tennessee, but the victim liked it so much that he replicated it for sale. The marinated meat is well seasoned, floured, buttermilked and deep fried to toothsome extra crispy before being sauced (and thus softened some) with a signature spice paste. The electric heat typically comes from cayenne, but its Scoville levels can be upped to an insane, face-melting degrees. Sweet and sour coleslaw, pickle coins and house sauce complete the comforting package, which is held together by a Livia bun. Note: they also do an Atlanta-style ‘Lemon Pepper’ variant that will knock your socks off.
Tonkatsu With Curry Rice at Dosanko
I’ve previously written about the crazy deliciousness of Dosanko‘s outstanding Japanese curry rice dish (with its chopped pork, pickles and cap of melted cheese), but when you add 140 grams of panko-crusted, heritage Old Spot pork loin on top it’s some next level lunacy. It has all the ‘comforting’ elements – from crunchiness and creaminess to meatiness and gooeyness – not to mention enough umaminess to ignite a palate well-rinsed in cold beer.
Cheese Toast at Hy’s Steakhouse
The cheese toast at Hy’s Steakhouse is kind of a no brainer for inclusion here. The treat is ancient (1955) with an original recipe that (I think) called for a butter and cheese mix (Grana Padano, Swiss and Cheddar) melted like an enveloping blanket over thick slabs of white bread. The cheese layer has a little tang and stretches just enough to mirror the soft pliability of the bread. Though it can only be had at a higher-end establishment most diners associate with special occasions, big red wines, fancy dress and perfectly cooked steaks, it’s very likely that a profitable food truck empire could be built on its simple deliciousness.
Fish & Chips at The Fish Counter
Vancouver’s gold standard for an old fashioned order of comforting, seriously finger-licking fish & chips can be found at The Fish Counter. Located on the Riley Park strip of Main Street (off East 22nd Ave.), this pioneering, Ocean Wise-friendly seafood market has several versions of the crispy stuff – from Pacific Cod and Ling Cod to Halibut and Salmon – all consistently executed to golden brown and flaky perfection. Bonus: proper tartar sauce and optional malt vinegar for the skinny fries.
Curry Noodle Special at Harvest
Strathcona/Chinatown’s Harvest Community Foods has a reoccurring special that is well worth pouncing on every time it shows up on the board. It’s a bright and deeply flavourful curry situation full of ground chicken and udon noodles all done up with bok choy, charred cabbage, watermelon radish, shrooms and cilantro. While everything about this dish is comforting, it’s really the aroma that seals it. Stick your face over this beautiful thing and breathe.
‘The Doug’ Sando at 49th Parallel Coffee
Behold ‘The Doug’ breakfast sandwich, which is only available at the Thurlow St. location of 49th Parallel Coffee. It sees a spongy, golden brown brioche bun holding chive-enhanced soft-scrambled eggs, good maple bacon and caramelized onions under a blanket of processed American cheese and a generous top spread of garlic aioli — all tightly assembled like a Mozart piano concerto. I’m 99% certain the immaculate construction was inspired by the beloved “Fairfax” sando made famous by the popular Eggslut chainlet in California, which is to say it starts and ends delicious. A whole restaurant could be built around this thing, which can be enjoyed for just $9.
Short Rib Fricassée at Chambar
The hearty fricassée at Chambar is a dish I regularly climb into like a onesie pair of pajamas. It’s been on the menu at the Belgian-Moroccan restaurant since forever, I assume because it’s so damn satisfying. There’s just so much going on beneath the two fried eggs, watercress and apple matchsticks pictured above, including thick chunks of slow braised short rib meat that gives way on the tooth, impactful little balsamic vinegar-licked cipollini onions that squish flavour, little globs of applewood smoked cheddar cheese and enough chopped up pieces of potato to round the whole thing out. The wintry braising liquid at the bottom of the skillet ties everything together like a chalked-up complex equation, and makes for a good scarpetta situation if you have the patience and presence of mind to save your side of bread to the very end.
Xiao Long Bao at Dinesty
One of the most satisfying things in life – right up there with cold beer and raising babies – is the sensation of biting into a pillowy xiao long bao (aka “soupy dumpling”, “XLB”) and having its porky-chicken umami broth explode across your palate like a hot flood of amazement. One can get XLB at countless restaurants across the Lower Mainland but by habit I go through steamer baskets full of them at Dinesty Dumpling House, an always bustling Chinese eatery in the heart of the West End’s Ramenland.
Meatballs at Savio Volpe
Go to an Italian joint, expect meatballs. Right? Head anywhere outside Italy, and this will almost always be true. It most certainly is in Vancouver, where meatballs and Italian restaurants have long been hand in glove. But as with most things, not all are created equal. If there was a champ among them – one worthy to be the first order of meatballs to be included on this map of Vancouver comfort foods – it has to be the juicy, saucy, sweet and deeply savoury ones offered since day one at Osteria Savio Volpe. Made using the holy trinity of beef, pork and veal studded with pine nuts and currants, the impactful orbs are soaked in a neckbone gravy that diffuses into the meat and amplifies their taste to a degree that almost shocks the palate, which will never forget the moment for as long as its tongue wags. (Best consumed with an appropriate glass of wine and a side of bread for scarpetta action.)
Tonkotsu Ramen at Danbo
One of the most deeply satisfying, rainy day indulgences that Vancouver has to offer is ramen. And it’s a good thing that there’s plenty of it! A lot of local food lovers keep personal registers of their favourite bowls around town and refer to them at different times of the year and for different moods and urges. I’m no different. The richly flavoured two miso ramen at Danbo in Kitislano is the first of many bowls of ramen destined for inclusion in this guide. It’s just so damn good and restorative during the winter months — a real spirits-lifter. The thin noodles still have some bite to them at the “standard” level (you can choose from “very firm” to “very soft”) and the fukuoka-style tonkotsu base broth – which I more often than not choose to have “rekka” style (amplified with bright ichimi togarashi powder for colour and spice) – is an umami bomb that keeps going off to the last delicious drop. What’s more, the thin slices of chasu pork are meltingly tender. But is it worth lining up for? Absolutely, even in the rain.
Hawaiian Pizza at Strathcona Beer Co.
What makes this pizza so good is what makes it so different. The pimpled thin crust is standard enough (though I think it’s a sourdough starter) and the base sauce is pretty typical — it’s the topping combination that elevates it to the sublime. I’ve enjoyed this “Hawaiian” over a dozen times since I first tried it in 2016, and to be honest it was one of the inspirations for starting the comfort food guide in the first place. I’ve certainly sung its praises before: “This thing is a spicy weirdo — a gas-fired tropical freakshow of sweet pineapple, crumbled pistachios and capicola ham amplified by a neon-intense jalapeno crema.” I mean, just look at it! See that spiral of green, squirt-bottled spice? It’s such a kick in the balls of the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana that it makes me giggle a little. Equally glorious middle fingers are those brûléed bursts of pineapple cutting through the salt and spice and the crumbled pistachio studs adding texture and piney nuttiness where one would think none should really belong. Put it all together and it plays the palate like a drum set, Take one ingredient out – pineapple, for example – and the whole construction collapses. I acknowledge that the mere existence of this pie will remain an affront to some, and that my appreciation of it is an admission of my insurmountable mangiacake-ness. Be that as it may, this thing is just so damn good – a ludicrous Tesla among self-important Ferraris – and you should try it. As I’ve said before: If you don’t like it, I’ll eat it.
Scotch Egg at The Pourhouse
Developed in the UK during the early 18th century as a traveller’s snack, the humble Scotch Egg is a deliciousness delivery system in a league of its own. Basically a boiled egg wrapped in a cocoon of sausage meat then rolled in breadcrumbs and deep-fried to a golden brown, they are best served hot and halved. In Vancouver, you’ll find the tastiest, most comforting expression of the salt and peppered classic at Gastown’s dependable Pourhouse, where it exists alongside a dollop of spiced mayonnaise as a popular (and affordable) mainstay on both their regular and Happy Hour menus. Best paired with a cold lager beer.
Gambas al Ajillo at The Sardine Can
A popular sharable in the heart of Gastown. The shrimp are flash-seared in spiced olive oil with garlic, sherry, plenty of paprika and a parsley/lemon finish. Great with a cold, crisp glass of beer or sips of Sauvignon Blanc. Don’t neglect the leftover sauce at the bottom of the dish. Get some crusty bread and go to town!
Honey Dipped Donut at Lee’s
Best when still warm, these chubby discs of awesome are one of the most dependably delicious things about life in Vancouver. A Seth Rogan favourite.
Tourtiere at St. Lawrence
The dense but flaky golden brown crust and deeply meaty flavour make this wintry Quebecois treat irresistible. Bonus: miniature Habs flag on a toothpick.
Lemon Pepper Wings at Phnom Penh
These crispy, tangy, garlicky beauties are one of the chief reasons why this Cambodian restaurant in Chinatown is always sporting a line-up. Legendary. (Also of comfort food note: butter beef and Chinese sausage fried rice.)
La Mezcaleria’s Queso Fundido
The ultimate Mexican comfort food! Submerge your fork into the volcanic stone bowl and pull up a stringy prize of molten hot cheese and chorizo bits. A side of fresh tortillas awaits.
So simple and satisfying. The Thuringer sausage is the way to go. Just make sure you don’t skip the house ketchup for the full effect.
These authentic carnitas tacos with real deal corn tortillas are like a loving hug on a cold or otherwise shitty day. For best results, ask for campechano – a mix of pork shoulder and belly.
Bells and Whistles’ All-Day Breakfast Sando
Arguably Vancouver’s ultimate breakfast sandwich sees a maple sausage pork patty smothered in American cheese with golden brown hashbrowns, special sauce and a fried freakin’ egg. Just, wow.
Cinnamon Bun at Grounds For Coffee
These things are the ultimate indulgence. Thick, dense, gooey, sweet and unforgettably cinnamon-y, they are a total pleasure to fork and un-swirl.
Beer Battered Halloumi at Acorn
These crunchy slabs of squeaky deliciousness are arranged on a bed of lemony smashed peas with mint yogurt and a potato/zucchini pancake (and they might just be the fanciest thing to ever make this ever-evolving list).