One of my favourite food trucks is in the final stage of its metamorphosis into a brick and mortar restaurant. Mogu Fried Chicken – for years a four-wheeled fixture in downtown Vancouver and at the Richmond Night Market – launches tomorrow (Sept. 1st) at 1012 Commercial Drive.
I can’t remember exactly when I was first introduced to Mogu’s palate-punching sweet and spicy karaage chicken (it was either the Powell Street festival seven years ago or some long-forgotten food truck fest next to the Waldorf Hotel), but I recall being an immediate convert, always seeking the delicious stuff out whenever I was within smelling range of the intersection of Howe and Dunsmuir, where the truck was usually parked.
Having dialled in their menu over the years and amassed a following of folks who’d fallen not only for their fried chicken but also their excellent ‘katsu sandos’, owners Yuji and Kumiko Aoki went looking for a permanent location complete with liquor license and a neighbourhood feel. It took them three years to secure the address that I visited them in last week. I knew 1012 Commercial Drive as the old Skylight diner, an unpretentious veteran of the area that served cheap Chinese-Canadian food in a sparsely appointed, 1,000 sqft space that looked much older than its 19 years.
Gone were the old red vinyl booths, the kaleidoscopic floors and the incongruent, intermingling smells of hashbrowns, egg foo yung and chicken fried rice. The transformation (as the photos below show) was nearly complete, with a bench banquette being finished on one side of the room and a cool, thatch-roofed hightop occupying most of the other. A broad and amusing mural (seen at top) is the main talking point of the space, its ravenous sandwich-lovers (dressed in Tokugawa garb) enthusiastically saving their Mogu meals from an approaching kaiju monster.
Though much of the new Mogu experience will be quite different from the mobile one, the core flavours will remain the same. The menu has expanded with plenty of small share plates (eg. spicy tuna bites, prawn fritters) leading up to teishoku-style full meals that include – in addition to the main component like a sandwich or fried chicken – a small bowl of miso soup, some rice, a little potato or house salad, and a side dish. (Kumiko, a beginner wood-worker, has been busily making bespoke trays for these.) They would like to eventually offer an omakase-style dinner option, too, whereby guests put themselves completely in the hands of the kitchen. The operation will be licensed with a selection of Japanese whiskies, sake and beer to pair. Also a plus: front of house veteran Patrick Malone (ex-Bishops) is overseeing service.
When it opens tomorrow, the hours of operation will be from 5pm until late, six nights to start (closed Mondays). Lunch service will kick off the following week, beginning at 11:30am.
Why It Matters | Mogu is good. Full stop. Beyond that, these first-time restaurateurs are opening in the middle of a pandemic that really has it in for restaurants and thus they deserve not only medals for courage but also our sympathetic hands to hold. Zoom out to a wider angle and notice how Mogu is in good, immediate company. This stretch of Commercial Drive has seen several worthy new arrivals in recent years (eg. Downlow Chicken Shack, Kin Kao, Lunch Lady), so we expect the newcomer will fit in just fine.