Vancouver is a veritable Asian food lover’s paradise offering a plethora of different cultural varieties at incredibly affordable prices. A few years ago, Jennifer 8 Lee, a reporter for The New York Times, published a book called The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food in which she reported that Zen Fine Chinese Cuisine in Richmond was the Greatest Chinese Cuisine outside of China. This was a tall order for an unassuming suburb of Vancouver, especially since according to the author’s website there are more Chinese restaurants in the United States than McDonalds, Burger King and Kentucky Fried Chicken combined. Inspired by this, we made several trips to Richmond, which is dominated by Asian food in strip malls, to sample some seriously savoury cuisine. Richmond is a place that doesn’t put on a lot of airs so we want to be clear these spots are not to be frequented for the atmosphere or the hipster scene. What they do boast is very tasty food, which is what keeps them packed – and us going back.
Chen’s Shanghai Kitchen offers home-style cuisine at a fantastic value. If you read blog reviews, you’ll know that the Xiao Long Baos (XLBs for short) are a house specialty. These bite-sized dim sum sachets, filled with pork and improbably also with a hot, flavourful soup are made in-house as any reputable establishment would do. On Chen’s menu they are called “Baiyulan Steamed Mini Pork Buns” and they are delicious. There’s a real art to getting these just right – the skins of the wrapper were not too thick and not too thin, an actual concern when what you are about to eat is filled with hot liquid and you are picking it up with chopsticks from a bamboo steamer. The goal is to have the skin as thin as possible without having it burst open and leak all its contents. While we’ve certainly sampled XLBs elsewhere, it’s always a treat when you try something entirely new and discover something special. Here, we sampled the Dan Dan Noodles that arrived in a big bowl swimming in a thick, soupy peanut sauce, finished with plenty of peanuts sprinkled on top – these were filling and had a wonderfully rich flavour. Another dish we had never tried before was their deep fried chicken in a light soy dressing. Tender with a crispy skin, the chicken benefitted greatly from the slightly sweet and salty sauce – it was finished with plenty of crunchy and bright cilantro. The shrimp in black bean sauce arrived on a bed of wilted spinach and at first the two entities remained strangely distinct. As the dish melded together, with the sauce flavouring the greens, it tasted better and better. Completely stuffed, we left strategizing on what we would order on our next trip back.
Korean food is one of a few types of cuisine that hasn’t really been compromised to suit non-Korean palettes, which is why it’s such a joy to eat. We have hit almost all the Korean joints on Robson Street to satiate our cravings for the two flavours that dominate a lot of the dishes – spicy and salty. Although Richmond is better known for its Chinese restaurants, after reading that Haroo Korean Restaurant had an overwhelming 95% vote of confidence on Urbanspoon we made a beeline for this small second floor establishment where we were greeted warmly by its owner. Korean restaurants always serve banchan, an assortment of flavourful side dishes that are staples of the house, to be eaten with rice. More often than not, these tapas-style nibbles foreshadow the quality of the food that is to come – at Haroo they were excellent. The standard assortment of banchan includes the much beloved spicy pickled cabbage dish, kimchee, potatoes in soy-based sauce, bean sprouts in a light sesame oil dressing as well as a seaweed salad. But Haroo goes above and beyond with tender and bright broccoli salad with a gently piquant dressing, something we’ve yet to encounter at any Korean establishment, as well as delicious rice porridge, a warm and creamy mixture laced with nutty sesame oil. We would go back for just another bowl of this simple but stellar dish. And all this came for free. There were many dishes available around the $10 mark and we sampled their tofu jigae, a stew that is as hot and full of flavour as its deep red colour would suggest, chalk full of tender tofu, an egg which cooks in the broth, and either seafood, pork or beef, as you wish. Accompanied by a bowl of perfectly cooked rice, we were thrilled with our meal in a bowl.
Improbably, in the same mini-mall as Haroo, is Michigan Noodle House, a jumping Cantonese establishment that offers one of those menus that is several pages long (a restaurant’s downfall according to Gordon Ramsay), yet somehow they are able to churn out their dishes in record time. And they taste good too. Here, we noticed lots of groups and families dining together and sharing plates, which is the best way to do Chinese. Michigan offers lunch and dinner options where you can order an assortment of 3-6 plates for an incredibly reasonable set fee – your dishes are then transformed into a meal with the addition of a starter soup, rice and dessert. When with a group, this is a wonderfully democratic option sure to please. The starter soup on the night of our visit (determined by the house) was a clear beef broth that had been boiled for hours so the full flavour of the meat had infused the lovely warm liquid. We tried a braised beef that transformed this sometimes stringy meat into a tender, comforting and flavourful dish. It was even better the next day, reheated. We tried to order the deep fried rock cod, but the waitress informed us it had been replaced that night by sole. It didn’t matter because this Chinese version of tempura had an incredibly light batter and was accompanied by a sweet and sour sauce which was not at all the gloopy mess found in foodcourt fare. The fish was cooked to perfection, remaining delicate and moist inside its pale coat. We incorporated some greenery with a standard offered at Chinese restaurants the world over – spicy fried green beans, which were entirely satisfactory. There are so many more options here, we can’t wait to go back to Michigan to mix and match more set dinners – oh, and to try the noodles!