The Best Asian Food in North America? Try British Columbia.
Posted June 5, 2018 9:49 p.m. EDT
On a steamy Friday evening, early last summer, I exited a Korean-made metro train with a crowd of teenagers and parents with young children, who filled the elevated platform at Bridgeport Road with a congenial babble of Cantonese, English, Tagalog and Mandarin. Crossing an expansive parking lot, we entered a makeshift village of canopied stalls, set amid a forest of simulated cherry trees whose LED blossoms lent the turquoise twilight a pinkish hue.
Vendors barked out pitches for Pikachu plushies, fidget spinners with strobing lobes and cosplay anime onesies for adults. On a small midway, the roar of an animatronic brachiosaurus was briefly overwhelmed by the jets of a Boeing 787 bound for one of the megacities of mainland China. The unmistakable odor of octopus and squid grilling over charcoal permeated the air.
It could have been the Temple Street market in Kowloon, Hong Kong, or one of Singapore’s open-air hawker centers. But I was on the North American side of the Pacific Ocean, in a city the Chinese have dubbed Fu Gwai Moon (Fortune’s Gate). Richmond, British Columbia, as it is more commonly known, is a suburb built on flat islands embraced by arms of the Fraser River that lead into the Salish Sea.
When I was growing up in neighboring Vancouver, my friends considered it a netherland of cranberry farms and split-level ranch-style homes and dismissed it as “Ditchmond” after the often-fetid drainage canals that lined its numbered thoroughfares. Back then, Richmond’s chief attraction for me was the international airport on Sea Island, where I’d pedal my 10-speed and imagine I was aboard one of the jetliners rising over the mud flats to the wider world.
Since I left British Columbia 20 years ago, the world — Asia, in particular — has found its way to Richmond: Almost two-thirds of the city’s 200,000 residents are now of Asian background. (Its popularity among Asians is sometimes attributed to the auspiciousness of the Cantonese translation of its name.) On No. 5 Road, locally known as the Highway to Heaven, the golden dome of a sprawling Sikh gurdwara and the stupa of the first traditional Tibetan monastery in the Pacific Northwest rise among the blueberry stands. The newcomers are largely Hong Kongers, Taiwanese and mainland Chinese. The mainlanders have brought with them controversy: The free-spending fuerdai, or “wealthy second generation,” have been blamed for the stratospheric rise in the region’s real estate prices.
But their presence also means Richmond has become a one-stop paradise for lovers of Asian food. These days, when I’m hankering for a plate of Hainan chicken rice, xiao long bao (soup dumplings) from Shanghai, or an oyster omelet sautéed Chiuchow style, I know I can find it in Richmond. I’ve lately found myself planning my layovers at Vancouver International — now North America’s leading hub for flights to Asia — around forays to a string of shopping centers and strip malls, which are a 15-minute ride from the airport via elevated Skytrain.
Unlike sprawling Los Angeles, where some of the best Chinese restaurants are strung along freeway exits in the San Gabriel Valley, the scene here is highly concentrated: Half of Richmond’s estimated 400 Asian restaurants are within three blocks of a short stretch of No. 3 Road.
This time around, my plan was to spend a long weekend indulging in a concentrated culinary tour of Asia — without having to cross the international date line.
Richmond Night Market
As my first stop, I had chosen the Richmond Night Market, whose stalls take over a patch of former industrial land on a bend in the river on weekend nights from May to October. Fernando Medrano, a food blogger who came to Richmond with his parents from the Philippines in 1976, had volunteered to be my guide. Admission is 4.25 Canadian dollars (about $3.35; free for children under 10 and adults 60 and over) and prices at the stalls range from CA$5 to CA$12.
“The Night Market is where people in Richmond go to eat after they have dinner,” Medrano said. “It used to be the place where teenagers came to buy counterfeit Vuitton bags and bootleg DVDs. It’s evolved into a place where parents bring their kids, and you can sample every kind of Asian cuisine.”
We threaded our way past the knickknack vendors to the market’s main attraction: a hundred tightly serried food stalls, offering everything from Malaysian rotis to a sugar-powdered Japanese raindrop cakes made of translucent agar that wobbled like an edible breast implant. Medrano steered me away from such culinary oddities as stinky tofu, dragon’s beard candy and the curry rotato (a deep-fried potato, spiraled around a stick and sprinkled with spice).
Instead, we stopped at Ohana Poke Bar for a bowl of miso-marinated poke — technically a Hawaiian dish, but piled high with a pan-Asian mix of chunks of sustainably-sourced ahi tuna, kimchi cucumbers and taro root chips, and assembled by Benedict Lim, a Filipino chef. (Ohana will not be participating in this year’s Night Market.)
Medrano insisted we brave the long lineup at Chef James Xin Jiang Man BBQ, where James Chen, who works as a chef at Vancouver’s high-end Fairmont Waterfront Hotel during the day, was rearranging skewers of chicken, beef and lamb kidney between bursts of flame from a smoke-shrouded grill. “When I first came to Richmond, it was a very sleepy town,” Medrano recalled, after we had secured an empty table. “The only rice we could buy was Uncle Ben’s.”
The Asian presence in Richmond started around the time of the 1986 World Expo, he said, with a wave of affluent Hong Kongers. “I remember one Chinese grocery store opened across from City Hall, and a few restaurants formed around that nucleus.”
“Now they’re everywhere, and you can find everything you’d find in China,” he said. “I’ve had rooster testicles, bubble tea made with super-high-end pu-erh, and old-school Hong Kong standards like beef brisket on rice and hot lemon Coke.”
Gnawing on one of Chen’s charred honey garlic prawns, which had been marinated in the Chinese Muslim style with chile oil and sprinkled with cumin, he added, “Or what we’re eating now: uncompromising Uyghur-style barbecue from northwest China.”
For Medrano, Richmond is the place where venerable Asian cooking techniques meet some of the New World’s best ingredients.
“People often say the Chinese food you get here is superior to what you get in China, where everyone is concerned about pollution,” he said. “A lot of Richmond is still protected farmland, which means there’s great bok choy, gai lan — all the Chinese greens.” He added that being near the Pacific Ocean provides access to some of the freshest seafood in the world. Richmond, which is along the Strait of Georgia, remains home to a large commercial fishing fleet, and the next day I took a stroll along Fisherman’s Wharf in the riverfront community of Steveston with a descendant of the original wave of Asian settlers. Jim Kojima’s grandfather was a fisherman who came from Japan’s Wakayama prefecture in 1898. As a teenager, Kojima worked in the Gulf of Georgia Cannery, now a museum, gutting sockeye salmon and salting herring.
“My dad had a 36-foot gillnetter called Rosalyn K.,” Kojima said as we inspected lemon sole, Dungeness crab and sockeye salmon arrayed in plastic foam boxes on the decks of trollers and seiners moored against the dock. His father’s boat was seized during the wartime internment of Japanese nationals.
Kojima left the fishing industry when he returned to Steveston in the 1950s and went on to coach Canada’s Olympic judo team. “Most of the fishermen you see here now are Vietnamese,” he said. “But the people who buy are from China. Come here at 6 in the morning, and everybody on the dock is speaking Chinese.”
I slurped a plastic spoonful of bright orange uni, scooped from a freshly split red sea urchin; it tasted like textured ocean butter, briny and unctuous, as rich as any I’d sampled in the auction houses of Tokyo’s Tsukiji Market.
I was eager to see what Richmond’s Chinese chefs, working at brick-and-mortar restaurants, would make of such seafood. That evening I sat down with Stephanie Yuen, a Hong Kong-born freelance food writer and cookbook author, at Parklane, a restaurant specializing in the cuisine of coastal Guangdong.
“In British Columbia,” said Yuen, as a waiter brought a green-shelled Dungeness crab with bound claws to our table to inspect, “the Chinese were the first to put live crabs in a tank, the first to insist on fresh, live seafood.” Twenty-five minutes later, the crab returned to our table, red-clawed and succulent after being stewed in a broth of cinnamon, ginger and cloves.
At Yuen’s invitation, Michael Zhou Jing, the executive chef, joined us at our table for a glass of Okanagan Valley white wine, as we exclaimed over the delicate flesh of our main course, a pound-and-a-half rock cod, steamed live in supreme stock and topped with cilantro and shredded scallion whites.
A veteran of the Pink Pearl, Vancouver’s pioneer of uncompromising Hong Kong-style Cantonese dining, Zhou now cooks in the Chiuchow tradition, where the emphasis is put on letting fish and vegetables express their natural flavors through poaching, steaming and light stir-frying.
When I asked him how the quality of seafood and vegetables in Richmond compares with what he had worked with in Hong Kong, his reply in Cantonese was accompanied by an expressive eye-roll. Yuen translated: “He says he doesn’t even want to talk about vegetables and fish from China. The water here is much less polluted. Their kitchen sources all of their seafood and greens from suppliers in Richmond and Vancouver.”
For some, like food writer Lee Man, those ingredients result in Chinese food that is so good it’s in a category of its own. Man, a founder of Canada’s Chinese Restaurant Awards, whose top spots are regularly swept by chefs from Richmond, had invited me for a morning tour of his favorite addresses.
I probably wouldn’t have found our first stop on my own. Kirin is carved out of a single level of a multistory parking garage. The abrupt transition from oil-stained concrete to plushly upholstered dim-sum palace felt like climbing down a manhole into Ali Baba’s cavern.
“Richmond has the best Chinese food outside of greater China — full stop,” Man said as Kirin’s attentive staff placed a succession of dumplings around a complimentary plate of house-made XO sauce, chewy with dried fish and shrimp. “Sure, there are pockets of good Chinese food in Queens, the Bay Area and more and more in Los Angeles,” he said. “Toronto has a lot of high-end, expense-account eating. But Richmond is superlative.”
To illustrate his point, Man lifted up one of the steamed rice rolls from the plate we were sharing — its wrapper had the elasticity of the finest of French crepes. “Kirin grinds their own rice flour to make a batter, and then they steam it over a cloth, and then let it set into a noodle,” he said. Inside were exquisitely delicate stalks of asparagus and sweet local scallops.
Our next stop, Golden Paramount, was a different kind of dim-sum experience. Beneath a tattered awning in a nondescript strip mall on Park Road, we entered a parlorlike room with a dozen or so tables. Families were bent over round tables, intent on their wontons and steamed buns; a grandmotherly woman next to us played mah-jongg on her smartphone.
“For a lot of Chinese diners, Golden Paramount is a kind of Platonic ideal,” Man said while surveying the room. “It’s a small, well-formed room. It’s not about flash, about showing off by having king crab or shark’s fin. It’s about simple food, well made.”
As our order arrived — the best dim sum in Richmond is not served via carts, but rather “hotel style,” plate by plate, in the Hong Kong tradition — I understood what he meant. We shared air-dried oysters, lightly deep-fried in a premium soy sauce, topped with sautéed greens, and perfectly done spring rolls whose sole stuffing was fresh-cut daikon. For the har gow, a dumpling that is the measure of any dim-sum restaurant, Man awarded Golden Paramount high marks. A bite pierced the translucent wheat-tapioca wrapper, yielding a burst of plump, sweet prawn.
“Take this deep-fried wonton,” said Man, holding up a particularly crispy example. “You think, it’s all wrapper, there’s no filling, what’s the point? The point is the delicateness of the frying. That’s what’s nice about Chinese food in Richmond. It pleases its own ideals. It doesn’t have to please outsiders. And the market is big enough that every cuisine, whether its Hunanese or contemporary Shanghainese, finds its clientele.”
HK B.B.Q. Master
Man insisted we make one last stop. Veering off No. 3 Road, he pulled his BMW into a city-block-size chain superstore. To my surprise, its parking lot was edged by hole-in-the-wall restaurants. The biggest line was outside HK B.B.Q. Master, where Man ordered a small plastic foam box heaped with char suy — slow-cooked barbecue pork.
“Sik fan,” he said, as we joined a knot of diners who, like us, couldn’t wait to get back to their cars to dig in. (“Let’s eat” is the no-nonsense Cantonese version of bon appétit.) Under light tooth pressure, the crispy skin parted to give way to surpassingly tender, salty meat. As we moaned in pleasure, Anson, the son of Eric Leung, the restaurant’s chef and owner, joined us in the parking lot and smiled.
“Good, huh?” he said. “We use a wheat-honey glaze. My dad worked in kitchens in Hong Kong for 20 years learning to do this. The chefs there wouldn’t give him their recipes. He just had to watch and learn. Now char suy like this is getting hard to find in Hong Kong.”
The most memorable eating I did in Richmond was in modest establishments on the scale of HK B.B.Q. Master. Lindsay Anderson had a similar experience chronicling meals in a different Richmond restaurant every day for a year in the blog 365daysofdining.com. At one of her favorite spots, Xi’an Cuisine, in the mezzanine food court of the Richmond Public Market, we shared four fried pork dumplings and a plate of preserved duck’s eggs drizzled with sediment-rich chile oil.
Anderson sampled fermented squid guts at a sushi bar, cubes of congealed pig’s blood in a Filipino stew, and discovered the pleasures of a macaroni-and-spam soup breakfast at a Hong Kong cafe.
“I felt like over the course of the year, I rewired my brain in terms of comfort food,” she said.
After one weekend, I, too, felt Richmond had subtly reconfigured my own culinary neurons. I had a new standard for xiao long bao, soup dumplings steamed with a cube of gelatinized broth inside and chopstick-pierced and -pinched by the topknot to suck out the broth. They had to be as succulent as the ones I’d sampled at Top Shanghai on No. 3 Road.
My breakfast repertoire had expanded to include the Hong Kong-style combo served at the Lido Restaurant: a bowl of congee with dried shrimp, served with a sugar-crisped pineapple bun — just out of the oven, so the thick slab of salty, cold butter in the middle is just starting to melt — accompanied by a hot mug of yin-yang tea, a tooth-raspingly tannic mix of tea and coffee.
And I discovered a new pilgrimage spot for future layovers at Vancouver International. Just before my flight left, I squeezed in one last ride on the Canada Line, this one to Aberdeen station. Riding an escalator to the mezzanine of President Plaza, I was hypnotized by the performance of the chef behind the counter of the tiny O’Tray Noodles. After pouring batter onto a circular griddle, he cracked and distributed two eggs over the setting crepe. With a few deft moves of his hands, he dotted it with a fiery chile sauce and scallions, filled it with broken pieces of phyllo-thin fried dough, folded it into a rectangle and, with a broad smile, handed it to me in a plastic basket.
Voilà: a perfectly formed jianbing, the savory crepe that is the street food of the northern Chinese city of Tianjin. Soft yet crispy, spicy yet soothing, and entirely typical of the Richmond eating experience — in a fluorescent-lit food court overlooking a mall parking lot, a stomach-pleasing miracle of authenticity.
IF YOU GO
Where to Eat
Richmond Night Market, Friday to Sunday and holidays, 7 p.m. to midnight through Oct. 11. Bridgeport Canada Line Station; richmondnightmarket.com
Parklane Chinese Restaurant, 7997 Westminster Highway; 604-273-0888.
Kirin Restaurant, 7900 Westminster Highway; kirinrestaurants.com.
Chef Tony Seafood Restaurant, 101-4600 No. 3 Road; cheftonycanada.com.
Top Shanghai, 5880 No.3 Road; topshanghaicuisine.com.
Golden Paramount Seafood Restaurant, 110-8111 Anderson Road.
M&W Food Kitchen, 8700 McKim Way; 604-233-1162.
Cafes and Food Courts
HK B.B.Q. Master, 4651 No. 3 Road; 604-272-6568.
OTray Noodles, 8181 Cambie Road; 778-829-7518.
Lido Restaurant, 4231 Hazelbridge Way; 604-231-0055.
Excellent Tofu & Snack, 4231 Hazelbridge Way; 604-232-0268.
Xi’an Cuisine, 8260 Westminster Highway; 604-279-9727.