It’s easy to think of Vancouver as the place to visit when traveling to the Lower Mainland of British Columbia, but there is much more to do, see and eat in the outlying areas. This is not news to me or those of you who know that I regularly rave about Richmond, just south of Vancouver, for its wealth of outstanding Chinese restaurants. (And, bonus, for my favorite ramen in North America.)
As Vancouver grows, population is pushing out to the east, bringing diversity to the area—with many drawn to the beautiful nature right in the backyard of the big city. This, of course, means interesting new restaurants to explore. SkyTrain makes it easy to get out of Vancouver for a day-trip. Or make the area a visit of its own, as I recently did, returning to explore more of Burnaby, and getting to New Westminster and Coquitlam for the first time.
As “The Mein Man,” I’m always on a quest for noodles, so that’s my primary focus in reporting on some restaurants in these three cities. In the process of eating a dozen noodle dishes in 2-day stretch, I found the good and the not-so-good, as well as some other items to recommend. And to quench your thirst, I’ll throw in a few beer breweries that will help add to your carb intake.
If you’re staying overnight, chances are you’ll be at a Metrotown area hotel. And this means you’ll be mighty close to the Crystal Mall. Contained within this at times labyrinth-like shopping center is a Chinese “open-air” food market on the ground floor with a food court above it, making this an Asian food mecca.
The food court is basically open 11 until 8, so it’s ideal for lunch or early dinner. Lunchtime gets quite crowded, with competition for seating, but you can perhaps share a table and in this process share information about best bites to eat.
For noodles, I recommend Huaxi Noodle Specialist. Here I had Guizhou-style house special beef noodle soup with tendon and tripe. As Guizhou province borders Sichuan, Chongqing and Hunan, the food is predictably spicy, but also has some sour notes. The homemade noodles are on the soft side (a general Chinese preference), but they certainly don’t slight you on the amount. Can they cram any more in the cup? I wish there was more broth to balance the noodles (or at least a wider bowl to make eating them easier), but have no complaints about the flavor, bursting with heat that’s tempered by the pickled vegetables.
If you’re looking for a small bite to accompany the noodles, get a lamb burger at your desired spice level at Want Want Hot & Spicy House. They also spice (and grill) the homemade bun, making it more flavorful than the dull, dry buns that often burden these burgers. And if you need some dumplings (of course you do!), Shanghai Dimsum House (recently called Xu’s Wonton) has made-to-order xiao long bao (a bit rustic with a thicker and chewier wrapper than at other places, but a good amount of soup inside) and its pan-fried relative: sheng jian bao. Heed the sign that warns “Please be aware of hot juice in our buns.”
There are many more vendors in the food court where you can try more noodles and other Asian food, as well as satisfy your bubble tea fix. Some places specialize in a select number of dishes, while others have an astonishing amount of items with signs completely plastering their walls. Note that most of these places are cash-only, so come prepared. This is especially true if you try one of the full-service restaurants on the first floor of Crystal Mall, like S&W Pepper House (I had the boiled sliced fish with assorted vegetables and minced pork with pickled long beans, both of which were decent), where the workers are known for admonishing you to leave a tip; I’ve heard stories of them actually chasing customers who failed to leave a large enough sum.
After all of that spicy food, it’s probably time for a beer or two. While it seems like Canadians have always loved their beer, the craft beer movement is upping the ante. The commitment at the local breweries is small: Sample at the tasting room and then decide whether you want bottles or a fill of your growler to take some home. Dageraad Brewing is a good example. This brewery has a tiny tasting room (with overflow encroaching on the production area) where you can enjoy a flight of the beer they craft in the Belgian tradition. The Burnabarian is a good table beer, smooth and yet slightly “spicy” with coriander notes. Another place to try is the Steamworks Brewery & Taproom. If you’re familiar with the famous steam clock in Gastown, you’ll appreciate that Steamworks is indeed a steam-generated brewery. Here I found the seasonal Winter White Stout enchanting, caramel-colored but still with prominent coffee and chocolate notes.
Beyond Crystal Mall, I sampled a few more Chinese restaurants in Burnaby. Dim sum in the Vancouver area is a treat (far better than what we find in Seattle), and Grand Dynasty Seafood Restaurant is no exception. The overflow dining into the adjoining Japanese izakaya is strange and takes away from the spirit of the experience, but with cart-less service offering freshness, you get the same food as everyone else. The standard-bearer har gow (shrimp dumplings) are a little disappointing (missing the tell-tale snap of the shrimp), but other dumplings are delicious, like the spinach and dried scallop version. Adventurous eaters should sample the beef tripe with BBQ sauce and chicken feet with spicy sauce. The baked BBQ pork buns are on the sweet side and a nice way to end dim sum if you don’t choose a real dessert, and the steamed rice noodle rolls are a sure bet. And there’s your noodle (if you’ll allow the leeway) recommendation for this restaurant!
In contrast to the glitz and glamor of Grand Dynasty, Pearl House has the casual feel of a Taiwanese restaurant that appeals to the young and young-at-heart, with pop/rock bands performing on the screen and blasting through the speakers. The house beef shank, tendon and tripe noodle soup (also available without tendon or tripe) is pleasant, with thick wavy noodles a terrific choice for their texture. Carb lovers can supplement the noodle soup with an order of boiled dumplings, plump with pork and green onions. The ma po tofu comes in a big portion, with a little la (spice) but missing ma (numbness). Skip the marinated chicken gizzards, sliced too small and losing the textural experience that normally typifies the dish.
As in Seattle, I see a number of pho (sometimes called Vietnamese beef noodle soup) restaurants in the area, but I’m always on the quest for the elusive bun bo hue, which led me to Broken Rice. This is a more upscale restaurant, with linens on the tables and higher prices on the menu. Not surprisingly, the bun bo hue is a more refined version with good lemongrass flavor in the broth, but while there’s beef shank and “pressed” ham, missing are the ham hock, pork blood and other goodies that usually make the dish so soulful. While the presentation of all the dishes is nice (one hiccup in forgetting one item we ordered), the flavors in the prawn mango salad, tamarind prawns, and coconut-braised pork belly fall just a little flat. In contrast to all of the hole-in-the-wall Asian joints in the area, Broken Rice is a good gateway restaurant for those new to Asian cuisine. But at this higher price point, I expect more; given all the good food I found elsewhere in Burnaby, I’d rather pay less for bolder food.
[On that note, I should add a note about two Chinese restaurants I’ve visited in Burnaby in the past. Lao Shan Dong Homemade Noodle Soup does a good version of beef noodle soup. And Alvin Garden is still my top recommendation in Burnaby. It’s a challenge to find Hunanese restaurants in most of North America, so this place is a real treasure, with special appeal to serious spice lovers.]
Noodle lovers will want a meal at Longtail Kitchen. This casual restaurant serves Thai-street food with contemporary twists. I was lucky to be there on a day they had boat noodles, a beloved dish that’s hard to find elsewhere. In the bloody broth (well, not so bloody, though blood is an essential ingredient to make the dish authentic) are rice noodles along with braised beef, ground beef and beef balls. So, as with the bun bo hue at Broken Rice, it’s missing the “nasty bits” that I crave for flavor and texture, but the dish is still pleasant. The laksa has round rice noodles and good flavor, though like the boat noodles, could be bolder. What really impressed this noodle-lover at Longtail Kitchen were two snacks: crispy chicken wings and tempura fried oysters. Light frying seems to be the strong suit of the kitchen; the chicken wings are simply ethereal, with the perfect balance of sweetness, saltiness and spiciness. Overall: interesting food at reasonable pricing and worth a visit.
[If you have time and stomach space, or even better looking for something to eat on the train as I did when departing Vancouver, stop at sister restaurant Freebird (Chicken Shack). Here they serve free-range, hormone-free, organic chicken, offering it by the quarter of half either Hainanese-style (poached, served with pickles, broth and rice) or rotisserie-style (roasted, served with papaya salad, peanuts and chicken rice). You’ll also get a choice of six sauces. The Hainanese is good, though falling short of the stunning preparation at Nong’s Khao Man Gai in Portland. Better is the rotisserie, which pairs well with “Mom’s Spicy Sambal” sauce which they warned is super-spicy, but was no problem for me.]
If it were possible, you’d want to bring Longtail Kitchen’s chicken wings to Steel & Oak Brewing Co. to create a perfect pairing. The brew-master trained in Germany and has an affinity to smoke. This was my favorite brewery in the area. I fell in love with both the Smoked Hefeweizen and the Smoked Dunkelweizen. Fascinating beers!
Coquitlam (“red fish up the river”) is also a growing city, with prominent Korean, Chinese and Persian communities. Here I did a run of four consecutive restaurant meals. From least favorite to most favorite, let’s start with Kimbab Cheonguk. With a super-casual atmosphere, young servers, and overly sweet flavors, this Korean restaurant clearly caters to a young clientele. This might explain a dish called al bab, which was a bibimbap containing mozzarella cheese. What I like about bibimbap are the various components you see before “bibim-ing” (mixing) the dish. Unfortunately, the cheese glops up the whole affair, with the other ingredients too soft, such that the only texture comes from the crisped rice at the bottom of the dolsot bowl and the tobiko (fish roe) in the dish. (The accompanying sauces are a bit mysterious, including a gochujang that’s too diluted and sweet.) Ra bokki, a fun combination of ramen noodles and rice cakes known as dukbokki, also suffers from being a little too sweet. The same for the bibim naengmyeon, my other noodle pick, though you can customize the flavor by adding (hot) mustard and vinegar.
Another Korean place, Wonjo BBQ & Noodle Restaurant, fared a bit better. Here my noodle choice was sa gol kalguksu, prepared on the fire at the table. One of several kalguksu dishes available, this one is noted for its creamy beef bone broth. The flour noodles cook in the rapidly boiling broth until soft. As with sul lang tang, more and more salt brings out the flavor in this noodle soup. Less appealing: the jap chae with glass noodles, this version rather bland and ordinary. Intriguing, though, is the haemul pajeon (seafood pancake), thicker than many I’ve tried and quite crispy.
When I mentioned I was visiting Coquitlam, my friends who didn’t say “Where?” recommended I try Kulinarya. It’s rare to find Filipino food, and this restaurant does it right. First of all, the place is charming, with a homey bistro feeling. The workers are helpful and friendly, and the food is fantastic. I was excited to order the pancit malabon. Malabon is the owner’s hometown, a seaside community known for its seafood, making this a version of pancit I’d yet to try. The thick rice noodles are a vehicle to eat mussels, squid, octopus and shrimp—but most surprising to see were little dried anchovies, contributing bitter, fishy flavor. Annatto oil colors the dish, and kalamansi spikes it with sweet citrus. Satisfying my love of offal, I also enjoyed dinuguan (braised pork in a tangy pork blood stew) and sizzling sisig (crispy minced pork egg with egg). And I quickly came to appreciate why nearly every table ordered the crispy pata, as the deep-fried pork leg is rich with the skin on, though vinegar helps cut the fat. I can see why my friends in the know recommended Kulinarya.
My favorite meal of the trip was at Legend House, where dish after dish absolutely delivered. Advertised as a Sichuanese restaurant, the kitchen includes a chef from Shanghai, which explains why the xiao long bao are fantastic: thin-skinned dumplings plump with delicious broth giving a tell-tale droop when lifted. Some say the beef rolls at Peaceful Restaurant in Vancouver are the best in the area, but the Legend beef rolls are even better—more crispy with nice five-spice flavor in the beef and the right amount of sweet hoisin sauce. The Legend boiled fish in chili oil is far better than the version I ate at S&W Pepper House, with better quality fish, a cleaner-tasting broth, and plenty of ma la numbing spice. As for noodles, the Szechuan beef soup noodles is also delicious. The freshly made noodles are very springy. Upon entry to the restaurant, a large window enables you to immediately see the chef making the noodles, which you can order either hand-dragged (long, round and softer) or blade-sheared (wide, flat and chewy). The noodle variety, the number of noodle dishes, and the overall menu give me many reasons to want to return to Legend House.
Thanks to Westcoast Food for hosting my trip, in collaboration with Tourism Burnaby, Tourism New Westminster and Tourism Coquitlam. My stay was at the Element Vancouver Metrotown (a Starwood property), where I enjoyed fresh fruit (much more was available!) each morning before heading out for my massive amount of eating. The hotel is comfortable and convenient.