Geography and history have conspired to make Vancouver, Canada a fantastic town for Asian cuisine. Geographically, Vancouver is the trading hub for British Columbia's farmers, vintners, cheese makers, and fishermen. Seafood is the city's specialty. Historically, entire families from Hong Kong have been migrating to Vancouver since the 1990s, after Hong Kong became a special administrative region of China. As a result, Vancouver is also home to the largest Chinese population outside of Asia, and Richmond, just one of many smaller towns which comprise Metro Vancouver, is the densest concentration of this population. Small wonder then that Richmond has over 400 Asian restaurants catering mainly to immigrants and ex-pats.
Since Richmond is not exactly Vancouver (although it is home to the Vancouver airport and will be the site of the speed skating competitions for the 2010 Winter Olympics), it's not exactly on the tourist radar, leaving only the most savvy Vancouverites and local foodies to debate who serves the best spring roll. The local favorites and the praised bests are always debatable, but here are a few ideas to get you off the beaten path and into "Asia West".
Embrace the Strip Mall
Strip malls reign as the most prominent form of small-scale economic development in suburban Metro Vancouver. Don't be afraid of them. If anything, this just makes the best restaurants more difficult to find, since the storefronts are typically set back from the street and they share the parking lot with pharmacies and supermarkets.
Two such spots are Vogue (1118-3779 Sexsmith Rd.; tel. 604/244-8885) and Posh (1123-3779 Sexsmith Rd.; tel. 604/303-7674; www.303-posh.com), which sit side by side and are run by the same owner. Vogue specializes in Taiwanese food served by pretty waitresses in a minimalist atmosphere; Posh is a Japanese sukiyaki-exclusive restaurant. Think of sukiyaki as the Japanese version of fondue, but without the cheese. Diners choose from a variety of oils and broths to cook veggies and meat in their own hotpot. Although slightly gimmicky (Posh claims to be the first sukiyaki restaurant in North America), both places take on a young, hip, and clubby atmosphere at dinner on the weekends. Who knew you'd be observing the dating rituals of Asian youth while enjoying dinner at a strip mall on your vacation?
For a more low-key experience, seek out Tsukiji (130-135, 4751 Garden City Rd.; tel. 604/276-2628) for Japanese. Instead of just the same old spicy crunchy tuna, Tsukiji rolls sushi of pickled plum and basil, real crab, and geoduck. For something warm, try the baked scallops and crab with miso mayonnaise, which manages to be delicate and comforting despite the presence of (or perhaps because of) home-made mayo.
Cantonese for All OccasionsRichmond is home to dozens of Cantonese restaurants -- which comes as no surprise since the majority of Chinese population hails from Hong Kong. For a real Richmond immersion, have dinner at a Hong Kong-style restaurant, where you'll be seated in a banquet hall at round tables with lazy susans. The large, seemingly decadent portions are intended to be shared, making a Hong Kong-style dinner perfect for a special occasion or a family night out. These restaurants have the capacity to seat hundreds of diners, either for parties or a typical Friday night. Admittedly, dinner for two at a Hong Kong-style restaurant can be a daunting experience, resulting in poor service from staff taxed to look after several parties. Although you'll miss out on the atmosphere, go for lunch instead when you'll likely be the only customers.
If your measure of a restaurant's authenticity is whether or not you are clearly the only non-local in the place, then head over to Jade Seafood Restaurant (8511 Alexandra Rd.; tel. 604/249-0082). The two banquet rooms of this true Hong Kong-style restaurant fill to complete capacity on weekend evenings with celebrating families. Arrive early. While the extensive menu doesn't disappoint with traditional seafood (shark's fin soup, lobster, fried whole king crab), the chef's do venture beyond. Try the seafood rice baked and served in a conch shell or perhaps the Thai clay pot soup with a hint of lemongrass. At Kirin Restaurant (7900 Westminster Highway; tel. 604/303-8833; www.kirinrestaurant.com), another banquet hall, each dish arrives with a silver cover that is ceremoniously removed. Kirin is slightly more upscale than Jade, but the rock salt lobster is worth the splurge.
Another Hong Kong-style meal is dim sum. The question of who serves the best dim sum is a perennial favorite for Vancouver foodies. Although many Cantonese restaurants in Richmond serve dim sum in the mornings, Shiang Garden (#2200 Empire Centre, 4540 No. 3 Rd.; tel. 604/273-8858) is Richmond's main contender for the crown. Dim sum morsels arrive in their steam baskets, instead of via push cart. Choose from a long list of vegetarian and omnivore friendly dim sum. Now's your chance to try the century egg, a hard boiled pickled egg that tastes far more complex than it sounds. After your meal, roll yourself downstairs for a quick peak at the event center. You'll likely not be seated here, but there may be Cantonese opera karaoke going on, even in the morning.
Not Your Average Trip to the Market
Like most suburbs, Richmond is full of malls. But unlike your typical suburb, these malls are chocked full of stores selling Asian goods. To continue on your culinary odyssey, pop in at the Yaohan Centre (3700 No. 3 Road; tel. 604/231-0601). You can pick up a meal to go at the Osaka Supermarket, which has its own bakery, fish market, and army of cooks preparing take-away sushi by the piece, dumplings, and full hot meals. Stroll through the fruit and vegetable aisles for a lesson in the diverse fruits and greens of Asia or take a peak at the dizzying candy aisle. Be sure to pick up some dried shrimp candy for the road.
If you didn't find something delectable at the market, go for a spin through the food court. While recommending tourists visit a mall food court is usually sacrilege in travel writing, what you'll find here is in fact a good (and authentic) sampling of Asian street food -- no Sbarro's or Cinnabon. Whether you want noodles, duck, or bubble tea, Cantonese, Hong Kongese, Taiwanese, or Szechuan, you can get your fill quick, easy, and cheap at one of the dozen stands. Plus, you can pop into the Chinese herbalist for a soothing concoction for all manner of joint pains, muscle aches, and blood problems.
If you're visiting in the summer, skip dinner one night and go to the Richmond Night Market (River Rd.; www.richmondnightmarket.com). This outdoor summer market features vendors selling all manner of everyday goods made in China (nothing you couldn't get your local mall or discount shop) and over 50 food stalls. Each stall is its own kitchen, offering up the freshest-made finger foods -- most are made on the spot. Even if you stick to the familiar bubble tea and crepes, you can still watch the cooks prepare savory Japanese shrimp takoyaki, powdery Chinese Dragon's Beard candy, Bruneian barbeque or sweet car-wheel cakes. Bring C$10 and eat like a king standing up. The night market is open May to October (check website for 2008 opening date), Friday and Sunday and is located in northern Richmond, along the north arm of the Fraser River.
Getting There and Getting Around
Although several restaurants and malls are within walking distance of each other, if you intend on visiting more than one restaurant then you will need a car to explore Richmond. If you're driving from the States, you'll pass through Richmond before reaching Vancouver, making any one of the above restaurants great for a pit stop. Dozens of restaurants are located in what is called the "Golden Village," less than a mile from the Vancouver International Airport. The Village is bounded loosely by Cambie Road and Granville Avenue to the north and south, and No. 3 and Shell Roads to the west and east. Highway 99 cuts through Richmond on its way to Vancouver (where it becomes Oak Street). You can pick up a local map at the Tourism Richmond (www.tourismrichmond.com) visitor center, located off Highway 99, just past the George Massey Tunnel.
Construction on a new light rail line that will connect Richmond with Vancouver should be completed by 2010, in time for the Olympics. Until then, bus no. 98 is quick and convenient. Hop on at Burrard Street downtown and get off along No. 3 Road, which intersects nearly every street where the above restaurants are located. The bus will also drop you off in front of the Yaohan Centre or the Aberdeen Centre (www.aberdeencentre.com), another Asian mall, in the heart of the Golden Village.
Thanks are due to Tourism Richmond for all their help in researching this article.