So – it’s been eleven years since the Chinese Restaurant Awards first made their debut. ELEVEN YEARS!!! Holy cow! When the awards first started out, restaurants were quite suspicious. They would not believe that judges would give their deserving dishes an award, based not upon some sort of payoff – but on actual merit! Now, it’s a real honor to give these awards and have them accepted graciously and in the spirit of celebrating excellence.
Each year the judges get together and we ready ourselves for the amount of eating that lays ahead of us. It always amazes us that no matter how far we cast our net, there are always new fantastic dishes to discover from unexpected corners of Vancouver. Not only is the choice of local Chinese food in wide ranging – but the depth and care of the cooking remains superb.
When I complain about how much I have to eat, I get very little sympathy. Classic “First World Problem” I am told, and my friends are right. And secretly, my complaints are actually boasts. How else am I going to to brag about our local Chinese food without being obnoxious. So, without further ado, and in no particular order, here are this year’s Chinese Restaurant Award winning dishes.
Crispy Roast Pork Belly – Fortune Terrace Chinese Cuisine
Let’s be honest, roast pork belly is pretty ubiquitous on Chinese restaurant menus, most often showing up on sad appetizer platters – paired with mayonnaise prawns, bouncy jelly fish (which we are going to be eating alot more of if the oceans keep warming up) and perhaps the dreaded ‘vegan’ goose tofu skin rolls. But the version at Fortune Terrace Chinese Cuisine, is altogether of a different caliber. Roasted in house, seasoned perfectly to bring out clean meaty porkiness, succulent ‘five flowered’ flesh against crisped skin. Gorgeous! It reminds you why roast pork is remains the most popular celebratory dish for Chinese families to order.
Shanghai Style Fried Pork Buns – Mama’s Dumpling
Mama’s dumpling is EXACTLY the kind of place that you suspect the late Jonathan Gold would have loved. Hidden away in an industrial park, manned by a slightly eccentric owner, with a dish that is prepared without compromise.
These pan fried dumplings are a Shanghainese classic. When I lived in Shanghai, street stalls with giant circular pans would sell these beauties as a breakfast treat. Mama’s makes them to order to maintain peak freshness – pan fries them patiently so that they burst with super hot brothy pork filling. And in all seriousness, one should be very careful with these dumplings – they are a burn hazard. My method is to take a chopstick and poke a hole at the top to let out some steam, pour in a little black vinegar, sip carefully before going in for big bites. And then I reach for the next one. And maybe another. Okay – one last dumpling….
Grilled Rock Fish with Chinese Spices – Li’s China Grill
There has been an EXPLOSION of Northern Chinese restaurants locally, but sometimes all I taste is condiment – hot muddy spices obliterating everything else. Here, they know how to balance excitement with substance. The spices are alive and fresh – brightened with green herbs and crisp peanuts – but the you never lose the clean sweetness of the fish. The rock cod is roasted to an unexpected firmness so that it holds up to the heat of chilies and bite of cumin and Sichuan peppercorn. We added pickled vegetables and lotus root to round out this dish. Icy cold beers are a necessity – cooling in both the sense of temperature and the Chinese ideals of the heating and cooling balance of foods. “Gwielo” Herbal Tea, is Chinese slang for beer…
Dungeness Crab with Zhejiang Sauce and Noodles – Lougheed Wonton Restaurant
Zheijang sauce is one of those dishes that have traveled throughout China (and beyond to Korea) and varies profoundly with each incarnation. What started out as a fermented sweet soy bean sauce in Shandong has morphed to a ketchup (!) based pork ragout style sauce in Hong Kong. It’s a classic topping for alkaline noodles and a staple of proper HK style wonton houses. For Hong Kongers like myself – it is such a profound taste memory, that when you stumble on a well made one, it feels like you’ve been struck by lightning. It should be rich, slightly oily (but not greasy) – tightly textured, sweet and meaty with a slight lick of heat. At Lougheed Wonton they serve their excellent version with Dungeness crab – accentuating its inherent briny sweetness. Long strands of perfectly textured wonton noodles soak up all of the sauce and crab juices. It’s an all-out-hands-on experience that will test your chopsticks skills with slippery crab legs and noodles. You’ll end up with a full belly and a pile of dirty napkins.
Stir Fried Spicy Clams – The Fish Man
When I was a kid, stir fried clams were something we ordered all the time – flashed cooked in a wok with black beans and garlic. They were superb – sweet and fresh, with a fun factor of having to use your figures to get at every bit of clam and sauce. Now, you hardly see them on menus, with the exception of the street stall versions at the Temple Street Market in Hong Kong. It’s kind of baffling why they are no longer popular at Cantonese restaurants, especially when you try this gorgeous Northern Chinese version at the Fish Man. It’s exactly how I remember them – only now amped up with salted peppers to really kick up the appetite. Every table at The Fish Man orders these clams and it’s a welcome return of a classic.
BC Geoduck Duo: Steamed Fillets with Wasabi, Stir Fried with Eggs & Black Truffles – Chef Tony Seafood Restaurant
I grew up with geoduck clams being considered a junk seafood – my family dug them up without any hassles all along Crescent Beach. No one wanted these oddly shaped monster clams. Try that now – and you’ll end up in jail faster than if you exposed your personal geoduck. Ha! These clams are among the most expensive seafoods in the world, worth hundreds of dollars each at reputable Chinese restaurants. At this price, diners and restaurateurs are at loathe to do anything to ruin them. Generally the trunk of the clam (BTW – geoducks are know as Elephant Trunk Clams in Chinese), is skinned, painstakingly thinly sliced (a real test of kitchen knife skills), and served either sashimi style or ever-so-slightly blanched in superior stock.
Chef Tony adheres very closely to the less is more approach, with batons of geoduck steamed with wasabi and ginger. It’s a beautiful beautiful dish. The baton shape giving the right amount of snap and heft to protect the clam from overcooking, the ginger highlighting the clean sweetness of the geoduck, while wasabi providing lift so that the dish does not veer into cloying (a common issue with raw shellfish). It’s classic Cantonese cooking at its finest. Focus and balance, technique that demands dexterity and yet seems effortless, a revered ingredient elevated to the best version of itself.
Braised Spareribs with Cranberry – Happy Valley Seafood Restaurant
Now that Hoi Tong Seafood Restaurant has closed, I had resigned myself that I would never taste their hawthorn berry sweet and sour pork ever again. But then I had this fantastic version at Happy Valley – and I noticed a lost in translation naming situation. The western name for this dish notes the use of cranberry, but the Chinese name of this dish is actually hawthorn berry ribs. A miracle!?! A call to the restaurant manager has not cleared up this difference in names… I’ve been told it’s a chef’s secret as to what berries are actually being used. Regardless, the sauce has a fruit forward sweetness and balance that is perfect. The ribs are flash fried at the last minute – crisp and tender, perfectly napped in the right amount of sauce. What’s the secret ingredient? If you ask me, I think it’s hawthorn berry juice – but I can live with not knowing, especially when ignorance so delicious.
Dried Scallop & Vermicelli Clay Pot – The Jade Seafood Restaurant
The English have a word to describe a dish that is perfect here – ‘moreish’. A dish that is so delicious and approachable that you can’t stop eating it. It not just about something that tastes good, but flavors with an ease and brightness so that you palate never wearies of it. You find yourself reaching for seconds, thirds, and fourths…. I’ve eaten with people who take a small spoonful of this vermicelli hot pot, and their eyes widen with surprise.
The slight smokiness of preserved meats, the crunch of sprouts, dried scallops and slivers of shiitakes coming alive with umami – the delicate texture of egg threads and buoyant rice vermicelli. The attention to detail to each component imbues the dish with a sense of luxuriousness despite the humbleness of the ingredients. It all comes together perfectly. Then my dining companions, reach for more and more spoonfuls, trying not to be unseemly – but they can’t hide their greed. Who can blame them?
Slow cooked Angus Triple-A Beef Short Rib with Black Pepper Sauce – The Jade Seafood Restaurant
Beef is generally not a focus in Chinese cooking. Cows and oxen were working animals in Chinese culture rather than a food source, and you only ate them when they were old and could no longer could help you till the land. Most Chinese preparations hinge on slow cooking to bring tenderness and to draw out every bit of hard won flavor. Here, beef short ribs are braised to melting tenderness, with floral black pepper providing a sharp counterpoint and a touch of honey to round out the deep meatiness. Cantonese cooking technique focus on clarity, which can be slightly at odds with the richness of beef, but here everything works. It’s glorious dish, one that demands a bowl of white rice to sop up all the wonderful sauce.
Herbal Chinese Wine Chicken Hot Pot – Mui Kee Chicken Pot
All of sudden, Chinese Hot Pot restaurants are everywhere. They play into the Chinese ideals of boisterous communal dining (I mean – you are literally eating out of the same pot with your companions). And if you order well, the meal is also economical for the diner, and for the restaurant – provides a reasonable margin, since you do the cooking. The potential for short cuts and crappy meals is, unfortunately, rather high. At Mui Kee though, there is attention to detail that shows the restaurateurs really care. The broth is rich with rice wine and high quality herbs – providing a resinous almost bitter backbone to the dish. The chicken itself has been carefully preseasoned so that it retains it’s meaty silkiness despite being boiled in the soup for an extended period. The result is a hot pot that both deeply restorative and delicious – an ideal that is rarely achieved.
Roasted Salt Free Range Chicken – Western Lake Chinese Seafood Restaurant
The chicken here is not really salt baked – but rather poached in a broth rich with galangal (or ‘sand ginger’ in Chinese). The slightly peppery gingeriness imbues the clean sweetness of free range chicken with an earthy depth – a Cantonese classic pairing. I could tell just by looking at the chicken that it was poached perfectly – plump and juicy, but not over boiled, the skin still taut and glossy. A lot of care put into a simple dish. This has become one of my favorite chicken dishes in all of Vancouver. The food at Western Lake is focused on good value and family friendly flavors (and there isn’t anything wrong with that of course) – but this succulent chicken dish would not be out of place at any of number of Vancouver’s high end Chinese restaurants. It’s a must order.
So there you go – this year’s list of the Best Chinese Dishes in Vancouver. There is deliciousness at every price point, every style of Chinese food, and every little corner of the Lower Mainland. The judges hope this list provides you with a little bit of encouragement to go forth, explore, and eat!!
** All photos courtesy of the Chinese Restaurant Awards