Escape from Seattle: A Japanese Interlude in Vancouver

by on April 9, 2011

In the second of three food reports from Vancouver (the previous covering some splurges and snacks), I offer a Japanese interlude. The featured eateries:

  • Kingyo
  • Gyoza King
  • Manzo Japanese Restaurant
  • Japadog
  • Benkei Ramen
  • Kintaro Ramen
  • Motomachi Shokudo
  • Hokkaido Ramen Santouka
  • G-Men Noodle House

Izakayas

Immediately after a multicourse meal elsewhere, this power eater kept a commitment to meet a friend at Kingyo, a hip izakaya with a sense of humor (check out the menu descriptions, coasters, etc.) off Robson in the West End of Vancouver. We sat at the counter, where I sampled sake in a traditional wooden box (well, in a glass with spillover into the box), and where we ordered a number of small plates. The sashimi is fresh and delicious, and the carpaccio dishes creative.  Must-have is the beef tongue, which comes thin-sliced and raw, ready for you to quickly cook on a hot stone. Be sure to eat with the yuzu red pepper and negi—the Japanese “leeks” which most restaurants in Seattle sadly don’t serve.

Due to challenges with my then-new camera, the only two items I can share are non-Japanese: bibimbop and tan tan noodles. With the noodles billed as “Famous Invincible & Undefeated,” I couldn’t resist, especially to compare to my own, as tan tan (or dan dan) is one of my emergency menu items when there’s nothing else to cook at home. This version is good, soupier than mine, with a spicy miso pork sauce that I enjoyed. With a cool vibe and great food, I’d be eager to return to Kingyo anytime.

Nearby is Gyoza King, which is much more traditional in its feel and its offerings. (See the interior shot at the top of this post.) It’s also fun, with good izakaya fare. This place begs for beer-drinking, and prices are reasonable. And Gyoza King is great for a group, as I was part of one evening, allowing a chance to sample many small plates. We had a large range of dishes, including, clockwise from top left, agedashi tofu, gyutan (beef tongue skewers), nankotsu karaage (fried chicken cartilage), and my favorite dish of the night: tako wasa (short for tako wasabi, or octopus with wasabi).

Richmond is seeing some izakaya action, and there’s a good one in the restaurant row of Alexandra Road. This is where I discovered Manzo Japanese Restaurant, my final stop of a three-part dinner. (The other two restaurants, not surprisingly, were Chinese, and I’ll include them in my final Vancouver report.) Like Kingyo and Gyoza King, Manzo is a welcoming izakaya with friendly service, though a little quieter (much to my liking) than other places.

The sashimi surpassed my expectations, reminding me that the quality of seafood is high in Vancouver—even in places not necessarily known for fish. The robata and kitchen items were also very good. Highlights of the dinner included, clockwise from the top left, a sashimi platter (with aji, kinmedai, amaebi, saba, and salmon), a plate of “yakitori” (enoki beef maki, tsukune, and chicken), live hotate yaki (grilled scallop), and my favorite dish of the meal: kamo no mustard (duck slices in sauce with spicy mustard).

Interlude-within-an-Interlude: Japadog

If you find yourself walking around Vancouver and see a hot dog stand, take a closer look. You may have stumbled upon Japadog, which puts a whole new twist on weiners. (We have a copy-cat Gourmet Dog Japon Dog, down at Pike Place Market, but I’ve yet to try it.)

These are fun hot dogs, and there are all kinds of possible combinations. You can have beef or pork (go kurobuta!), or even bratwurst. The oroshi is good, with grated daikon a nice complement to the meat. Terimayos are tempting; I can’t resist the squiggle of wasabi mayonnaise and thin slices of nori on my dog.

Ramen Shops

Benkei is a Canadian chain (which actually expanded to Japan) where I tried the akaoni ramen, seduced by the promise of a “burning sensation followed by the soothing delicious taste is going to make you come back for more.” Akaoni loosely translates to red demon, and the broth features “many kinds of spicy ingredients” mixed with miso, along with burned garlic-sesame oil. The minced pork is an interesting twist, reminding me of my version of dan dan noodles. Ultimately, I prefer a simpler ramen, but the flavor was good and the heat really hit the spot, intensifying as I ate quickly, and leaving me with a slightly sweaty upper lip and a smile.

Motomachi Shokudo takes pride in using organic chickens, eggs, and vegetables. I love the mission statement, which says they “are dedicated to serving well-balanced ramen with flavours of the earth, ocean, and culture.” Their nama-shoyu (unpasteurized, raw soy sauce) ramen is quite good, and the offering of burnt-oil flavored oil on the side is one you should experiment with, adding earthy depth to the broth. And be sure to try out the long, missile-like gyoza. They’re perfectly pan-seared and delicious.

Hokkaido Ramen Santouka is an import from Japan that seems to be the rage on Robson Street. Their menu discusses the secret to what they call their mild, pearl-colored tonkotsu soup (tonkotsu, or pork bone broth, is their specialty), saying that “we value the exceptional flavor and aroma of our signature soup and ensure that it isn’t diminished by boiling.” So if the temperature is a little low, that’s the explanation, but a chance to inform you that ramen should be eaten in seven minutes to maintain noodle integrity. Santouka, like Motomachi, features fresh, bright eggs and really good noodles.

Ah, Kintaro. This is the stalwart ramen joint in Vancouver. It’s full of rules, like no credit cards, no changes to the order, and no take out. The lines to get in can still be long, and the ambiance is a bit gritty feeling compared to the newer places. I’m not sure of the allure. The shoyu ramen is weak and watery. The pork is fattier than what I’ve had elsewhere, though that may be your preference. And don’t bother with an extra dollar for the egg, as it’s a sad gray color and lacking the bright yolk I found everywhere else. Even the gyoza at Kintaro is ordinary.

Last, but far from least, is G-Men Noodle Shop. It’s worth the trip to Richmond. You’ll need to do what I did, and go twice if you want to sample their different soups. Lunch is when they serve shoyu and shio (salt) versions, whereas evening brings the heavier tonkotsu shoyu and tonkotsu miso.

Be prepared to wait, but the wait is well worth it. I’ve had great ramen in Tokyo and environs, and this is close if not equal—and easily best I’ve had outside of Japan. The shoyu broth has a wonderfully pork-filled flavor while still being light—kissed by some very thin slices of yuzu. (I’m told there’s also shrimp paste adding its unique essence.) The jagged noodles are cooked just right, still a little firm to the tooth. The egg yolk is brilliantly yellow, and the chashu (pork) is tender and fatty. Fast forward to evening, and you’ll be equally satisfied with the richer tonkotsu broth. G-Men is part of the Gyoza King group. I can’t wait to return, as well as to also try Gyo-O, serving seafood donburi and more in the same shopping center.

Hey, Gyoza guys, can you please expand to Seattle?

As much as I love Japanese food in Seattle, and we’re lucky to have some of the best the country, the Japanese food in Vancouver is simply a cut above. The seafood seems to be better quality, the izakaya scene is thriving, and the ramen, particularly at G-Men, is at a whole different level. But the gap is not as pronounced as exists with comparing Chinese food in Seattle and Vancouver—or, especially, Richmond. More about that next, in a final report from up north about drunken chicken, beef noodle soup, dim sum, and xiao long bao.

It’s been nearly a month since the devastating earthquake and tsunami hit Japan. While worries about radiation remain in the news, the country continues to experience aftershocks and the Japanese people, especially in the hard-hit areas, face severe shortages of food, water, power, medicine, and other supplies.

Seattle cherishes a close relationship with Japan, and we’ve already had a number of fundraisers to help out. But more help is needed. Look for more Red, White and Unite events in the future. Continue to donate to the Red Cross if you can. And note that on May 5, Seattle’s best sushi chefs (and some of the city’s best non-sushi chefs) will join forces as the Sushi Dream Team for what promises to be a fun and fantastic charity event.

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