Escape from Seattle: North to Vancouver (and Richmond) for the Best Chinese Food in North America

by on April 22, 2011

Following my first two Vancouver reports (splurges and snacks, then Japanese food), here is a report on the real reason I love to go to Vancouver—and especially Richmond: really good Chinese food. (All places are in Richmond, unless otherwise noted.)

This report will cover:

Dim Sum: Cantonese

When not taking the train, I like to leave Seattle by car about 9:15 a.m., which avoids morning rush hour traffic. It also means arriving in Richmond before noon, which is good timing for dim sum seating. (Even better, if you can, is to arrive before 11 a.m., as some restaurants discount dim sum up to 30 percent, though not all dishes may be available.)

Perhaps the fanciest and priciest of dim sum places is Kirin, which has an outpost downtown in addition to its Richmond location. At these prices, expect high quality—and Kirin delivers it, though I think the Richmond restaurant is slightly better than downtown. Har gow (shrimp dumplings) is the item by which I measure dim sum quality, and Kirin’s is right near the top. Kirin is a good place to introduce newbies to dim sum items like har gow, siu mai (another dumpling—the scallop one is especially delicious), hum bao (barbequed pork bun), and the like. Maybe challenge them with fried taro puffs (pictured below, with the har gow), which are a favorite. You’ll get a fancy feeling being seated here and ordering off the dim sum menu. (As much as I find cart service fun, asking for peeks below the bamboo basket lids, I find the quality of the made-fresh-to-order dim sum better.)

I’d been to both Empire Chinese Cuisine on Alexandra Road and Empire Seafood Restaurant at Westminster Highway and No. 3 Road, but tips from friends on what to order made me realize that the latter Empire is the one to admire. Empire Seafood seems more popular than ever, and as at any of these dim sum places, I highly recommend a reservation—especially if you’re going with a group and on the weekend. You’ll want one here. The har gow is pretty good, as are most of the other dishes. I highly recommend the sweet pork buns (a nice alternative to the traditional hum bao), geoduck and razor clam congee, and the baked tapioca pudding (with “pineapple”-looking top) for dessert. (Har gow, siu mai, tapioca pudding, and sweet pork buns are pictured below.)

By far my top pick for dim sum is Shiang Garden. It’s elegant like Kirin, with nice linens and high-back chairs. Typical with places like this, it’s hard to get a smile with your service, but the servers are earnest and polite. You’ll want to order an extra basket or two of har gow (pictured below, along with the chicken feet), as this is the best around, and everyone will want seconds or thirds. Whereas at other places the shrimp is chopped up and clumpy, here you can see the whole shrimps through the thin, translucent dumpling wrappers. They’re plump and juicy, sweet and slightly briny. The dumplings offer a crisp bite—a snap of freshness that tastes, well, almost alive.

If Shiang Garden has them, be sure to also get the shrimp, ginger and century egg rolls, chicken feet in black bean sauce, and duck tongues with tofu or whatever way they offer them. Avoid the xiao long bao. I doubt they’re making them fresh (this is not a Shanghainese restaurant); the ones I’ve had have lost all the soup and were small and bland.

Dim Sum: Shanghainese

I’m always amazed how many Shanghainese restaurants there are in Richmond/Vancouver. When I go for Shanghainese food, I’m always looking for good xiao long bao (soup dumplings), which are often better than what you find at the beloved Din Tai Fung in Bellevue.

Many people like Lin Chinese Cuisine on West Broadway in Vancouver. The xiao long bao here are not bad, and certainly better than almost everything in Seattle, but the skins were a little thick and the dumplings didn’t have the tell-tale droop promising lots of soup inside. Still, this is a decent stop for Chinese food, and convenient if you want to stroll around Kitsilano or have some sweets afterward at the irresistible Thomas Haas Chocolates just down the street. The cumin lamb was pretty good, and I liked the salted radish cake (pictured below, with the xiao long bao).

You can find have a similar experience at Peaceful Restaurant, also on West Broadway in Vancouver. Peaceful isn’t Shanghainese (it seems to be a hybrid, with a large Sichuanese influence), but I include it because baskets of xiao long bao are also popular here. Unfortunately, most of them leaked, which makes me sad—and mad. I enjoyed several other dishes here, with my favorite by far the beef rolls, which are said to be the best in town. They’re fun to look at and even better to eat, the flaky rolled pancake buttressing five-spice beef further spiked with bean paste. (The beef rolls are pictured below, along with Sichuan A-choy, cilantro lamb, and xiao long bao.)

Suhang Restaurant is a lesser-known restaurant on Ackroyd Road. Well, lesser-known to me. Many people were waiting for tables while I ate. The slogan of this restaurant is “The Master of Dim Sum.” Let’s start off with what not to order: the xiao long bao. The wrappers were too thick, there was not enough soup inside (and some dumplings had completely leaked), and the flavor was off. This was not their strong suit.

What my group really wanted to try was the mud-baked chicken Hangzhou style ($42). More commonly known as “beggar’s chicken,” this is a chicken stuffed with sticky rice, wrapped in lotus leaves, and then cooked in a mud ball. The unveiling (pictured below, along with bean curd and “special vegetable”) is a production, as the server brings it to the table, carefully cracks it open, and then pulls back the leaves. As with a piñata, you’ll want the goodies inside: moist and flavorful rice, along with meat falling off the bone. I saw other tables eating other large platters of meat, making me want to return here with an even bigger group.

Ready to get serious about xiao long bao? Right up at the top of the pack is Shanghai River. In contrast to all the other Shanghainese restaurants, Shanghai River feels classy and offers crisp service. I love the glass-walled kitchen which begs viewing of the dumpling-making process. The quality of the food here is quite good, though ultimately I come primarily for the xiao long bao. The skins are thinner than elsewhere, and the broth has a more refined flavor. The dumplings don’t seem as small and delicate as they were in the past, but I need to dig through my photo archives for evidence. Another sign of possible erosion: the tofu and celery dish, with its hints of sesame oil and soy sauce that I still love, was missing the symmetrical, fine cuts of the past–at least last visit. (Both the tofu and xiao long bao are pictured below.)

My favorite Shanghainese place is Long’s Noodle House. This is a small, non-descript restaurant on Main Street in Vancouver (south of downtown, next to a popular Vietnamese restaurant called Au Petit Café) with a handful of tables (the large round one in the window always seems to be hosting a big, boisterous group) and very friendly service. You’ll likely need to ask questions about menu items, and even then you might not be sure what you’re getting.

What you’ve got to get are the xiao long bao (tied in quality with Shanghai River, though more rustic with thicker skins and a fattier broth—which I actually like—and the tell-tale soup droop) and the drunken chicken, which is the best in town. I adore the little crocks (see photo at the top of this post) stuffed with chicken slices that have been stewing in wine, allowing the flavor to grab hold. It’s not a dish I’d expect to love, due to its subtlety, but maybe I’m learning to appreciate subtlety, at least a bit? Aside from a crispy rice dish which the server recommended but we all disliked (I don’t understand the appeal of this dish), I’ve enjoyed just about everything I’ve tried at Long’s, and am eager to try more. My latest find: jellyfish head, large and gelatinous. (Pictured, above, along with spicy wontons, pea vines, tan tan noodles, and of course the xiao long bao.)

Bakeries

I should mention that for years, my base of operation in Richmond has been Four Points by Sheraton on Alexandra Road. I cash in hotel points for room stays, and believe the property offers good value for a low-frills hotel, though I was surprised to see the swimming pool and Jacuzzi recently replaced by a conference room. There’s a restaurant on the ground floor, but with the culinary delights of Alexandra Road’s restaurant row (not to mention the rest of Richmond) right outside the door, I don’t need onsite food when staying at this particular hotel.

Across from the Sheraton is Kam Do. It’s a bustling place offering sit-down service, but I always get baked goods to go. On this particular occasion, I got a variety of treats, with my favorites being a wife cake (or sweetheart cake, made with winter melon, almond paste, and a touch of five spice powder), and a preserved duck egg in lotus paste pastry that was both gooey and good. (Shown, below, sliced open.)

I did do a sit-down at the also-busy Li Do, as I’d heard so much about the fresh-from-the-oven pineapple buns. (They’re not made with pineapple, but the sugary topping is baked to a crusty finish, resembling a pineapple, shown below.) I walked in and noticed a sheet tray of the buns, so I knew I’d have to wait for a fresh batch. My companion ordered some rice rolls, and I nursed a milk tea while waiting. And waiting. And “reading” all the Chinese signs around me. And rejoicing when a nearby table ordered most of the “old” pineapple buns. I’m not sure if my server was amused with my waiting, but I was happy she understood my request, and at long last she brought me a warm bun. Was it worth the wait? A good one-time experience.

There are buns like this all over the Richmond, part of a variety of baked goods. In the Aberdeen Centre, and elsewhere through the area, you’ll find Saint Germain Bakery (right). It seems to be Chinese with Japanese influence, and my partner (who’s Japanese) couldn’t resist the mont blanc in the showcase. It looked a little different than the typical one, but chestnut is chestnut, and she just had to give it a try—faster than I could take a photo of it. Verdict: ma-ma hu-hu (so-so).

Such is my feeling about the New Town Bakery chain. I have friends who go to get dozens of hum bao, placing an order to prevent sell-out and then picking them up shortly before leaving town. We went to the Chinatown location in Vancouver. I heard about the apple tarts and wanted to give them a try, and while not bad, I missed a fresh apple taste. The hum bao (below) are okay. My partner was happy that I wasn’t wowed by them, so that she could claim them all. They freeze and reheat well, and she was thrilled to stock up on a stash of both the chicken and the minced pork with vegetable versions to eat for breakfast, or for lunchtime at work.

Taiwanese

Recall that these three food reports are based on my last three trips to Vancouver and Richmond. During the final trip, Amtrak struggled through a winter storm, and following the delay, my partner and I took SkyTrain from Vancouver’s Main Street Station (a very short walk from Pacific Central Station) back to Richmond. From Aberdeen Station, we rolled our luggage on the snowy sidewalks and into Aberdeen Centre. Cold and hungry, we headed right to Chef Hung Taiwanese Beef Noodle. I’m crazy about beef noodle soup, as are the Taiwanese; in fact, the country holds an annual competition to determine the best soup-maker. Chef Hung is apparently a previous winner, and here you can sample the winning bowl (and watch it get made in through glass windows) without having to go to Taiwan. (That said, you should visit Taiwan if you can.)

Chef Hung has sides and snacks (we ordered spicy beef tendons, which were far from spicy enough for us), and a full menu of teas, but you’re here for beef noodle soup. You’ll get a “scorecard” to fill out, mixing and matching noodles, meats, and types of soup (tomato, clear, etc.). My partner and I both like thicker noodles, so that was easy, but we wanted to try one bowl the most traditional way (Champion beef shank with noodle in soup, above left), and another bowl with a variety of meats (beef shank, tendon and tripe) in fire chile soup (above right). These are good bowls of soup, more refined than most I’ve had. The noodles were the highlight (where can we get noodles that good in Seattle?), and the shank was nice and tender. But the bowls are a bit expensive ($10.95 for the Champion bowl), with some people scowling that it’s too much to pay for beef noodle soup. There are cheaper bowls around Richmond and Vancouver, and I hope someday to see how they match in quality.

Another great option for Taiwanese food in Richmond is on the other side of No. 3 Road. Actually, there are a few things happening at one site. Tri-Pot is street food served from a counter inside of Zephyr Tea House Café. Billed as “Vancouver’s first Taiwanese style low-carb snack,” it’s like a little oden stand where you order a la carte. Most items are $2 (pig intestine, ear, chicken heart, beef tendon, blood rice cake, yuba, noodles, and more), but some are $3 (mostly various seafood balls and dumplings). Your choices get chopped and then cooked in a secret recipe stock, all right before your eyes. They’re then thrown in a bowl, topped with Taiwanese pickles and green onions, along with optional hot sauce and cilantro. (See top left photo, below.) The flavor’s great, but here we’re talking texture—lots of textures. I can happily make a meal of this, and it brings me back to walking through the night markets in Taiwan sampling lots of animal parts. But, hey, no cock’s-comb or duck head?

The other part of the property is properly named Delicious Cuisine. The chef won accolades from the Vancouver Chinese Restaurant Awards for his icy crystal eggs (above, top right photo, with stew and three-up chicken just below), which were simply divine. I devoured dishes like three-cup chicken and something called “stew tofu with crab egg in casserole,” whereas a more Westernized dish like shrimp with mayonnaise did little for me. By special request, I even sampled some of the broth for the beef noodle soup, and it made me want to come back for a bowl—but at a time when I wasn’t already stuffed and still off to two more restaurants that evening.

Other Chinese Food

Toward the end of Alexandra Road east of No. 3 Road is a Xinjiang-style restaurant called Bei Jiang. A few of us went there as part of a two-part lunch, partaking in an impressive feast. As the Xinjiang region has a large population of Uighur Muslims, you won’t find pork on the menu, but you will find lots of lamb dishes, which I especially love. This is rustic, peasant, northern food, definitely meant to be filling. I could sit and enjoy mutton chops and skewers here all day long. (Pictured below: diced chicken, potato, and bell peppers with handmade noodles; house pancake with cumin lamb; mutton chops; mutton soup; fried green peppers; lamb skewers.)

Also on Alexandra Road is Delizia Fusion Cuisine. This is the type of Chinese food that least interests me, fusioned with French in a more upscale setting. I can see it appealing to those on business staying at the Sheraton across the street—particularly those who are skittish about all the other Chinese food that surrounds them. (Which would only make me wonder what they are doing in Richmond.) The only thing I knew about this restaurant before going in was that it won an award as part of the “Top 100 Chinese Restaurants in Canada,” but unlike the better-known Vancouver Chinese Restaurant Awards, Top 100 is somewhat mysterious. It looks like a pay-to-play operation, a la the Top Steakhouses in America ads that run in airline magazines. After all, can Wasabi Japanese Restaurant in Orange, Connecticut really be one of the top 100 Chinese restaurants in America? Or how about Meteor Buffet in Huntsville, Alabama?

That said, I could see the care going into the preparation of the dishes: utilization of higher quality ingredients, refined flavors, particular attention to plating. My menu included “duo foie gras” (pictured above), blue abalone and sharkfin consommé, Peking duck roti roll, boneless Cornish hen stuffed with black truffle and foie gras fried rice (pictured above), lobster thermidor “Delizia” (pictured above), and tempura ice cream. Good if you like this sort of thing.

Stuffed silly at the end of the last of three trips, I convinced my exhausted travel companions to try one more restaurant as we headed out of Richmond: HK BBQ Master. I’d heard that this was the place for barbecued meats. It’s a little tricky to find, seemingly tucked behind and under the Real Canadian Superstore off of No. 3 Road, but the locals sure know of its existence. This restaurant does a thriving take-out business, and the few tables are also in high demand.

We ordered two different platters. (See above.) Toss aside the perfunctory broccoli garnishes, as you’re here for the meat: BBQ pork, roast pork, BBQ duck, and soy sauce chicken. The quality of the meat stirred my friends back to life, and I’m still thinking about it all, especially the both pork preparations. I applaud the title in the restaurant name, which is well-deserved. Bravo, BBQ Master. I’ll be back.

Final Thoughts

This is just the tip of the iceberg of Chinese restaurants in Vancouver—and especially in Richmond. Again, this report reflects restaurants I visited in my last three visits there. One can only eat so much in a given day! When not eating, it’s fun to explore Richmond. I’ve enjoyed walking around Steveston, renting a bike and riding on the scenic trails, popping into the little grocery stores as well as the big Yaohan Plaza with its food court, going to the Richmond Night Market, nibbling my way through the Richmond Public Market—oops, it’s gotten back to food again. In contrast to the wonderful but pricey treatments at the spas in Vancouver, you can enjoy value and a cultural experience by trying one of the many Chinese foot reflexology places in Richmond. (My latest was at Gold Medal Foot Reflexology, where an hour of shoulder, back, and foot ran about $35.) Or, do as I do when hitting a food coma: fall asleep in one of the big massage chairs in the store that sells them on the bottom floor of the Aberdeen Centre. Then, wake up, and you’ll be ready for more food. You won’t have to go far.

2 thoughts on “Escape from Seattle: North to Vancouver (and Richmond) for the Best Chinese Food in North America

  1. “The only thing I knew about this restaurant before going in was that it won an award as part of the “Top 100 Chinese Restaurants in Canada,” but unlike the better-known Vancouver Chinese Restaurant Awards, Top 100 is somewhat mysterious. It looks like a pay-to-play operation, a la the Top Steakhouses in America ads that run in airline magazines. After all, can Wasabi Japanese Restaurant in Orange, Connecticut really be one of the top 100 Chinese restaurants in America? Or how about Meteor Buffet in Huntsville, Alabama?”

    But, at the same time, do you think Wasabi Japanese Restaurant in Orange, CT could afford to pay to be on a list? =)