Fresh baked “Fong Bao” from the oven – 方包出爐

Random musings & meditations straight from the oven. Hopefully some food for thought as well…

Archive for Grub – 開飯啊

29th Avenue Cafe – Rebirth of Yoshoku Ya

As a fan of Yoshoku (Japanese Style Western Cuisine) I was sadden by the unfortunate closures of Bonqula in Richmond and the original Yoshoku Ya on Denman Street. Subsequent search for a replacement proved to be a fruitless exercise. Then to my surprise (and delight), I stumbled upon news that owners of Yoshoku Ya have decided to continue their craft at the corner of Boundary & 29th Ave, under the name of …….the 29th Avenue Café. The timing of the discovery couldn’t have been better since I was taking a night class at BCIT in the fall and was looking for a spot to grab a quick pre-class meal. Amen to the power of the Twitter feed!

Tucked away in the middle of a residential area, the location is, shall we say, interesting. But considering the family style menu, I could see the logic behind it. Nonetheless I wouldn’t have known it’s there unless I was looking for it. The ambience inside is casual and no frills, the type of place you’d feel right at home. I had a chit chat with the owner and she was happy and surprised that, despite no advertising, a lot of the old patrons managed to find them through the internet and word of mouth.

Now that my class is done, it’s time to look back on the few things I’ve eaten for three months.

There is something about ground beef (or cow with no legs, as one of my cousins once joked) that transcends borders and ethnicity. Every culture has, in one form or another, a ground-beef based dish. To a westerner, the hamburger steak may not be any different from your run-of-the-mill burger patty. The now-defunct Bonqula offered a version that’s very Japanese in its presentation and choice of sauces. At 29th Avenue, it’s more the traditional Yoshoku style and the patty is quite balance in terms of leanness/fattiness. It’s firm but not overcooked.

Once upon a time in my youth Tonkatsu was all I knew and ate whenever the family dined at a Japanese restaurant. My taste has certainly grown since then but that simple piece of panko-breaded pork chop will always occupy a special place in my heart. So it would be remiss of me not to sample the 29th Avenue offering of deep fried hog goodness.

And it did not disappoint. Made to order, steam would come out when you cut into the juicy pork chop that’s surrounded by a light, crunchy crust. It’s not heavy and quite good on its own. But having it with Tonkatsu sauce – with its tangy, citrus-y flavor – will enable you to devour the chop in no time. Rice is optional but it’s the perfect complement to the meal, IMHO.

Another classic Yoshoku dish is the Omrice, which is basically tomato-flavored rice tucked inside an omelette, topped with ketchup. It actually takes a certain amount of skill to be able to control the pan in such a way where the rice is “sealed” inside the egg mixture and rolled into a perfectly shaped omelette without breaking it.

The tomato rice itself is not too sour and the onions add a bit of crunch. The omelette shell is soft and not overcooked. If you want something light and without meat, this and a house salad should hit the spot.

Perhaps the best Yoshoku example of east-meets-west is the Tarako spaghetti. The Japanese answer to caviar is somewhat of an acquired taste. When tossed with al-dente spaghetti and a tiny bit of olive oil, tarako’s saltiness and unique texture comes through. This dish may not be for everyone but do give it a try if you feel adventurous.

Regardless of what you order at 29th Avenue Café, I would suggest that you save room for their custard pudding. It’s so good that I ordered it EVERY SINGLE TIME I ate there! It’s definitely the crown jewel.

On the surface, Yoshoku maybe simple and not that exciting. But like Hong Kong Style Western food, it’s fusion before fusion ever got popular in the culinary scene. Unpretentious, it is the type of food which provides comfort and invokes memories that I’ve come to appreciate.

In a multi-cultural city such as VancouverI find it odd that there aren’t more Yoshoku restaurants around. That being said, sometimes all you need is just one that prepares every dish with heart and honesty. It’s too bad I won’t be eating there that often but will certainly bring family and friends in the future.

The story of the re-useable Christmas crab

Some artists claimed to be inspired by the unlikeliest of things, at the most unusual of circumstances. In my case, here’s a tale about Christmas, a buffet and a plate of cold crab.

This Christmas my parents decided to eat out for a change and picked one of the restaurants located at the second floor of Aberdeen Centre. (To protect its identity, I shall call it ABC restaurant henceforth) Now ABC restaurant used be to decent until a recent ownership change turned it into an odd fusion restaurant…….of Hong Kong style & Chiu Chau style cuisine (港式 + 潮式). Just last week, Pie Pie Lo and I had dinner there with my In-Laws and were quite disappointed. Needless to say I was sceptical about what they have to offer on Christmas night.

It was a pre-booked dinner buffet with two sittings: 5:30pm & 8pm. My parents booked the early sitting and paid $28 per person whilst the later sitting cost three dollars less. As the evening unfolded, we were glad we paid the extra dollars.

This was one of the most “interesting” buffets I’ve ever had. You have the typical cold cuts, salad, lobster bisque, roast beef and turkey mixed in with taro fried rice, Singaporean vermicelli, sweet and sour pork, salted vegetables with pork stomach soup (咸菜豬肚湯) and cold sesame chicken. And as part of our dinner we were also given, amongst other things, two plates of Chiu Chau cold crab (潮洲凍蟹). For dessert, you have a choice of Tiramisu, crème brulee, taro stir fried in sugar (反沙芋) and fresh fruits. To be fair, some of the dishes were decent but for $28 dollars per person I was expecting something more.

At the end, we were all stuffed and realized we didn’t touch the two plates of cold crab. Now, any reasonable, non-wasteful family in this situation would ask to have the crabs packed away in a box to take home. We were no different but to our surprise, the waiter refused our request even though the crabs were given to us free of charge. We said we simply didn’t want to waste the food but the waiter came up with some sort of lame, health related excuse. So my grandpa and uncle dug into one of the crabs while the other one was taken away. Since we had a good view of the kitchen, we kept our eyes on it as it rested on the kitchen counter for the longest time. Puzzled and miffed, we tried to figure out the logic behind what the waiter had said.

Then it dawn on us.

One of the urban myths of Chinese restaurants was about to happen…….

Even though we have no definitive proof, we were quite certain our plate of untouched crab will be given to another table during the 8pm sitting and some poor kid will be chomping on a crab leg that we had breathed on all over.

Oh the humanity…….

Needless to say Pie Pie Lo and I have no plans to visit ABC restaurant again.

Airline Food Memories

Airline food, for some reason, holds a strange appeal to me ever since I was a kid. Back in my youth in Hong Kong, our family would travel twice a year – usually long haul to Vancouver and the U.S.– and during those flights I always look forward to meal times with anticipation. Some of you may wonder: “Who in their right mind would eat, let alone clear a tray full of saucy, high sodium, overcooked of…whatever???”

That’s a valid question.

Back then it was a case of eating something I usually don’t get at home and without a point of reference I simply ate up what was offered.  It didn’t help that I liked my sauces so the beef tenderloin gravy often vanish without a trace. A flight attendant once marvelled at how clean my dish was.

The presentation – if I may call it that – also captured my imagination.

I liked how food of different shapes – cubed meat, potatoes in little spheres and various veggies in their unique likeness – are packed neatly inside a little ceramic dish. A principle I took heart when packing my pencil case for school.

That was my response then.

But as I stared into this latest tray of un-loved protein, carbs, etc, I came to realize that airline food was a reminder of those precious times when my family traveled, ate, spent extended time together. People often talked about how certain things invoke memories of their childhood. Who knew that airline food would be one of those for me.

The Red Wagon Cafe – New kid on the Hastings Corridor

Ever since I started splitting my work week between Commercial Drive and Hastings & Nanaimo some 6 years ago, I’ve often, unfairly, compared the food selection between the two areas. While Seri Malaysia and Koko have been, in my opinion, beacons of light in Hastings-Sunrise, I didn’t find other noteworthy establishments until recently. And in between the likes of Bo Laksa King and El Barrio stood The Red Wagon.

One day last October I walked out of the office to grab lunch and noticed the mom-and-pop diner across the street had closed down. In its place a Radio Flyer was painted on the side wall and a new red canopy was put in place. The joint was aptly called The Red Wagon – a greasy-spoon style breakfast/brunch joint located on the SW corner of East Hastings & Garden Drive, one block west of Nanaimo. After reading some recent reviews I decided to sample there offerings, in particular the confit pork belly breakfast a lot of diners have raved about.

Before my first visit I had assumed – incorrectly – that all menu items were offered all-day. It turned out there was an 11:30am cut-off time so it was no pork belly for me. Staring at the two-page menu, I knew I didn’t want the standard breakfast spread. And even though the pulled pork was another supposed specialty, I wasn’t in the mood for some, let alone having them layered in between three buttermilk pancakes. (Yes, you read that right. They do offer pulled pork pancakes.)

Hoping for some inspiration, I turned my attention to the kitchen counter and the dishes that were coming out. The burgers and sandwiches all looked good but I just wanted something different. Blessed my server, she recommended the lunch special which I ended up ordering: Home-cured porchetta with a fennel-arugula salad sandwiched in a warm, lightly-toasted ciabatta bun, with a side of fries served on a classic Chinese oval-shaped plate. (Which I had to mention because I got a kick out of seeing that).

The porchetta was not salty, had a fairly even fat distribution yet wasn’t too oily. In some ways it reminded me of the cured meat in a Vietnamese sub but only way fresher and better in quality.  As explained by my server, all the meat served at The Red Wagon are organic and free range, which you can certainly taste the difference.  As for the salad, it added a nice crunch to the sandwich as well as balanced out the fattiness of the porchetta.

Not a bad first impression but I vowed to return.

*******

So that’s what happened about a week later as I ordered what I wanted all along. Confit pork belly served with two eggs (poached was my choice), home fries, griddled tomatoes, salsa verde, hollandaise and toast. For someone who’s been mindful of portion size, it was just right for me. At the same time, I felt like I got what I paid for.

As I dived into the pork belly – never thought in a million years I would have it for breakfast – I was pleasantly surprised by how light and crispy the skin was. Combined with the smokiness of the meat and a thin, flavorful layer of fat, the taste rivals some of the best Chinese roast pork I’ve eaten, but more refined. Towards the end, I found myself chewing slowly while savoring the last morsels.

Pork is, indeed, wonderful.

Overall, I would definitely recommend The Red Wagon as they served quality organic and free range ingredients at a reasonable price.

IMHO, if Sophie’s is the hip breakfast joint on the west side, the Red Wagon has the potential to become the east side version.


Grazy-Dog from the G-Wagon

A few months ago I was flipping through Klip Magazine and noticed a “coming soon” ad from the Gyoza King group. It was their answer to the Nippon-style hot dog phenomenon, a pink food truck called the G-Wagon. At the time it was advertised to appear somewhere in the Vancouver area but I had little luck locating it.

Fast forward to a Sunday evening in November 2010. I was about to leave the house to buy take out when I received a text from Cdn Gooner:

“Trying a Grazy-dog across from Superstore.”

I was curious so I asked what it was. He sent me a picture of a pink food truck and I realized then the G-Wagon was finally in business. Without hesitation I headed straight to the location since I haven’t decided on dinner then.

The G-Wagon was tucked inside this corner across from the north side of Superstore, right next to Home Quarters and around the corner from PJ’s Pets. It’s hard to miss even in the dark since a flood light was set up on the side, shinning on the truck itself. I took a quick peek inside and saw a mobile kitchen fully equipped with a sink, a microwave, a fridge as well as a mini BBQ grill. A friendly young fellow was manning the truck and we engaged in a bit of small talk after he took my order. Apparently it was just their second day of operation and they are open between the hours of 11 am and 8 pm.

Unlike the Japadog model where every hotdog is set, Grazy-Dog gives you a choice of three sausages (Beef, Bavarian & Bratwurst) to go with one of seven special toppings. In addition, you can also order one of two sausage-less “Greative” dogs in the form of the Unagi and the Takoyaki. After much contemplation, I finally settled on the Unagi and the Mentaiko Mayo with a bratwurst.

The Unagi dog was a combination of a piece of pre-cooked unagi (same as the ones found in a  unagi don), grilled onions, nori flakes and unagitama sauce. That sauce is basically like an egg salad. It sounds like an odd combination but it goes surprisingly well with the rest of the toppings since it balanced out the rich flavor of the unagi.

Mentaiko, the marinated roe of Pollock, by itself, is somewhat salty and more of an acquired taste for some people. By adding mayo to it, the folks at Grazy-Dog managed to tone down the saltiness and, in this case, enhanced the mild flavor of the bratwurst without over powering it. IMHO, the Mentaiko mayo dog rivals the Oroshi dog from Japadog, albeit a bit more flavorful.

Altogether it took about 10 minutes to complete my order but I wonderd, once the word goes out, how the G-Wagon can cope with a long queue with only one person in charge. I suppose we’ll find out in due time.

It’s great to see the street food scene in Vancouver growing and extending into parts of Richmond since there is such a demand for it. I, for one, will definitely go back to the G-Wagon to sample their other Grazy-dog offerings. That being said, Japadog was the pioneer so the folks from Grazy-Dog will need to be extra creative to distinguish themselves.

The summer that was

Today was the second day of fall and in typical Vancouver fashion, it rained. Hard to believe the driest summer to date has slipped by rather quickly and quietly. Even though it wasn’t an eventful one, the summer of 2010 was sprinkled with some noteworthy happenings.

The start of July marked another season of the AIBC walking tours. Having enjoyed four of the six tours last year, Cdn Gooner and I were looking forward to the conclusion of the series. There is something to be said about being a tourist in your own city and thru these tours I’ve managed to learn and discover so much new facts and information about Vancouver even though I’ve spent 2/3 of my life here. Now the search begins for some new walking tours for next year.

From the world of food, I was fortunate to have sampled the offerings from the likes of Grub, Havana, La Taqueria, Bon Chaz, Deer Garden, Gyudonya, Kiriri and Dougie Dog. Not exactly household names but certainly little gems I would recommend to anyone looking for some new food options.

I did manage to squeeze in a few sessions of footy during and right after the World Cup. Conclusion: There is a reason why most athletes retired in their thirties. As well, I should count myself lucky that, knock on wood, I have yet to hurt myself playing sports of any kind.

Suffice to say I understand and appreciate the affinity a lot of Vancouverites have with Empire stadium even though it was before my time. That being said, I’m certainly not in a position to make any comparisons between the old Empire and the new (and temporary) Empire Field. Billed as a better, more intimate venue I was quite impressed with closeness to the field of play and the sight lines even though I sat in the end zone on two occasions.  Had the weather co-operated, I would have enjoyed the experience more but there was little to complain about.

This summer was also about reconnecting. Whether it was Anime A, an old high school buddy of mine who was in town for a short visit or Rubber Ducky, who moved back from Edmonton, we had a great time catching up and reminiscing about the good old days. I wished we had more time but was grateful for the time we had.

Lastly, some recent events have tested my faith in unexpected ways. It was a lesson on humbleness and patience as well as a reminder that I do need to let go and allow God to take control. Things happen for a reason and things happen in His time.

Deer Garden – 鹿園私房菜

Deer Garden (鹿園), resurrected on Alexandra road, has fast become a new favorite dinner hang out for my side of the family. Despite its roots in Hong Kong style cuisine, the restaurant is now known for some of the best rice noodle in fish broth (魚湯米線) around Vancouver. Recently we found out that a lot of the old Deer Garden favorites can be ordered under a special, made-to-order (私房菜) menu so my parents decided to give it a try just before the B.C. Day long weekend.

I was told that you do need to call ahead, confirm the number of diners and provide a budget for the restaurant to work with. The chef will then make recommendations and build a menu. I will let the pictures do the talking but in all honesty, this was one of the best family meals we’ve had in quite some time.

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