Next, “marinated bean curd with special vegetables” arrives as a dome of rough-chopped curd mixed with an equal amount of greens. There’s a good mix of flavors and textures and an underlying sweetness that would make it a great dish for tricking a reluctant child into eating his veggies.
Suhang might be the ideal first restaurant to try in Richmond. The clientele is almost exclusively local and the food is smart — exotic, but not so much that you don’t know what you’re getting into.
A few days later, I meet Lau again and head to Tandoori Kona to get a local history lesson over Indian food. The lesson comes from Ian Lai, a consultant and chef-instructor at the Northwest Culinary Academy of Vancouver who is of Cantonese descent and well versed on local restaurant culture and history. The three of us tuck into some serious goodness: crisp naan bread, perfectly-cooked tikkas (marinated meat cooked in the ultra-hot tandoor oven), and off the menu, Lau orders spicy and delicate fish stew known as a korma.
I test my “best Asian outside of Asia” idea on Lai and he backs into his response by way of a bit of history that centers around Asians who were often looking to escape their homelands.
“People want to come here. It’s safe. People invested in it as a place where they could address the ‘what would happen if things got bad at home’ question,” he says, reeling off a laundry list of places with historic political instability that forced some of their citizens to emigrate like Vietnam, Hong Kong, mainland China, and Taiwan. Today, nearly every country in Asia is represented in Richmond’s restaurants.
“People came in waves and they stayed. Now, it’s the West Coast food mecca,” he says. “The cooks who were here in the ’70s didn’t know how to cook. People just wanted something to remind them of home.”
For people from food-centric cultures, that didn’t cut it for long.
“When the Chinese meet someone,” Lau explains, “it’s not, ‘Hey, how’s it going?’ it’s variations on ‘Have you eaten yet?’ ”
Richmond’s food scene not only needed to up its game in a hurry, it had to evolve.
“Vancouver’s Chinatown isn’t a representation of China, it’s a cohort that immigrated and a period stuck in time,” says Lai. “Richmond, however, is new Chinese. It’s not grannies with push carts.”
The result is that nobody in Richmond goes to Vancouver to eat anymore — at least not to eat Asian — and Richmond’s chefs have to push themselves to a high standard, something I’m going to enjoy testing every time I visit the in-laws.
Joe Ray can be reached at www.joe-ray.com.