RICHMOND — When I pull up to meet Richmond native Ed Lau for lunch, we’re in a hurry. Lau, an avionics engineer and the name behind the food blog Ed Eats, is taking a daylong course near the airport and his first words to me are, “Nice to meet you. Would you mind making an illegal right turn?”
My inner Boston driver smiles and we merge onto Sea Island Way, hang a right on No. 3 Road, and arrive at one of Lau’s favorite spots, HK BBQ Master, a hole in the wall built into a parking garage.
Lau hails the waiter in Cantonese, stops mid-negotiation, and looks at me. “You’re OK with a bit of fattiness, right?” he says. I nod and when our food arrives, I consider naming him my new best friend.
Vancouver’s southern neighbor isn’t much to look at unless you’re into stubby low-rises and strip malls, but if you’re here to eat, Richmond has one of the best concentrations of Asian dining anywhere outside Asia. The big hurdle is to know which of the more than 400 densely-packed restaurants to visit and what their specialties are. Locals rely heavily on word of mouth and up-to-date websites. Get in the know and you’re golden.
I’ve been lucky; I married a Vancouverite and we come through town often to visit my in-laws. I have gotten to know a few chefs and bloggers who help me find the right places to eat, a process that never ends with the restaurant scene’s many openings and closings.
To wit, on a recent visit, I had taken a few friends for a food crawl on Alexandra Road, known to locals as wai sek kai, or “food street,” where we started with tiny bowls of Hong Kong-style noodles with shrimp wontons at Max Noodle House. From there, we walked a few doors down for what might be my favorite Richmond dish, Dungeness crab glazed in egg yolk powder at Jade Seafood, then crossed the street and sipped a round while we watched pork bone stew bubble down to perfection at the Korean beer hall, Jang Mo Jib. To close the evening, we shuffled over to Manzo Japanese Restaurant for some mean sushi, black cod cooked in miso, and some rather perfect oysters.
Similarly, my wife, her family, and I had become regulars at the city’s mammoth outdoor night markets — weekend extravaganzas that mix kitsch and fun with hundreds of vendors, spring, summer, and fall.
Back with Lau at HK BBQ, he orders a combo platter, half of which is barbecued pork, which you can order to taste: all fat or lean.
“All fat is too fat, and all lean is good but dry,” he says, divulging his secrets. “Half fat, half lean is the way to go.”
It sure is. Roasted for hours, the inside is ultra-tender while the outside is caramelized. The other half of the platter is roast pork with an exterior so crisp it reminds me of perfect chicken skin.
“I think they take a blowtorch to the outside,” Lau posits. “A chef friend in Vancouver wants this to be his last meal.”
Twenty years ago, however, almost none of this commerce and few of these restaurants were here. Lau cites a Hong Kong-led immigration boom in the 1980s and ’90s for the city’s restaurant explosion. Now, the immigration charge is led by mainland Chinese.
“When I was a kid, we used to go to Chinatown in Vancouver, but as Richmond has grown, Vancouver’s Chinatown has gone into disrepair,” says Lau. “Now, Richmond is so much like home, the people who are just arriving from Asia never need to leave.”
On a tip from Mijune Pak, who runs the popular Follow Me Foodie blog, I leave Lau and head down No. 3 Road to Szechuan Delicious Restaurant, where the sign out front is entirely in Chinese and the decor consists of white walls, plastic tablecloths, and high chairs for children, utilitarian signals that they’re catering to a very local crowd.
My first dish, a noodle soup with shredded pork and mustard greens, is pungent, meaty, and makes no effort to target Western palates. The fun really starts, though, with stir-fried pickled cabbage and chicken gizzards. I try two bites and realize they might be trying to go easy on the lone Westerner in the room, so I flag the waitress and ask for more Szechuan peppercorns and a beer.
The gizzard slivers provide a meaty baseline that’s cut by the vinegar in the cabbage. The peppercorns work their magic, frothing up and numbing my lips and the inside of my mouth. The top of my head starts sweating, at which point I take a swig of beer and feel quite clever.
I reemerge and head to Suhang Restaurant, a small, classy Shanghainese spot hidden in a strip mall and proclaiming on its bilingual menu that it is “The Master of Dim Sum.” I immediately order “steamed soup buns,” which I’ve encountered elsewhere as “soup dumplings.” No matter. I gently place one in my spoon, poke the bottom corner with the tip of a chopstick and sip the deeply-flavored broth that is cut by black vinegar and tiny strips of pickled ginger.
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.