Metro Vancouver, often referred to as Greater Vancouver, is comprised of 24 regional districts. Downtown Vancouver, the major urban centre, only represents 650,000 people. Metro Vancouver’s densest Chinese enclave is the city of Richmond, a 30-minute drive south of downtown, or even faster on the Canada Line Skytrain. When people say Vancouver has the best Chinese food outside China, everyone is referring to Richmond.
Historically a sleepy fishing village, Richmond exploded as a modern metropolis in the 1990s when it became a magnet for old-money Hong Kong immigrants seeking a haven for their families after the British colony returned to Chinese rule. Recent migration patterns have brought a new wave of nouveau-riche immigrants from mainland China seeking a safe refuge for their money.
Beyond soaring property prices (Vancouverites are obsessed with real estate), the demographic shift is having an effect on dining culture. Once home to some of the best Cantonese dim sum restaurants outside Hong Kong, Richmond now leans to more boldly flavoured Guangdong or Shanghainese cuisine and ostentatious displays of affluence – dumplings showered with black truffles, chicken wings stuffed with foie gras and wine cellars lined with first-growth Bordeaux.
All the latest Asian trends converge under one roof at the Aberdeen Centre, an exotic shopping plaza that features an indoor water fountain with hourly music shows similar to those outside the famous Bellagio hotel and casino in Las Vegas. When it was first built in the 1990s, Aberdeen Centre (named after Hong Kong’s famous tourist harbour), was the largest enclosed Asian retail centre in North America.
It reopened in 2003 after a $130-million-dollar renovation (by renowned Vancouver architect Bing Thom), which made it roughly three times larger than its original size: now it resembles a luminous butterfly, with its sweeping curved façade of coloured glass. Inside, three levels of shopping flow around a central galleria and amphitheatre-style court designed for festive community celebrations. The shops are a curious mix of western furniture outlets and traditional herbal apothecaries, all anchored by Daiso, the famous Japanese discount store where everything – from Hello Kitty cupcake tins to porcelain teacups – costs $2.
Arguably the biggest draw is the mall’s 800-seat food court. Dozens of vendors, including many popular Asian franchises, dole out sugary bubble waffles, cream puffs and mango slushies, along with some decent hot pots and dumplings. Don’t miss Chef Hung, an award-winning Taiwanese noodle shop famous for its hand-cut beef noodles in a deeply dark, delicious anise-flavoured broth.
Whatever the budget or craving, you will find an abundance of regional Chinese and other Asian delights in Richmond’s Golden Village, a four-block cluster of strip malls and shopping plazas near No. 3 Road. The highest concentration of restaurants – 200-plus in three blocks – is on Alexandra Road, aka Food Street. Competition among Richmond chefs is famously cutthroat. Word of mouth spreads fast and bad restaurants simply don’t stay in business for very long. This might very well be the only place where Yelp can be safely trusted. Richmond food lovers/fake reviews can’t be bought here.
Loud, chaotic and disorganised: these are the charms of the Richmond Public Market, which feels truer to those found in Asia than any other in the city. On the main floor shop for pastries, meat, fruit, vegetables and every type of fish ball you can imagine. While you’re at it, why not have your pants hemmed or hair trimmed? Seamstresses, computer shops, lottery outlet, pirated-DVD vendors – it’s all crammed here under one roof.
An expansive food court takes up most of the second floor. Among all the storefronts, Xi’an Cuisine is the most mesmerising. The shop, named after the capital of Shaanxi Province, is known for its hand-pulled noodles. Working at the front counter, the chef cuts a piece of thick dough and quickly rolls it with his palms into a long rope, which he keeps stretching with amazing speed and precision into dozens of thin noodles. Back in the kitchen, the noodles are dunked into soup or 7 fried with hot spices. Do try the “cutting noodles with lamb soup”. If you still have room, finish off with a pork burger – moist, shredded shoulder meat stuffed into a golden, fresh-baked bun.
Milk tea is one of the most popular beverages in Hong Kong. The tradition goes back to the 1960s, when English afternoon tea was served only at high-end hotels or private clubhouses. Street stalls began serving a more affordable version (blended with canned evaporated or condensed milk) for the working classes.
The secret to a smooth cup of milk tea is the ‘silk stocking’ in which it is brewed. A house blend of various Ceylon leaves is filtered through an old-fashioned sackcloth bag half a dozen times. In Vancouver and Richmond you can sample the milky goodness (hot or iced) at numerous Hong Kong-style cafés, which specialise in westernised comfort foods such as cheesy baked seafood or fried pork chops.
Lido Restaurant, with its blazing overhead lights and hand-printed menus tacked to the walls on pink cardboard, is a nostalgic favourite for many. Pair your hot cuppa with a creamy egg tart or warm pineapple bun with a slab of butter in the middle. At Deer Garden Signatures, milk tea (the iced version is best) comes with Hong Kong-style toast: pillowy pullman loaf daintily sliced into four crustless triangles. Choose from plain buttered toast, condensed milk and butter toast or the oddly delicious condensed milk and peanut butter.
Of all the Chinese BBQ joints in Richmond, HK BBQ Master is widely touted as the best. Although hidden off the main strip in a ground-floor car park adjacent to a massive Superstore grocery chain, this fast-serve meat monger is easy to find: just look for the long queue that usually spills onto the sidewalk. Whether taking out or eating in, everyone orders at the front counter, a nononsense assembly line where the cooks pull the charred meat off of roasting hooks and cleave portions to order.
Combos served on Styrofoam come with white rice and a superfluous piece of green vegetable. HK BBQ Master is best known for its roast pork (char siu). Instead of roasting a whole pig, the owner uses only pork belly. This ensures that each piece has a consistent ratio of lean meat to meltingly soft fat layered under crackling skin. The honey-glazed BBQ pork and darkly caramelised duck are both commendable, but the underrated gem here is soya sauce chicken. Don’t let the dimpled raw birds with long gangly necks in the display case put you off. Drizzled with green onion and ginger sauce, this slightly sweet marinated chicken is mouth-wateringly juicy.