Chow Town Vital Stats
Year founded: Incorporated on Nov 10, 1879; designated as a city on Dec 3, 1990
Population in 1980: 96,000
Population in 2004: 176,000
Average February temperature: 7.5°C (46°F)
Dates of Chinese New Year events: Approximately Feb 2–15 (New Year's Day is Feb 9)
Percentage of Asian Residents: 59% (40% are Chinese)
Number of Chinese restaurants: Roughly 400
Average house/condo price: $300,000 Canadian
Flying time from Hong Kong: About 13 1/2 hours
At our table at Kirin Restaurant in Richmond, British Columbia, the conversation focuses on food, a recurring theme any time Chinese people dine together. "Honestly, Chinese food is better here," says Daisy Wong. "More flavor and freshness."
As we dip thin slices of raw geoduck into seasoned soy, the clean, fresh sweetness of the clam seems to affirm these thoughts. From our table, we can look across the street to see another new restaurant about to open. Miranda Ng says, "My friend is going there tonight." Writer and food consultant Stephen Wong ― no relation to Daisy ― responds, "And by this weekend, the underground pipeline will let everybody know how it is."
"I'm a food spy," says Clara Lau, who makes the 20-minute drive from Vancouver three or four times a week to eat in Richmond. "All Chinese are," says Stephen. Daisy agrees: "It's a Chinese thing."
When it comes to superb food, there's a lot to spy on in Richmond, a Vancouver suburb of 176,000 residents. Located on a series of islands that stretch between two arms of the Fraser River, Richmond has, by general consensus, some of the best Chinese food in North America. And its reputation is growing beyond our continent. "Hong Kong is still the best place for Cantonese food," says Ng, a frequent traveler to Asia. "But we're catching up."
When you first see Richmond, you may think that it is the most visually uninspiring gourmet center imaginable. Drive down one of its main streets, and you see a gray landscape of shopping centers, blocky apartment houses, and hulking megamalls. You don't feel you're embarking on a food lover's adventure. You feel like you're shopping for tires.
Richmond was for decades a farm town, home to dairy cows and blueberries. It then grew into a standard-issue Canadian suburb, probably best known for its proximity to Vancouver's airport. When local businessman and community leader Bennie Yung arrived in 1975, he remembers, Richmond didn't possess any authentic Chinese restaurants. But, Yung recalls, in the mid- to late '80s, many Chinese emigrated from Hong Kong and Taiwan to British Columbia. And they discovered Richmond. The city's name, Yung explains, sounded like "rich land" ― which signaled prosperity. Richmond's location, on the jutting lower jaw of the mouth that is greater Vancouver, was said to possess good feng shui. The city continued to grow in the 1990s, with the impending handoff of Hong Kong to the People's Republic of China. The joke became, "What's the quickest way from Vancouver to Hong Kong? Take the Arthur Laing Bridge" (which connects Vancouver with Richmond). Today about 40 percent of Richmond's residents are Chinese; another 20 percent are from elsewhere in Asia. And there are an estimated 400 Chinese restaurants in town.
These restaurants are concentrated in the Asian retail area, dubbed Asia West or Golden Village. Others spill over into the downtown area near Westminster Highway and No. 3 Road, the main north-south artery. Oriental Delight, Garden City Hot Pot ― the names of the restaurants are displayed in both English and Chinese. Every once in a while, you get a glimpse of the Vancouver skyline and the mountains behind it. It's then that you remember Richmond is an island city, and you feel it being set loose from North America to float west to Asia. Richmond is being transformed into something partly Canadian, partly Chinese ― a new world all its own.
At 8:15 a.m. in Lansdowne Park Shopping Centre, a group of early-rising exercisers are doing tai chi. It's fitting that these Richmond residents are exercising at a mall, because in many ways the mall is the center of Richmond life. There are other attractions: the historic port of Steveston, where fresh fish is still sold off boats; two imposing Buddhist temples; a pleasant network of trails along the Fraser River. But the malls ― Lansdowne, Richmond Centre, new and glitzy Aberdeen Centre, and many more ― are king.
If you're used to finding great food in settings that are either elegantly urbane or gritty and down-home, arriving for dinner at a Richmond mall is a little unsettling. Yet the food can be phenomenal. At Aberdeen Centre's chic Fisherman's Terrace Seafood Restaurant, you can choose from more than 60 dim sum items. On a cold winter night, get in line at Garden City Hot Pot for a Chinese fondue–style meal ― cooking your dinner in steaming hot broth. At Sun Sui Wah, you can splurge on a 10-pound steamed Alaskan king crab with garlic. And at the handsome new Shanghai River Restaurant (which is not in a mall but on the ground floor of an apartment building across from Richmond Centre), you can try Shanghai steamed buns, hand-pulled noodles, and tea-smoked duck.
Despite the setting, Richmond's restaurants have grown increasingly sophisticated. While David Jue ― owner of Bamboo Grove, the city's oldest existing Chinese restaurant ― says that traditionally here "food comes first, then service, then atmosphere," newer Richmond restaurants wow with ambience. Shanghai River, for example, bridges the gap between dining and entertainment with its subtle contemporary decor and its open kitchen, where you can watch noodles being stretched to incredible lengths. "Chinese people love a new attraction," says chef-owner Bill Cheung.
The cuisine has taken interesting turns as well. At intimate, elegant Zen Fine Chinese Cuisine, chef-owner Sam Lau cooks what he calls modern Chinese food, which he offers in a prix fixe tasting menu. "It's not fusion," Lau insists. "Some courses are straight Chinese. I cook the authentic way, but the presentation is Western."
The Richmond Public Market bustles with shoppers seeking seafood, snake soup, or herbal remedies. For a sleeker, more controlled shopping experience, head to T&T Supermarket, part of the largest Asian grocery chain in Canada. Here, across the street from Aberdeen Centre, customers are serenaded by softly piped-in music while they fill shopping carts with live crabs, clams, and abalone from T&T's fish tanks; they can also buy tropical fruits seldom seen in the U.S. (purple-skinned tart-sweet mangosteens, spiky durians with their unforgettable stink) and fresh, frozen, and canned foods from all over Asia.
"Our customers are used to high standards in Hong Kong and Taiwan," says T&T's marketing manager, Melina Hung. "They expect that here. Every Chinese is an expert on food."
So powerful is the Richmond food scene that it can even alter people's lives. Take Maggie Lee. I arranged to meet her at Fisherman's Terrace, a restaurant inside Aberdeen Centre. When I arrived, she wasn't there yet. A few minutes later, I saw a striking, curvaceous woman with short, spiky hair being shown to her table. I was then shown to the same table. Both of us were surprised. Lee expected to see a white face. After hearing about Lee's food expertise, I expected a Chinese grandmother.
We relaxed and began our meal. On the table was a dish of pea tips with fresh bean-curd skins, perfect in its simplicity. Hargow (shrimp dumplings) and siumai (pork dumplings) then arrived. Both are common dim sum offerings, but here they were anything but ordinary. The plump hargow were rich with chunks of shrimp. ("Eat them now, when they're hot," Lee advised me.) The siumai had a topping of fresh tobiko (flying fish roe), added after steaming so it glistened like jewels. We were then offered a small dish of XO sauce. The condiment, made with expensive ingredients such as shredded dried scallops and dried shrimp, is usually reserved for special guests or regular customers ― which we were treated as, because Lee had been referred by a friend.
As we ate, Lee told me her story. She and her two sons came to Canada nine years ago from Hong Kong. Her youngest son wasn't interested in regular school, she said, so he applied to culinary school. "Then we decided we would go together.
"I tried to withdraw three times," Lee told me. But she stuck it out. "Now I'm really proud of him. And of myself. He was the top student out of 20. And I was the one after him." Her son is now apprenticing to become a chef, and Maggie Lee is enjoying a new career as a cook at a casino here in Richmond.
The meal continued, wonderfully. There were pigs' feet and hard-cooked eggs prepared with sweet vinegar, ginger, and peanuts. I recognized this dish as one my mother cooked for me after the birth of my first daughter. It is supposed to help rebuild the body after childbirth. The taste reminded me of what food at its best can be: comforting and sensual at the same time. That, in its essence, is what much of the food of Richmond is all about.
We got our chicken salad ― deliciously moist with chicken stock and dark soy. "You soak the chicken," Lee explained, "then turn off the heat. That makes the chicken very tender. It's a secret recipe. This restaurant does it well."
I could see Lee thinking about her own repertoire of dishes. "When I know a recipe is good," she said, "I write it down for my own book. I'm passionate about food."
How to order
Many Chinese restaurants in Richmond (as well as other authentic Chinese restaurants) give diners four or five menus. To sort through the mind-boggling array of choices, Stephen Wong suggests these tactics.
It's a good idea to make reservations whenever possible (not all restaurants accept them for dim sum). Prices for meals (listed here in U.S. dollars) vary widely depending on what you order; live seafood and rare ingredients can be expensive. For more information on the area, contact Tourism Richmond www.tourismrichmond.com or 877/247-0777.
Bamboo Grove. Try the crab and, for dessert, the panna cotta–like ginger milk at the 40-year-old restaurant. $$; dinner daily. 6920 No. 3 Rd.; 604/278-9585.
Fisherman's Terrace Seafood Restaurant. The light-filled dining room serves Cantonese food and a huge selection of dim sum. $$$; dim sum, lunch, and dinner daily. Aberdeen Centre, Unit 3580, 4151 Hazelbridge Way; 604/303-9739.
Garden City Hot Pot. Steam fills the room as diners cook dinner in a hot pot of broth. For dim sum, choose from 10 different teas. $$$; dim sum, lunch, and dinner daily. 1225 Cosmo Plaza, 8788 McKim Way; 604/303-0909.
Hoi Tong Chinese Seafood Restaurant. Popular small, cramped family restaurant that serves excellent crispy roasted squab. $$$; lunch and dinner Wed–Mon. 160-170, 4200 No. 3 Rd.; 604/273-3388.
Jade Seafood Restaurant. Locals recommend the Jade Special Pork with Skin, Fish in Fish Soup, and the chef's special oxtails. $$$$; dim sum, lunch, and dinner daily. 8511 Alexandra Rd.; 604/249-0082.
Kirin Restaurant. Longtime favorite for dim sum and seafood, noted for consistency and service. $$$; dim sum, lunch, and dinner daily. 3 West Centre, second floor, 7900 Westminster Hwy.; 604/303-8833.
McKim Wonton Mein Saga. Family-owned noodle house offers excellent won ton, noodles, and beef brisket stew. $; lunch and dinner daily. 1180-8788 McKim; 604/270-6632.
Oriental Delight. From 8:30 a.m. to 11 a.m., there is a 30 percent discount on most dim sum; 20 percent from 11 to 3. $$; dim sum, lunch, and dinner daily. 145-4751 Garden City Rd.; 604/231-8744.
Shanghai River Restaurant. Beautifully presented dishes in a new, contemporary dining room. $$$; breakfast, lunch, and dinner daily. 110, 7831 Westminster; 604/233-8885.
Sun Sui Wah Seafood Restaurant. Well-known favorite noted for seafood and for dim sum from carts. $$$; dim sum, lunch, and dinner daily. 102, 4940 No. 3 Rd.; 604/273-8208.
Zen Fine Chinese Cuisine. Prix fixe dinners of modern Chinese food. $$$$; dinner Wed–Mon, reservations required (choose your menu when you book). 2015-8580 Alexandra; 604/233-0077.