Kingsway's king for late-night Chinese food in Vancouver

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So it's official. A CBC news report advises that for a good night's sleep, one should go to bed with neither a full stomach nor an empty one. To the Chinese, this gastronomic Goldilocks principle is nothing new. That's why there are so many Chinese eateries that keep their doors open past midnight to cater to night prowlers, insomniacs, party animals, and folks who just want a bowl of congee to warm their stomachs before bed.

On how restaurants cater to different customers:'}

“Western customers prefer if you talk to them more, if you make sure that their meal is okay. They value this kind of service. Chinese customers prefer if you leave them alone and ask them how they enjoyed the meal after they have finished eating.”
—Spencer Ng, general manager at the Jade Seafood Restaurant (interviewed in Chinese)

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In fact, access and parking loomed large on the pros column in 2007 when chef Ken Leung considered moving his eponymous restaurant, Ken's Chinese Restaurant, to 1097 Kingsway when the rent got too steep on Main Street. Open till 1 a.m. seven nights a week, Ken's is a place where late-night snackers meet ravenous cooks and waiters coming off the evening shift. There's something here for everybody, including Hong-Kong café–style western dishes such as grilled lamb chops and innovative Cantonese fare like Golden Prawns—so named for their coating in a sauce made from salted duck-egg yolks, a variation on Leung's award-winning Golden Dungeness Crab. Must tries? An excellent poached free-run chicken with ginger scallion oil; a very tender, savoury, cubed beef tenderloin in black pepper sauce; and succulent steamed Manila clams in a Shaoxing wine broth ($15 to $17). Or for those who yen for congee, the clam congee ($5). A side note: live Alaskan king crabs are now in season and at Ken's for the market price, about $16 per pound. Why not round up half a dozen friends and have a late-night feast?

Up the street, a late-night crowd of largely Hong Kong expats gathers at McKim Wonton Mein Saga (2780 Kingsway, open until 2 a.m.) for their fix of nostalgic Pearl Delta “countryside” clay-pot dishes. These are listed as chef's recommendations on the menu and include the pork-liver-and-chicken combo, and the sizzling fish-head pot. (The pork liver slices we tried were perfectly cooked and delicious.) Ordering off the snack menu of small plates (averaging $6.95 each)—some dishes overlap the late-night-special menu that runs from 9:30 p.m. till closing—also yields gems. We recommend baked button mushrooms with black pepper, which had great wok-chi and were moist and crunchy at the same time; the salty fish with flowering chives and bean sprouts; the oyster omelette; the deep-fried soft bean curd with garlic, and, of course, a pot of congee.

{sidebar title='On customer service:

“A lot of our customers, they live in China or other parts of Asia but come to Vancouver ever so often, and what they tell me is that the level of service and the quality of food in Vancouver is superior to that in Asia. So that speaks volumes to us and our industry.”
—Jason Chan, executive officer at Kirin Restaurant

In Vancouver, a fair few of these late-night joints are dotted along Kingsway, perhaps because the thoroughfare slashes diagonally across the city and offers free parking along the way.

If you are interested in a little immersion into mainland Chinese hipster culture, check out the Traditional Chinese BBQ House (3141 Kingsway). A poster on the wall urges teenagers to “Act Now”, get a job, and move away from home—presumably so they can gain the freedom to stay up till 3 a.m. eating Szechuan-style hot pot with friends while texting on their smartphones. From the bluish glow of phone screens reflected on the young patrons' faces to the bad English on the menu to the aroma of cumin, fagara, and chilies, this place is a transplant right out of China. Our selections from the barbecue section (column four on the menu—all the headings are in Chinese only) included the highly spiced and flavourful grilled lamb skewers (99 cents each, minimum order of six) and the moist, excellent marinated chicken wings. Both brought back memories of night markets across China. Under northern stir-fries (column three, $7.80) we found a plate of tasty chef's special escargots—periwinkles in a lightly spicy sweet-salty bean sauce—which took a bit of work to extract from their shells with toothpicks. The Fish in Spicy Hot Pot (column two, $18.80), was palate-numbingly spicy and sweat-inducing in true Szechuan fashion.

But this is not food for slumber. Rather, it's food for drinking, and the restaurant knows it—if you buy five beers you get the sixth one free. Well, sleep is overrated anyway. Next time I can't sleep, I'll try the Rabbit in Hot Pot or perhaps the Wok-Grilled Bullfrog.

For a more family-oriented experience, head to Au Wing Kee (2568 Kingsway) which has 78 items on its night snack menu available from 9 p.m. to 1 a.m. Try the unusual, such as deep-fried quail ($6.50) or soft-shell crab ($7) with hot pepper and salt. Or go for a pot of lobster congee (market price).

Or for the tried and true, Congee Noodle House at 141 East Broadway has a sister at 3313 Kingsway: Congee Noodle King, which is open till 1 a.m. A bowl of chicken-mushroom congee and some steamed rice rolls with prawns always gives me that warm glow as I slip into my pyjamas.

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Second Nation
Ken's Restaurant is wonderful. Super-fast delivery service too, which can be useful for those of us with little people in our lives!
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