When Stephanie Yuen sits down at a table in a Chinese restaurant, she already has a good idea of what she’s going to order. “Some of the menus are like a book,” she tells the Straight by phone. “We don’t usually look at them because we know exactly what we want when we go in.”
The food writer explains that although Lower Mainland Chinese restaurants offer a multitude of choices, many are known for doing a single dish particularly well. So if she has a hankering for a certain kind of food, she goes to a place that specializes in it.
That’s where the Edgewater Casino Chinese Restaurant Awards come in. Now in their second year, the awards consist of two parts. The diners’ choice segment—in which people vote on-line for their favourite restaurants in 15 categories—took place last fall, with the results being announced in November. The winners of the critics’ choice component, which focuses on signature dishes, were announced yesterday (April 7).
Yuen chaired the critics’ panel, which consisted of eight judges, including Margaret Gallagher from CBC Radio One and Conrad Leung, who heads the Asian culinary arts department at Vancouver Community College. The judges offered up nominations for signature dishes in 25 categories, from soup to lamb to veggies. Then each roamed about town tasting dishes suggested by the others. The group reconvened to vote on the best dishes, naming gold and silver winners in each Critics’ Choice Signature Dish category.
The list of signature dishes ranges from basics like wonton noodle soup to more unusual ones based on geoduck, for example. Yuen says the critics’ component “guides you to the restaurant that’s known to do a very good job with that particular dish”.
So what makes one Cantonese wonton noodle soup better than another? Yuen lists five requirements for a good product. It starts with the broth, which should be made from prawn shells, eggshells, chicken bones, pork bones, and roasted dried fish. “It’s not a meat broth, nor is it vegetarian or seafood,” she says. “It’s actually a combination. You have to be able to taste that fish.” She prefers her broth without MSG: “I don’t want to taste MSG instead of what is supposed to be in the soup,” she states. For the wontons, she looks for a good balance between pork and prawns—not too much of the latter. The egg noodles must be very firm, “kind of crispy” so that your teeth have to work to cut them. Finally, the soup should be topped with pungent Chinese yellow chives. Richmond’s Tsim Chai Noodles (50–8251 Westminster Highway) won gold in the Cantonese Noodle category.
When Yuen talks about what makes a good congee, she starts with a requirement Goldilocks would appreciate. “The consistency of the congee cannot be too thin; it cannot be too thick,” she says. In short, it must be just right. Each bowl, she adds, should be made to order, scooped from the master congee stockpot but cooked individually in a saucepan so that a beef congee doesn’t taste like an oyster congee.
“It has to be hot,” she continues. “And the condiments have to be right.” For example, peanuts suit some types of congee, while others call for chopped green onion and cilantro. “If the congee chef really knows his stuff, he knows exactly which condiments to put on each order.”
The critics’ panel singled out Congee Noodle House (141–143 East Broadway), giving it a gold in the congee category for its pidan (preserved egg), pork, and dried oyster congee.
Conservative and adventurous eaters alike will find appealing options among the winning signature dishes. An easy place to start is duck. The panel rates the barbecue duck at Red Star Seafood Restaurant (8298 Granville Street and 2200–8181 Cambie Road, Richmond) as the best. “You can keep sucking on the bones and you don’t want to give up,” Yuen says, laughing. “That’s how good it is.”
More seasoned diners may want to try the gold winner in the appetizer category: five spice pork heart from Alvin Garden (4850 Imperial Street, Burnaby). “It’s not for beginners,” Yuen says, adding that the heart has a beautiful flavour, and that it’s “not chewy at all. It’s tender and firm.”
Or, you could try the sautéed geoduck with mushrooms at Yan’s Garden Restaurant (9948 Lougheed Highway, Burnaby), which won first place in its category. Pronounced “gooey duck”, this large, phallic burrowing clam that’s native to the Pacific Northwest has been approved as sustainable by the SeaChoice program. “It’s very, very tender,” rather than chewy, says Yuen, who compares the mild, slightly sweet flavour to that of a butter clam. Geoducks are often kept live in tanks at Chinese restaurants. The geoduck at Yan’s Garden is blanched, sliced, and stir-fried with king mushrooms and yellow chives.
For a complete list of signature dishes, as well as diners’ choice picks, see www.chineserestaurantawards.com/.