Spirited Torafuku kicks ass in Vancouver

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      Despite having a name similar to that of David Chang’s Momofuku (“lucky peach” in Japanese), Torafuku (“lucky tiger”) is wholly original.

      The newish pan-Asian spot on the edge of Chinatown is the first bricks-and-mortar venture for executive chef Clement Chan and general manager Steve Kuan, who also operate the Le Tigre food truck. A Vancouver native who studied at Vancouver Community College, Chan honed his skills at Hapa Izakaya, Chambar, and Blue Water Cafe. He’s also represented Canada at the World Culinary Olympics. Kuan, who hails from Taipei, earned a culinary diploma from the Pacific Institute of Culinary Arts and later got his Red Seal certification under Bruno Marti at La Belle Auberge. He’s worked at Cioppino’s and the Hyatt Regency Hotel Vancouver, where he met Chan.

      As at the pair’s mobile kitchen, there’s not a bland morsel to be found here. Rather, creative dishes burst with character and flavour.

      Not only that, but the place, which is situated on Main Street near the legendary Ivanhoe Pub, has a feel-good vibe, to boot. There’s nothing fancy about the minimalist, industrial-themed décor. A communal concrete table runs the length of the room; on the other side are several lower wooden tables, all set with beautiful one-of-a-kind plates made by HiDe Ceramic Works. Walls are bright white, with one covered in panels of blue insulation, making for a piece of modern art that doubles as a sound barrier. What the joint’s neighbours might hear is a danceable playlist, this night featuring the best of the ’80s; think a-ha and Rick James. The bartender certainly seemed to be enjoying it, bopping his head from side to side while garnishing cocktails.

      Speaking of which, take my advice and start off with a Yogi’s Dream. Devised by bar manager Max Borrowman, this refreshing number is made with green-tea-infused Beefeater 24 and “plum shrub”—which is made by macerating plums with sugar for several days and then adding apple-cider vinegar—as well as fresh lemon, a smidge of maple syrup, and O5 Tea’s kombucha. Since this libation has kombucha in it, it must be healthy, right? I had two. Another delightful drink is the People’s Cocktail, made with fresh cucumber juice, house-made ginger liqueur, elderflower cordial, fresh-pressed lime, and Beefeater gin.

      Consisting of bold Asian flavours with a West Coast flair, menu items draw on the traditional cuisines of Japan, China, Taiwan, Korea, and Vietnam. Small plates are meant for sharing, and there isn’t a single dud in the bunch. The sweet chili dressing on the “Calamari” Done the Right Way, made with Humboldt squid, hits you in the back of the throat, the fire tempered by beautiful chunks of sweet litchi. This Is Not Tortellini is a delicious dish of gyoza-style pockets of pork, shiso, ginger, garlic, and “angry tiger” sauce, the plate prettied up with snap peas, tomatoes, sliced radishes, and dabs of carrot and cauliflower purée. Rye So Messy Chicken Wings (are you getting the sense of fun Kuan and Chan have with the menu?) is a row of wings that have been marinated in rye and gochujang, a spicy Korean paste, then topped with mango glaze, crumbled ramen, and Korean Fried Chicken sauce, aka “KFC sauce”. Sure enough, they’re finger-lickin’ good.

      Other must-haves? The Kick-ass Rice 2.0 has perfect nigiri-like rectangles of rice topped with aburi-style torched pork belly. Kick-ass too is the veggie risotto, with shiitake, Portobello, and button mushrooms, topped with an onsen egg, slow-cooked to 64.5 degrees to milky effect.

      Plates range from $8 to $12, making Torafuku great value. It doesn’t take reservations, and you can bet that if you’re not there right at opening on a weekend, you’ll end up waiting. I loathe lineups for anything but would make an exception for this unique place.

      Follow Gail Johnson on Twitter @gailjohnsonwork.