It’s hard to think twice about food courts at Vancouver malls. There are chains like OPA! at Pacific Centre for Greek fast food, New York Fries at Oakridge Centre for a quick poutine, and A&W at Park Royal if you happen to be craving a Mozza burger—hardly anything spectacular to write home about.
The point is, shoppers stop by shopping-mall food courts just to fuel up with a quick bite and drink, before continuing on their hunt for the latest apparel or other spending endeavours. There’s usually nothing more and nothing less to these kinds of food spots, if we’re talking about North American–style malls.
The food courts located inside Asian shopping centres in Richmond, however, are an entirely different story.
In fact, it’s safe to say that most people seen eating at the southern suburb’s food courts planned for their visit to include a meal. Enjoying breakfast or lunch at one of these hawker-style food stalls may not appeal to some, but you’re definitely missing out if you don’t venture into these ethnic establishments, some of which command lengthy lineups even before opening hour.
Aberdeen Centre’s food court is one of the newest of its kind. When this Hong Kong–style shopping mall opened, it took a couple of years to gain traction and a steady flow of tenants and consumers. But it has blossomed into a bustling spot that attracts guests young and old in search of good food. One fan-favourite stall is Wu Fung Dessert, which despite its name specializes in crispy deep-fried chicken wings and other snacks, like curry fish ball and deep-fried squid tentacles.
Another is the Bubble Waffle Cafe, where guests tend to order noodle-soup bowls. Everything from the soup base to type of noodle to toppings can be customized, and paired with a drink and bubble waffle (Hong Kong–style egg-shaped waffle) for a special price.
“Our prices are reasonable, which is why people keep coming back,” Timus Chow, owner of the Bubble Waffle Cafe at Aberdeen Centre, told the Straight in an interview during the lunch rush hour. “We have good food and drinks, and we always have a special bubble-waffle deal. There’s also dessert, which should be appealing.”
Just across the street is Parker Place, another of Richmond’s Asian shopping centres. Its food court is not as shiny and new as Aberdeen’s, but you’ll have a hard time finding a spot to sit down even on a rainy weekday.
Its food-court stalls are mom-and-pop shops opened by no-fuss owners who couldn’t care less about taking an interview from a local English-language newspaper.
In the morning, you’ll usually find retirees and seniors chowing down on an egg-and-ham sandwich paired with a cup of Hong Kong–style milk tea. During lunch, the busiest (and most lucrative) time of day for the vendors, lineups will form at some of the more popular shops, such as barbecued meat specialists Tai Fook Noodle & Congee Shop—it serves a delicious barbecued-duck rice noodle—and Lai Taste, known for its Vietnamese-style pork-chop and fish-fillet sandwiches.
“Weekends during lunch are the busiest,” Jerry Yu, owner of Lai Taste, told the Straight in an interview at the 10-year-old food stall. “There are a lot of people who order takeout, and we have one regular customer who drives all the way from North Vancouver.”
You’ve heard of people driving up from Seattle or Portland for Metro Vancouver’s dim sum, but now there’s also evidence of city-dwellers trekking to suburban regions just for good food-court fare.
Next to Parker Place is Empire Centre, a little mall home to jewellery shops, a travel agency, and beauty salons. Its food court is small but offers chicken, bubble tea, and more. But its crown jewel is probably James Snacks, a popular joint known for its clay-pot rice—or, according to the menu, sand-pot rice.
This dish is popular in Hong Kong, but patience is key. It can take more than 20 minutes for your meal to be ready, but it will be well worth the wait. Customers can choose various pots, including preserved sausage, free-range chicken with mushroom, and spare rib with black-bean sauce. Each dish is served with rice and some veggies, and guests just need to add soy sauce and mix before digging into the flavourful creation. Near the end, you’ll find pieces of compressed fried rice, crispy from the heat of the pot, which is extremely popular with young diners.
“We have been open for 15 years,” Edna Yu, co-owner of James Snacks alongside husband James, told the Straight at their food stall. “The easiest way to find out what this dish is, is to simply try it yourself.”
A little further away from the side-by-side shopping malls listed above is Yaohan Centre, home to a supermarket and other locally run shops.
Its food court is also loved by many, because it offers an expansive seating area and a wide selection of food stalls that are consistent and reasonably priced. On any given day, you’ll find a steady flow of customers at Wah Yuen Noodle House ordering congee, rice rolls, and noodle soups. At lunchtime, you’ll also find many hungry patrons huddled in front of Curry House, which has been in operation for 26 years at the shopping destination. Its Hainanese chicken and curry beef brisket with rice are bestsellers, and its customers range from Asian families to Caucasian trades workers on their lunch break.
Even though there are many other options available at the Yaohan Centre food court, Curry House’s owner, Sunny Wong, isn’t fazed.
“There’s always been competition, so it doesn’t matter,” Wong told the Straight as he was preparing an order. “As long as you make good food, then it won’t matter.”
It’s important to note that most Asian food-court stalls only accept cash, so it’s best to stock your wallet before making a visit to these food spots. It can also be pretty hectic on your first visit, but that’s part of the experience.
“People come to food courts to look for fun places to eat, where they can try something new and bring their whole family to have a nice meal out,” noted Bubble Waffle’s Chow. “It’s not as formal as dining at a restaurant, but equally delicious.”