Best of Vancouver 2019: Food & Drink
Best budget culinary excursion
Should you win Lotto Max this weekend, your ultimate Vietnam experience will start with a sprawling breakfast buffet at Ho Chi Minh City’s colonial Hotel Majestic, followed by cocktails and appetizers at the Rex Hotel’s famous rooftop bar, and a white-tablecloth dinner at the exotic Jardin des Sens restaurant. Next stop Hanoi, where the street-food stands near the Đong Xuân Market are every bit as brilliant as the fried fish upstairs at Cha ca Lã Vong.
For a less financially ruinous culinary journey, head to the strip of budget Vietnamese restaurants dotting Victoria Drive between 33rd and 41st avenues. Making the wrong decision for lunch is pretty much impossible, which is to say the bún bò Hue at the Hoi An Cafe is every bit as worth the trip as the bánh mì sot vang at the Hanoi Old Quarter Restaurant.
But for best in show, there’s a reason the lineup is usually out the door at Bún Chá Cá Hoáng Yén. The sign promises “Vietnamese and Canadian cuisine”, but we’ve got a sneaking suspicion that might be a throwback to the ’70s—unless your idea of Canuck cuisine is the house specialty bún cha cá (fish cakes in vermicelli-noodle soup, served with a mountain of fresh basil, bean sprouts, shredded lettuce, and lemon wedges).
Not into waiting for a table, where you often sit with strangers? Head south a couple of blocks to Banh Mi Saigon, where lemongrass pork and Vietnamese-ham bahn mis are served on piping-hot, baked-on-site French bread for $5.50 and under. Both places are cash only—which, fittingly enough, will make you feel like you’re in Vietnam.
Best new initiative to elevate women in food and wine
WORTH stands for “women of recreation, tourism, and hospitality”, and the group aims to address the gender gap in those industries and connect women working within them. Founder Joanna Jagger worked as a chef, bartender, host, server, oyster shucker, and HR lead before joining Capilano University’s school of tourism and outdoor recreation as an instructor. She started WORTH to level the playing field in sectors she’s passionate about where women remain underpaid and underranked compared to their male counterparts. With events that raise funds for scholarships for young female culinary students and with workshops for women on topics like how to negotiate salary and handle sexual harassment, this is girl power at its best.
Best local boost to Belize farmers
Vancouver’s Umeeda and Nareena Switlo make Truly Turmeric—the world’s first wild-crafted whole-root turmeric paste—by partnering with hundreds of small-scale farmers in Belize. Belize has horrendously high unemployment rates. Naledo, the mother-daughter team’s social enterprise, employs people aged 19 to 32, paying them more than minimum wage while providing mentorship and entrepreneurial training. When the pair appeared on Dragons’ Den in 2018, they got offers from all six Dragons. Turmeric has been shown to have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. The bright-orange paste can be swapped for powdered turmeric in any recipe that calls for it. Truly Turmeric is now sold all over Canada, and the duo plan to expand and add more farmers to their family.
Best use of good-for-you fruit in a not-so-good-for-you dessert
Straight food writer Tammy Kwan regularly indulges in desserts like Japanese soufflé pancakes and salty egg-yolk cream puffs. But there’s one category of sweets she refuses to even taste: those that incorporate good-for-you fruits and vegetables. Banana bread? Nope. Carrot cake? Nah. Apple pie? Try again. But even Kwan can’t resist Billy Button Dessert Bar’s Orange, a spherical treat that looks like a mandarin—grainy skin texture, stem, and all—but is actually orange-confit marmalade housed in a solid shell of orange-coloured white-chocolate ganache. The buzzy Mount Pleasant dessert spot also makes the Mushroom, a giant fungus-shaped sweet that looks like a mushroom but is actually made of cream puffs, pana cotta, and milk-chocolate Chantilly.
Best reason to go for a drink in Vancouver
Sweet hallelujah: gone are the days of rum ’n’ Cokes and crantinis. Cocktail culture is alive and well here in Vancouver, giving new meaning to the term Wet Coast. Beyond the city’s wide variety of cool bars and array of restaurants that have drinks lists as long and as carefully curated as their food menus, we are also home to several bartenders who are killing it on the national scene. Bittered Sling cofounder Lauren Mote is a bar star, the “cocktailian” having been the first woman to win the Diageo World Class Canada Bartender of the Year competition in 2015. Kaitlyn Stewart, who is currently shaking and stirring at Elisa, took home the award in 2017. This year, the Fairmont Pacific Rim’s Botanist bartender Jeff Savage earned the title. (The Straight’s Golden Plates 2019 bartender of the year was Tableau Bar Bistro’s J S Dupuis.) These are just a few of our best bartenders, who are making us proud while making us superb and inventive drinks. Find others at a watering hole near you.
Best one-stop shop for beard wax, east van merch, and gourmet pickles
Few stores encapsulate East Van living in quite the way the cozy new Jackson’s General does. Housed in a retro space near Kingsway and Knight Street, the space has a heritage window sign that harks back to the East Van of old. The latest brainchild of Grubwear founder Mike Jackson carries everything from eco products to food and clothing, all with a sustainable, buy-local feel. We’re talking Max fruit popsicles, Oddity kombucha, East Van Bees honey, and Kaylin & Hobbs pickles alongside Bamboo Earth true toothbrushes and Bearded Nomad or Splendid Bastard grooming products custom-made for the facial-hair-happy hipster in your life. Anchoring it all are Grubwear’s own T-shirts, like the one sporting the “Dude Chilling Park” sign and the proud and simple “East Van AF” and “Mount Pleasant” varieties.
Best social-media debate
When customers at Gastown’s now defunct Crab Park Chowdery posted a photo to Instagram of a rat allegedly found in their soup, Vancouverites were rightfully grossed out. But then came the skeptics: how does one scoop an entire dead rat into a small bowl without realizing it? Can a dead rat even fit into a standard-sized ladle? Also, why was the customer in question’s Instagram page mostly dormant before this image—which immediately went viral—was posted? Soon locals were split into two camps: those who believed Crab Park Chowdery had violated some serious food-safety regulations and those who believed the rat was planted in the soup by a disgruntled former employee or someone with a vendetta against the joint. Crab Park asserted that the incident could not have happened in its kitchen, but the restaurant ultimately couldn’t recover from the bad press and shuttered less than a month later. Like a good mystery or a decades-old cold case reexamined, maybe this one just isn’t meant to be solved.
Best reason Seth Rogen still loves Vancouver
Besides the weed culture, popular filming locations, and the fact it’s his hometown, our city has a big place in Canadian actor Seth Rogen’s heart because of its food. He’s given shout-outs to the Richmond Night Market eats (grilled squid and Little Phnom Penh’s wings, in particular) and the jelly doughnuts at Lee’s Donuts on Granville Island. He has also been seen with U.S. celebrity chef David Chang frequenting Richmond’s HK BBQ Master, a cult-favourite Chinese barbecue shop tucked away in the parking lot of a grocery store. Don’t be surprised to see him sit next to you at one of Vancouver’s ramen joints or some obscure food vendor.
Best local African vegan cuisine
When Kenyan-born Vancouver resident Asha Wheeldon shifted to a plant-based diet several years ago, she quickly came to realize that there were few vegan options around town that reflected her African heritage. She set out to change that with Kula Foods, which takes its name for the Swahili word for “eat”. Its products include sukuma stew—which is made with collard, lentils, cardamom, paprika, cinnamon, ginger, fenugreek, and more—and mandazi, a.k.a. Swahili doughnuts. Find them at farmers markets and select retailers, including Vegan Supply and the Juice Truck. At Kula’s heart is Wheeldon’s desire to create community through food; her slogan is “Let’s kula together!”
Best local effort to improve the lives of women in Africa
Vancouver resident Oumar Barou Togola was born in Mali, and now he’s making regular trips to the landlocked African nation to help bring about positive change in the lives of hundreds of female farmers in several villages through direct trade with Farafena, his social enterprise. The product? African superfoods: fonio (drought-resistant, it’s known as the next quinoa), moringa leaf powder, and baobab fruit powder. Abundant in nutrients, the foods have garnered interest from the Bill Gates Foundation and are found in grocery stores across Canada. The partnership boosts the well-being of entire villages and supports traditional farming practices. By being paid directly for the crops they harvest, the women are able to start microbusinesses, build homes for their families, and educate their kids.
Best large disappearing brewery
The Molson Brewery has been a fixture on the south side of the Burrard Bridge for six decades, but now the parent company prefers to create its suds at a sprawling and spanking-new facility in Chilliwack. That means the Concord Pacific–owned site on the city’s West Side is about to become a hot real-estate play. Our prediction? A master-planned community will eventually replace those stinky tanks.
Best lunch spot to load up on free refills
There’s no free lunch in life, but there can be perks. Vancouver’s popular Japanese eatery Saku specializes in tonkatsu (fried pork cutlet) set meals served in a modern and minimalist setting. Guests can choose from items ranging from deep-fried and breaded pork loin to deep-fried and breaded aged mozzarella wrapped with thinly sliced pork. But the best part is that each katsu (cutlet) set is served with unlimited rice, tonjiru (pork-and-veggie miso soup), and shredded cabbage, which tastes amazing when topped with Saku’s sesame dressing. The protein may seem like a modest portion when you’re starving, but the free refills will definitely keep you stuffed for a few hours.
Best birthday party to host when you want to sail the seven seas
Adult birthday parties usually consist of a nice dinner out with friends, drinks at a trendy watering hole, or a combo of both. If you’re looking for something a little out of the ordinary, check out Granville Island’s Pirate Adventures. This local company offers interactive pirate cruises aboard the Black Spirit, which sails through False Creek seasonally. Its pirate staffers will put you and your guests in proper buccaneer attire, complete with the pirate make-up you never knew you needed. (Think scars and mustaches.) Although food and drink aren’t usually included in its packages, organizing a simple potluck should be easy enough for folks who will probably spend more time on the ship singing along to pirate-themed anthems and aiming the ship’s water cannons at other boats on the water. Your inner Sinbad or Jack Sparrow will truly shine through.
Best thing to eat when you don’t have a budget
Let’s just say you received a big bonus at work or lucked out with a cash gift from your visiting aunt. The responsible thing to do with the extra money would be to invest in some mutual funds or put it in your savings account. But if you want to treat yourself to a nice meal, we suggest checking out a fancy hot-pot restaurant. Richmond’s Dolar Shop is a high-end hot-pot joint located in Lansdowne Mall. It serves individual pots and colourful mocktails in an interior that looks like it should be the home of a nice salon or confectionary shop. But we digress: splash out on menu items like premium beef or sustainable Oceanwise-certified seafood; you won’t regret it. If the seasonal deluxe seafood treasure chest happens to be available, go for it. With everything from tiger shrimp to abalone, the presentation is great for social media content. To top it off, customizable dipping sauces are available at the sauce bar, and unlimited ice cream is served at the end of the meal.
Best sign that fall had arrived even before the summer ended
When Starbucks announced August 27 as the first day of fall because it was the official return of its pumpkin-spice latte. The global coffee chain angered a lot of people who were still trying to hold on to the sunny days of summer, but the announcement also pleased those who couldn’t be happier about the return of sweater weather and all things cozy and nice. Remember when signs of fall were the leaves changing colours and temperatures dropping below 15 degrees? Those days are long gone