In 1990, Betty Lee packed up her family’s belongings and moved with her husband and three children from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, to Vancouver. “I came for the future of my children,” she says. Now, 23 years later, she and her family run Mamalee Malaysian Delight (3144 West Broadway), formerly known as Café D’Lite, one of many long-thriving mom-and-pop restaurants that have phenomenal food—and inspiring stories—in common.
Lee sits at a table and looks with contentment at the modern surroundings of the restaurant. Her present success is a far cry from her humble beginnings. Born into a poor family of 12 children, Lee learned the importance of working hard to make ends meet. After moving to Canada, Lee toiled at a fish processing plant in Richmond before, in 1991, she and her husband, David Chin, saved up enough money to buy a struggling sandwich shop called Café D’Lite.
Initially, Lee retained the original soup-and-sandwich menu, but soon enough the self-taught cooking whiz began to add Malaysian specialties. “When I introduced Hainanese chicken, the business boomed,” she remembers. Within a year, the restaurant was serving only Malaysian food, the top sellers being laksa (coconut curry) noodle soup and her famed boneless Hainanese chicken, simmered in fragrant broth until tender and moist.
Since then, Lee has added new dishes like curry beef brisket rice and roti canai. The restaurant changed locations in 2005, moving a few blocks west, and slowly but surely Lee has been handing the reins over to her children, Edwin and Kristine Chin. The kids renovated Café D’Lite in February and renamed the place Mamalee, in honour of their mother, who is getting older and wants to give her kids a turn at running the business.
Asked whether it’s been hard letting go of the restaurant, Lee smiles and says, “It’s just been a matter of time. I had to do this.”
Ana Herrera, who owns and runs Rinconcito Salvadoreno (2062 Commercial Drive) with her son Omar, has a story that’s similar to Lee’s. Herrera left Quezaltepeque, El Salvador, 33 years ago, in search of a better life in Vancouver. “Conditions in our country weren’t good. Work was better here,” she explains as she takes a brief rest from her morning prep duties.
Herrera grew up in a home in which people were always cooking—and eating—good Salvadoran food like pupusas, a traditional dish of thick maize dough stuffed with cheese, beans, and sometimes pork. Eventually, in 1998, Herrera realized her dream by opening up her own restaurant under the same name on Commercial near East 12th Avenue, where she began serving pupusas and other Salvadoran specialties. She did the cooking while her husband, Jose, handled front-of-house duties.
In 2000, the restaurant moved to its current location, a basic yet cheerful yellow-hued space. Omar, their eldest son, is also obsessed with cooking, and after attending the Dubrulle culinary school, he started in the restaurant’s kitchen in 2002. After a trip to El Salvador for some culinary research, he enthusiastically expanded the menu with items like huaraches (handmade grilled tortillas layered with refried beans, grilled peppers, and melted cheese, served with guacamole, sour cream, and salsa).
Herrera says customers love Rinconcito’s food because everything is made from scratch daily. She also feels her cooking partnership with her son is the secret to the restaurant’s success. “We love to cook, and we work hard. We are a good team,” she says fondly. Add in two nieces who also help out in the kitchen, and the restaurant is truly a well-oiled family enterprise.
“Whatever I do, I put everything into it,” says Trung Q. Chung, co-owner of Bao Chau (2717 East Hastings Street), during a chat at the restaurant. He isn’t kidding. In the first nine years of business, Chung didn’t take a single day off. Even now, except for the occasional vacation, he puts in 16 to 17 hours each day.
In 1980, Chung moved from the Mekong Delta in Vietnam to Edmonton, where he met his Vietnamese wife, Ai Lien Huynh. The couple moved to Vancouver in 1992 and a year later opened Bao Chau. Huynh had learned how to cook growing up, and Chung got culinary lessons and business inspiration from a friend who owned a Vietnamese deli at the time.
Fast forward two decades and the restaurant is still going strong, with a couple of Chung’s cousins helping in the kitchen and out front. Some diners have been coming in since day one, especially to slurp and gobble up pho tai nam bo vien (beef broth with rice noodles, rare beef slices, well-done flank steak, and beef balls). Chung himself fuels up on that hearty soup every morning.
In general, Bao Chau’s menu sticks to Vietnamese classics, but occasionally—as with the pho ga nuong xa (soup with grilled lemongrass chicken)—Chung will meet a customer request and serve a dish created for the North American palate.
Five months ago on the restaurant’s 20th anniversary, loyal customers came bearing flowers. “I was so surprised. I said, ‘Wow!’ ” recalls Chung, who remains as modest and unassuming as when he started his business.
“I love entertaining and I love food. I wanted to create a restaurant that’s really authentically Filipino, the way Filipino food is served back home,” says Rose Samaniego over the phone. Samaniego moved to Vancouver from Manila in 1996, and three years later she opened Kulinarya Filipino Eatery (114–2922 Glen Drive, Coquitlam) with the support of her husband, Philip Samaniego, and their good friend Roy Pagulayan.
Samaniego learned about Filipino food from an expert: her mom. “I would watch her cook. She would always have three dishes on the dinner table: one vegetable dish and one or two meat dishes. Growing up, food was just always there,” she explains.
Samaniego’s mission is to share the spirit and flavours of her mom’s cooking with her restaurant and catering customers. Popular dishes include chicken adobo (chicken simmered in a vinegar-and-soy sauce), inihaw na pusit (grilled squid marinated in garlic oil and stuffed with tomatoes and onion), and crispy pata (boiled, roasted, and then deep-fried pork hock). “The pata is ridiculously popular,” she says.
At first, the restaurant attracted mostly people who were yearning for good-quality Filipino fare, but over the years it’s earned a diverse range of customers. “Just recently, we had this young professional come in, and he said he was visiting from New York. He was on his way to the airport, but he had to make a stop at Kulinarya because he had heard such good things about the restaurant.”
The Samaniego kids, Ralph and Izzy, pitch in as servers. Ralph is 21 years old and has dreams of following in his mom’s footsteps. When Samaniego envisions a day when she is too old to run the restaurant and must close it, Ralph won’t hear of it, assuring his mom that he will take over the place. “He’s always had a vision to expand it. He thinks it’s that easy,” Samaniego says, chuckling.
She too works tirelessly to make her family-run restaurant continuously successful, and the empty plates and satisfied faces of her customers make it all worthwhile.