Take a Bite Out of Vancouver
by Michael J. Solender
images courtesy Tourism Vancouver and Michael J. Solender
“Where are we eating next?” became the favorite parlor game for my wife, sister-in-law, and me during our three-week stay in Vancouver, British Columbia’s capital and favored port city. That we conducted this guide-book and app-reliant inquiry at mealtime whilst dining at a prior chosen restaurant did not take away from the conquest, it simply provided another high-barred frame of reference we sought to top with our next choice. And in more than 30 meals out, we rarely met with disappointment.
Vancouver is a culinary crossroads where dozens of Pacific Rim and beyond cultures intersect with bounty from the cold Pacific Northwest waters, four seasons of verdant produce, sustainably farmed proteins, artisanal dairies and cheesemakers, and a curious Canadian unabashed approach to creativity in the kitchen that has garnering worldwide notice and acclaim.
Granville Island Public Market
A fine introduction and gastronomic exploration of Vancouver starts with Granville Island Public Market, the heart of Vancouver’s food scene. Local guides, Vancouver Foodie Tours, provide an excellent half-day primer sharing the intriguing backstory behind the urban-planning/revitalization project that transformed a declining parcel of industrial warehouses into a gleaming showcase of Vancouver’s top specialty food purveyors and craft artisans.
No chains or franchises here, the market is host to dozens of local food shops that tempt all the senses. Oyama Sausage are masters in the art of charcuterie and worth a lingering visit—the British Columbia red wine prosciutto and Bison bresaola are just two specialties not found elsewhere. Lee’s Donuts is a soul-lifting experience and sure to knock the most resolute off their diet as the giant fritters (apple/maple are killer) and honey-dipped raised donuts take intrepid eaters back to childhood memories of grandma’s just-made fried cakes.
At Seafood City, find off-the-boat locally-caught goodness (sablefish, swordfish, ocean trout, and whitefish are among the catch) complemented by a huge smoked fish selection. The smoky maple glazed salmon was on my bagel (procured at the market’s Siegel’s Bagels) within minutes of purchase and an instant favorite.
Granville Island Tea Company always has their spiced chai latte on hand for sampling among their exotic varieties, and Benton Brother’s Fine Cheese showcases small batch artisanal local cheeses like the Rathtrevor, a tangy mountain hard cheese that lights up when paired with nearby #1 Orchard’s Ambrosia apples. When it is time for lunch, Edible Canada is a smart choice with palate pleasers for carnivores and vegetarians alike—it’s easy to go vegan here with the extra crispy Falafel Veggie Bowl taking a starring role.
Come to understand Vancouver through its food culture, and you’ll recognize why it’s such a popular tourist destination.
A Wok Around Chinatown is a half-day introduction to Vancouver’s Chinatown, the largest in Canada and one the oldest surviving in North America. Historian Robert Sung is your guide and begins your journey at the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden. Modeled after private classical gardens in the city of Suzhou during the Ming Dynasty, the stunning design has been recognized by National Geographic as one of the most beautiful gardens in the world.
Sung shares the history of Chinese immigration into Vancouver and takes visitors on a walking tour of the surrounding neighborhoods including stops at traditional markets, the fabled New Town Bakery, where their award-winning apple tarts fly off the shelves (more than 1,000 are sold each day) and legendary pork steamed buns often have neighbors three-deep at their bustling counter. Sung peppers the walk with tales of Vancouver’s Chinese—past and present—and the outsized influence Chinese investment is playing in today’s red-hot real estate market.
Lunch is Mandarin-style dim sum at Floata Seafood Restaurant, where at Sung’s urging, chicken feet are consumed with gusto as are pork shu mai and shrimp ha gow. Sung is greeted at every stop as a visiting dignitary. His friends at a nearby local butcher shop offer samples of tasty barbecued pork, and pal Daniel Lui treats his group to a traditional Chinese Gong Fu Ga tea-instruction at The Chinese Tea Shop.
Vancouver’s Stanley Park, heralded as the top public park in the world by Trip Advisor in 2014, routinely makes global top 10 lists for good reason. This 1,000-acre oasis of civility on downtown’s edge is surrounded by water on three sides and is a mecca for joggers, families, birdwatchers, and all looking for peaceful respite from the bustling city.
Stanley Park Horse-Drawn Tours deliver an hour-long overview of the park’s offerings and diversity, traversing a ring road providing glimpses of the park’s notable rose garden, rugby fields, harbor views, and stops for photos at the First Nations (indigenous Canadian people) totem poles and gardens.
Visitors get a hint of how serious Vancouverites are about their dining by taking in lunch at the Stanley Park Bar & Grill. The highest order pub grub—notably their Fish & Chips—is made even better when framed up against their own Stanley Park micro-brew lager.
Small, Yet Mighty
Searching Yelp for “Vancouver Restaurants” yields more than 3,000 results. Keep in mind, many are of the tiny storefront variety barely seating more than a dozen.
Take the insane Japanese hot dog mash-up parlor JAPADOG—a must try—if only for the weirdness factor. The signature dog here is the Terimayo, a decent New York-style frank with Teriyaki sauce, mayo, and seaweed. Braver souls go for the Yakisoba, buckwheat noodles and bit of pickled ginger topping the umami and earthy Japanese Arabiki sausage. Pace yourself—even the fries get a Japanese twist! Do you want Bonito (dried fish) flakes with that?
I walked by the minute Saj & Co. Lebanese restaurant nearly a dozen times before deciding on a whim to try it. The place can’t be more than 300 sq. ft., with room for 10 people at most, but proved a truly special dining experience. The open kitchen features a traditional Lebanese heated dome (Saj), where vegan and vegetarian flatbread wraps and sandwiches are prepared lovingly before your eyes. Kale, spinach, zaatar, haloumi cheese with olives, hummus, cucumber, and mint meld into the mind-blowing Super Green—a wrap I could eat every day. The menu is huge, and so are the portions, so consider sharing, or not—you may want to enjoy the goodness all to yourself.
Working up an appetite in Vancouver offers twice the tourist reward, as a leisurely meal affords the perfect opportunity to recount the day’s less-than-trivial pursuits.
Falling into Café Il Nido by chance one late afternoon, we found a splendidly cozy dining room, attentive service, and an inventive approach to classic Venetian dishes. It was the perfect venue to recap our long day at Capilano Suspension Bridge Park. A bit weary from hiking the park and soaking in the unimpeded vistas from the famed bridge, my wife and I were taken by the garlicky and pesto wild mushroom appetizer and fennel and apple salade de mer, followed by pillowy gnocchi dancing in a hearty sausage ragu. The meal here was the perfect capper to our glorious fall outing.
Ancora Waterfront Dining is described online as Peruvian/Japanese fusion bistro—a modest descriptor falling well short in capturing just how wonderful this restaurant is. I enjoyed three distinct dining experiences here, each left me wishing this restaurant was not 3,500 miles from my home in Charlotte.
Listed as one of Canada’s best 100 restaurants in both 2016 and 2017 by Canada’sBest100.com, Ancora is polished and sophisticated at every turn, executing both on and off the menu. The harborside eatery glows even on cloudy days from the bank of floor to ceiling windows overlooking the rambling Vancouver Sea Wall (a fabulous miles-long linear park) with crisp white linens and handsome settings atop well-spaced tables.
Servers are well versed in both menu and cocktail offerings; Pisco Sours at Ancora are frothy, tangy, and the perfect aperitif for the treats to come. Crispy prawn cousa is a delightful starter, where meaty prawns flank lightly buttered potato chubs, rocoto harissa, kale, avocado, and a piquant escabeche sauce. The main event is a Forbidden rice paella with Ling Cod, chorizo, corn, and baby shrimp. Herbal and spice infusions and slow cooking make Ancora’s dishes stand out. The pastry chef displays remarkable prowess here with ganache’s and pastry combinations of Dark Chocolate and Yuzu and Grapefruit and Macha positively stealing the show.
A visit to Canada Place is a must for tourists to take in the downtown buzz, fabulous public art, and centerpiece plazas built for the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. Flyover Canada is a heart-pumping 4D simulated helicopter flight over the country from the cold seas off Newfoundland to the stunning drop of Niagara Falls, through downtown Toronto, over Calgary prairies and atop the Banff glacier and into Vancouver.
After your flight, splurge and head over to Miku, serving the most sought after Abori-style (blowtorch famed) sushi in the city. The buzzy eye-popping dining room is great for people watching and even better for enjoying expertly prepared Japanese cuisine featuring the best of the Pacific Northwest’s bounty.
There’s simply one requirement for visiting Vancouver ... come hungry!