Monday, March 24, 2008

Restaurant Types at Risk - Cart-style Dim Sum

Restaurants are as susceptible to the whims of fashion as skirt lengths and those poor little Mexican dogs, and Vancouver sees its share of trends. Of course as trends come, they must go eventually, and I want to lament the demise of a couple of my favourite restaurant types. It seems that the dim sum cart is a dying breed, giving way to the presumably less labour-intensive dim sum method of marking off your choices on a printed list to order from a server, who brings your choices directly back to you. With this checklist method, you don't get the feisty dim sum cart waitresses yelling out their items as they santer around the room with their towers of steam baskets. You don't get to peruse the array of food before making your choices. Sometimes, to convince you which item to get, a waitress will lift up the top of the steam basket to show you the contents. You don't get to eyeball your favourite item winding its way around the crowded room until it gets to you. And you don't get to just point and point and point at whatever delights you. And you don't get to eat a little, chat a little, evaluate your hunger, eat a little more, and re-evaluate, and so on. With the ordering by checklist, it feels like you must plan out the whole meal ahead of time, which to me, is so not in the spirit of a leisurely dim sum experience.

But today, I visited Harbour Pacific Chinese Seafood Restaurant (4524 E. Hastings, at Willingdon, southeast corner, in Burnaby, 604-294-8059) and they were kickin' it old school with their dim sum. I was quite pleased with it overall, and a good variety of items came out, all on carts, at a nice rate, especially for a holiday Monday about noonish. They were nicely busy, but there wasn't a wait for a table. We didn't eat any ha gow or other similar dumplings, which tend to be a handy measuring stick with which to compare dim sum places. However, everything we had seemed to be of good quality on this one visit. We had deep fried tofu stuffed with shrimp and served with black bean sauce to dip (a nice touch, as opposed to just slopping it all over the crispy tofu, risking premature sogginess). They served some nice pieces of gai lan as garnish for their rice roll stuffed with beef. Their cha sui pastry and cha sui baked buns were great. The beef tendon and chicken feet were good. They had a steamed garlic fish dish that was quite nice, and a little unusual. And we had some nice coconut jelly. I think we got out of there for about $22 for three people. So this place basically fulfilled my dim sum wish list. The carts and food variety are important, as well as good execution of classics (I have to have rice rolls), and a few unusual or unique items. The place has baroque style chairs which are pleasingly slightly out of place, and the service is very friendly (at least with my parents around). The women pushing the carts were also pushing some of the food- i.e. making their recommendations, which I find charming and reminds me of old dim sum times. I'm sure there are more cart dim sum restaurants around, so let me know your favourites.

The other dying restaurant type that I'm sad to see go is the old Chinese Canadian flashback to the 70's diner. Usually it is a Chinese family who run a diner with all-day breakfasts, and typical diner fare like burgers and fish and chips, but who also put up Chinese dishes like chow mein and stir fries. Is it racist for me to say you can count on Chinese people to make a mean plate of fish and chips or fry an egg properly? And there's just something so comforting to me about eating a good plate of chow mein while sitting on duct-taped repaired vinyl booth seating. Don't ask me why. It just works for me.

Perhaps some sort of recovery program could be put started to ensure that we have these restaurant styles for generations to come. Can you imagine them disappearing from Vancouver for good?


ranger said...

No, I don't think it's racist. One of my good friends is of Chinese descent (she's from trinidad) and also a chef and I think she would heartily agree. Long live joints where you can get a burger with a fortune cookie.

SaabKen said...

Sigh, Chinese-Canadian diners are a disappearing segment of our eating establishments !

My favorite kind are the ones where the parents work the dining room and kitchen, while the kids do homework on the corner table and even help out once awhile. Yes a testament of the hard immigrant life but one that ought to be respected and celebrated for their dignity and honesty.

I was very sad (still is) when The Normandy on S. Granville closed.

Then more recently the one (sorry, forget name) just east of CityTV in Vancouver, on Manitoba(?) btwn W.2nd and 3rd.

I used to frequent these joints, yes they usually have some of the better burgers & fries, F&C and old standby Chinese food (ie: chicken chow mein made with julienned chicken deli slices and bean sprouts). There's still a couple I believe on E. Hastings in Burnaby, east of Boundary Rd. One I think is still around is about a block or two east of the Dolphin Theatre. Best places to find these C-C diner cafes are along old streets in Vancouver (Hastings, Commercial Dr, Kingsway, Main, Fraser, Victoria) and parts of Burnaby. They become more rare in the suburbs, but if you hit SmallTown BC (or other provinces) it's actually quite easy to find them :-D

The GS 2008 Golden Plates issue mentioned the Argo Cafe and The Homer which are still around, as is the venerable Ovaltine Cafe and New Town Bakery.

I think the "new generation" of C-C diners are more like the Hong Kong-style modern cafes which are prevalent in Vancouver, Richmond and Coquitlam. I guess one must accept change and roll with the times.

endorwitch said...

I found your blog ages ago but havent been by for a while. I think I found it because you had a post about bubble tea and I was trying to find out what bubble tea places there are in Vancouver because I am addicted :D (will be there at the end of the year).
ANYWAYS - in Australia we call places that have the carts like you described Yum Cha restaurants. So cool - i now know what to look for and what to call it when I go to Vancouver! :D

Dumpling_Girl said...

Thanks, Endorwitch! We call it "yum cha" here too. Literal translation (of the Chinese) - drinking tea. Hope you have a great visit to Vancouver, filled with lots of good eating.