Review: Carol Lee Brings Hong Kong–Style Barbecue to Chinatown

Chinatown BBQ aims to take back the idea of a neighbourhood restaurant.

Chinatown BBQ aims to take back the idea of a neighbourhood restaurant.

They had me at the window, where lacquered roasted ducks and soy-steamed chickens hang plump and glistening in their own juices. Hong Kong-style barbecue (siu mei) has been dear to my heart since I became a frequent feeder in London’s Chinatown almost three decades ago. The subtle spikes of five spice and soy, honey and hoisin infused across crispy skin and through tender meat are surely the definition of toothsome comfort food.

In Vancouver, I spent a decade finding good excuses to lunch at Daisy Garden on Pender, always ready for a plate of siu yuk (roast pork) on rice. When the restaurant burned to the ground in 2015, it was more than an individual business tragedy: it was a huge loss to a community already facing an onslaught of ahistorical development.

Step forward Carol Lee, businesswoman, entrepreneur and founder of the Vancouver Chinatown Foundation. Lee, whose passion and commitment to revitalizing the neighbourhood while also acknowledging and preserving its heritage has been rightly celebrated, saw the gradual shuttering of once-beloved restaurants and decided it was time to step into the hospitality industry. Chinatown BBQ (in the space of a onetime pottery store) is the first to open, with two more (in the former Foo’s Ho Ho and Garden Villa locations) to follow.

The sensory hit of Chinatown BBQ is full on: the familiar aromas come first, of course, but then the decor swung in with a gorgeous 1960s Hong Kong vibe and I actually grew nervous the food wouldn’t meet my rapidly rising expectations. With its black-and-white checkerboard floors, emerald-green wood, ruby-red upholstery (on refurbished Foo’s Ho Ho chairs) and delightful old family photographs that line the walls, the design (by local wunderkind Craig Stanghetta of Ste. Marie Design) skirts nostalgia. But its fresh and modern vibe (and  smiling clientele) are still welcoming to everyone from local seniors to families to hipsters.

The faces are familiar—Lee hired several staff from Daisy Garden—the service is warm and friendly, and the hot tea is free and plentiful. The menu is to the point, with barbecue meats flanked by a few traditional sides (chicken feet, marinated tofu) and curries. You are free to build your barbecue plate the way you like it, but I opted for the house’s own Four Treasures chef’s plate ($14.50) with soft and sweet barbecue pork, dusky soy chicken, roast pork and salted egg on rice.

No real complaints, although the roast pork could have been cut thicker to emphasize the contrast between its melting fat and crispy skin. A plate of roasted duck (served with plum sauce, $12) presented a bird with properly rendered fat, avoiding the rubbery chew that can spoil this classic. Sesame-oil marinated jellyfish ($9) was crunchy, cool and slippery—more texture than flavour—and the garlic gai lan ($6.50), cut smaller than usual, felt elegant for it. The curry beef brisket ($15.95) was a knockout, rich with its warming backbone of star anise and flecked with a decent kick of chili.

Simple, true to tradition, yet subtly refined, if Chinatown BBQ is representative of Lee’s culinary vision for the neighbourhood, we can only expect many more delicious treats to come.

Chinatown BBQ

130 E Pender

Hours: Open daily 11 a.m. until 8 p.m.