Review: How Do Chinatown’s 4 New Rooms Stack Up?

The historic neighbourhood is bringing the buzz.

In many ways, Chinatown is perfectly positioned to blossom post-pandemic: out of all the neighbourhoods in town, it’s the one that’s perpetually had to be on its toes thanks to successive waves of racism, gentrification, relocation, urban encroachment—repeat. But the marvel of the ’hood is that it just puts its head down and moves forward, accepting whatever challenge comes next with a “been-there, done-that” resolve that seems absent from, say, Kerrisdale. And it’s this mettle that’s attracted yet another cadre of restaurateurs who, perhaps emboldened by the resilient environment, pressed on with opening their spots in just about the worse time possible.

Pizza Coming Soon

Is it moxie or madness for a restaurant that opened late last year to have a name that appears created to stymie the dreaded Google search engine? For the record, it’s in no way a “pizza” restaurant, nor is it any longer “coming soon,” and while the old crank in me decries the overly meta name, the writer in me (whose words also seem to—unwittingly—stymie the Google search engine) feels a kindred spirit with these kooks. My connection was deepened with some takeout before in-person dining was re-happening: they were offering a smoking deal on dinner for two built around their peri-yaki chicken and, swinging by the retro room that looks one part A Clockwork Orange and one part—well, it really just looks like A Clockwork Orange—reinforced the lovingly oddball nature of this operation. Again—and I can’t stress this enough—there is no pizza, but there was a really well-curated selection of (what else?) natty wine lined up on the counter and the friendly dude giving me my takeout was reminiscent of Brad Pitt’s turn as Floyd in True Romance.
The chicken was excellent—a Portuguese-Japanese mash-up of flavours imbued into a mahogany-skinned bird with just the perfect amount of moistness while still retaining the firmness you want in a roast chicken. I resolved to be the first in line when in-person dining resumed.

I wasn’t, of course. I got busy and by the time my wife and I returned, the secret of this spot had leaked a bit. I had heard rumours that it was “impossible to get into,” so was pleasantly surprised that a 6 p.m. phone call on a Wednesday resulted in a “come on down” from the other end. The room at Pender and Main really echoes the vibe of the Bino’s it once was a long while ago, and not in any sort of studied way. Some of the team here hails from the long-closed Mark Brand outpost of Sea Monstr Sushi, but the vibe is less “world domination” and more “who’s up for a good time?”

It’s an ethos that can grate on ones sober nerves if left to fester: the service was very chill, the food comes out in a random order that makes no dining sense and finding someone who knows about those aforementioned natural wines can be a trick—but it’s just so much fun that it seems Burnsian to quibble.

And the food is really solid. In person, the peri-yaki chicken is even better—the peri-peri pushing it toward the perfect amount of heat—and a half-bird at $20 is such a deal for an order that could feed two. There’s a dynamite mushroom tempura with Ponzu mayo that comes out with an array of wild fungi in a beautifully light batter, a wonderfully deft hamachi tartare and nasu dengaku, a dish of roasted eggplant topped (slopped, if we’re being honest) with a thick, sweet miso sauce that takes the gold for the best-tasting, least-appetizing looking dish. At $8 it could be your dinner should you so wish. So while the servers may seem relaxed, whoever is rockin’ the kitchen—the chef/owner is Keith Allison—is dialled in.

It’s funny: while most of us who write food reviews report on “atmosphere,” I can’t recall ever focusing on whether the staff appear to be having a good time. COVID made many of us re-examine what worked and what didn’t work about the restaurant industry, and I like to think that both owners and diners want it to be something that makes everyone happy—servers, patrons, cooks. And on that basis, Pizza Coming Soon is nailing it.

179 E Pender

Nancy Go Yaya

In terms of restaurants, I think it’s fair to say that Tannis Ling and Alain Chow get the ethos of present-day Chinatown more than almost anyone. Their Bao Bei opened on Keefer Street in 2010 and was a huge part in bringing in a new, thoughtful cross section of diners to the neighbourhood, then they (plus partner Joel Watanabe) did the feat again in 2016 with the more upscale Kissa Tanto on Pender. This time they’re partnering with chef Jian Cheng to open a spot directly below Kissa called Nancy Go Yaya, and its COVID (and other) delays have been epic. The project—which is said to evoke a Singaporean coffee shop—was started in early 2020 and, as of October, was still in a very soft opening phase with only daytime hours. But soft or not, the place has been slammed solely by word of mouth and both visits saw as much Instagramming as actual eating.

And if this is them in beta-mode… wow. My first visit I go full baller and order everything on the breakfast menu—all three items. The first two are sandwiches—the Roti John, which Singaporean friends tell me is an iconic sandwich back home, and something called Kaya toast—and then a side of curry puffs. The latter have a beautifully flaky crust the colour of Magda in Something About Mary and they’re wonderful, if oily enough to need to wipe your fingers after each touching. But the sandwiches? Maybe the best one-two sanny combo I can recall. The Roti John with the added cereal-fried chicken is everything you could want: ultra-cushy milk bread (the best for squeezing everything tightly together) holding in some flawless omelette, chili sauce, curry, chopped herbs and a piece of fried chicken that reminds you that this once humble offering has become the litmus test of great chefs in this city over the past five years, with successive geniuses inventing and reinventing flavours. Holy hell, it’s a good sandwich. The Kaya toast is the wacky yang to the RJ yin: I was unprepared for the sweetness when I took my first bite, but the combo of salted egg yolk, electric green pandan mochi toast, coconut jam and plenty of cold butter is what I’ve been searching for evidently all my life: it manages to simultaneously channel crème brûlée, French toast and that trip to Hawaii you took in grade 8.

The lunches are likewise currently limited: an exceptional, deeply-hued laksa and an authentic nasi lemak, a rice dish that goes solidly with an oil-fried egg and plenty of little tiny anchovies along for the ride.

By the time you read this they should be open at night with a casual wine bar that will serve Singaporean snacks and “tacky in a good way” drinks, according to Ling. If the daytime experience is any indicator, you might want to start lining up now.

265 E Pender

The Irish Heather Shebeen

At first blush the relocation of Seán Heather’s iconic Irish pub from its Gastown perch to anywhere else seemed sacrilege, but the spot was the unwitting victim of its own success—it did such a bang-up job of revitalizing the neighbourhood that the rent crept up to the point of unsustainability (ah landlords, you never disappoint). But on reflection, Chinatown is the perfect landing spot. What made the original Heather such a draw was its unabashed sense of welcome, and the only entry requirement was the love of a good pint, a worthy dram… and not being a dick. And they’ve brought that come-one-come-all approach to their new environs, with the sign on the street proudly listing the restaurant’s name in Cantonese characters right below the English. I’m not naive—the two times I visited did not suggest this place was going to become a new gathering spot for the old-time residents here—but one gets the impression that it would be so happy to fulfill part of that role.

As for the food, the Heather has never garnered the love it deserves for its fare. The corned beef—courtesy of master Mike Vitow—is the anchor here: salty, fatty but never excessive, served on proper sharp rye. It’s one of our great sandwiches and Lord does it pair with a proper pint of Guinness. The Sunday roast is also a warm embrace of the customer, with a rotating menu that, at $16, is one of the best deals in town.

248 E Georgia

Blnd Tger Dumplings/Laowai

Directly across the street from the Heather is this new dumpling spot that seems to be cut from a different cloth. I would say it’s a dumpling spot/speakeasy… but shhhh, the speakeasy is a secret. The menu is a panoply of Chinese cuisines, with six different dumpling offerings. And like the other spots here, chef Phong Vo is trying to ingratiate himself to his new surroundings by using a selection of local purveyors—like nearby Gar-lok—in his creations.

Sadly, there are more misses than hits here: the zhong, with a snappy take on Szechuan oil, are excellent, but the bison momos suffer from a lack of juiciness in the meat and a problematically thick skin that affects all the offering. The single malt XLB had no soup at all, let alone any discernible single malt taste (and in this town, a nod to the Dumpling King might be in order for such a recipe). None of this is damning—it’s just a bit odd to sell only-okay dumplings for $9/3 when so many of your immediate neighbours, like Kam Wai and Sun Fresh, are selling more traditional (and, in part, better) takes for $4.50.

Ah, but here’s the rub—and promise not to tell anyone. If you order dumpling #7, the freezer door behind the counter opens and you’re ushered into an uber-luxe, designed-by-a-fancy-London-firm spot called Laowai. A word on that: early on, a friend mentioned they were a bit iffy on the name, which is a Chinese slang word for foreigner that, while generally considered a bit more mild than gweilo, is by no means a compliment. My guess is that the co-owner—Brit ex-pat Lewis Hart—was trying to poke fun at himself for opening a dumpling spot in Chinatown, but the name comes off as a bit tone deaf to me. There’s reams of debate online about whether the term is offensive or not, but there’s just something that feels off about it, in this neighbourhood, at this time, and in particular for a secret room that opens only to those in the know.

Sadly, I can’t comment on the back room: when I asked the counterman about it, he insisted there’s no backroom and that behind the door is where they keep the frozen dumplings. I was tempted to ask, “You freeze the dumplings?” as it would explain a lot, but I demurred and instead gave the guy a head tilt and a “c’mon, man” look. I suppose I should have just played along and ordered Dumpling #7 and then the door would have opened and I would have been able to luxuriate in the fancy digs evoking 1930s Shanghai and have a cocktail made by the very talented Alex Black, but I was just not in the mood to play the secret password game. To his credit, I suppose, he didn’t budge, and to my discredit nor did I. I had just spent the past few days in places where every door was wide open to everyone—aunties and hipsters, millennials and octogenarians—and if it took a password to get past this door I was happy to keep walking.

241 E Georgia