The Best Things We Ate This Year

We'll be dining out on these memorable meals for another year at least.

It’s been a strange year for dining, as you’ve probably noticed — but that doesn’t mean our passion for eating has wavered in the slightest. Even as fluctuating protocols and safety measures challenged the industry and we pushed our annual restaurant awards back by four months, a hungry editor will find a way to feast. As 2020 (finally) comes to a close, we’re looking back on the memorable meals — from those heady, pre-pandemic days packed around a table with friends to the take-out dishes that got us through lockdown — that will stick with us long after this wretched year is over.

An Omakase Patio Feast at Ugly Dumpling

I don’t know if I could tell you what actually made it onto the table that night. But what I could tell you that setting up shop on the patio at Ugly Dumpling for two glorious hours back in July was the best decision I made all summer. It was a point in our Summer of Covid that things felt a little less bleak (oh, we were so young and innocent then) and an outdoor meal, shared with a few bottles of chilled white and your bubble, felt like a safe indulgence. So we  tossed the menu aside, ordered up the omakase dinner, and let the plates come rolling in.

There were dumplings, of course, plump and perfect; delicate dishes of crunchy pickled somethings; plates of crispy rice and perfectly oily fish of some kind served with zingy, zesty swipes of who knows what. The details, as I said, are hazy (did I mention the bottles of white?), but that familiar feeling of gathering and passing around plates of brothy whatevers and talking over each other and shooting the breeze with the waitstaff and arguing over who should take the last spoonful of that and people-watching (question for those who live on the Drive: do any of you use a crosswalk?) and exclaiming with glee as platters are shuffled and cleared away to make room for a whole fish (was there a whole fish?) — this is what I remember… and what I look forward to. And while we wait for those glory days to return: Ugly Dumpling’s omasake meal is available for takeout in the meantime. —Stacey McLachlan, editor at large

Yarrow Meadows Duck Breast at Botanist

 I’ve generally been a fan of Botanist (resist the urge that every person ever has to call it The Botanist—that’s the Scottish gin), in a way that I’ve always enjoyed when I go and rarely book it myself. Part of that is that I have to try a lot of places in any given year, part is that it’s on the wrong side of downtown from where I live and part of it is that it’s quite pricey. When it recently won Silver for Best Downtown in our Restaurant Awards, I thought it was a good call. And it’s a big, open, airy restaurant, which always made for an odd vibe in normal times, but couldn’t have been better designed for pandemic regulations. Also – they took a bit longer to open that many other spots, which I took as a sign of carefulness so it was one of the first places I visited once we could go out again.

I find I rarely order duck these days. It’s so often prepared in a way that emphasizes its richness and downplays its gaminess—which is the exact opposite of what I’m looking for. But we were having the tasting menu and I hate being the guy who makes substitutions more than I hate overly rich duck so I figured what the hell. I’m so glad I did.

Chef Hector Laguna takes what may be the thickest duck breast I’ve seen in a restaurant setting and dry ages it for 20 days. And then cures it for another week. It takes a confident hand to age a bird that long (don’t try this at home with your boneless chicken breasts kids). The result is a transformation that was simply extraordinary—a protein that has the heft of a striploin, that depth of flavour of wild venison but the nuance of fowl. Chef Laguna doesn’t offer up a bunch of competing flavours either, just some caramelized onion jam and slow roasted Walla Walla onions to add some contrast and let his wonderful creation sing.—Neal McLennan, Food Editor

Pork Belly Salad from Le Tigre Truck

2020 was a strange year for many reasons, the most disturbing of which probably being that the best thing I ate was a salad. Truly, the upset of the annum, and very unlike me to not pick something noodle-y.

I tried the new Le Tigre Truck menu at Torafuku in October. It was my first (and only, it turns out) dine-in experience since March, I had delicious dumplings, a delightful little soy egg and a crunchy beef brisket fried bun, and still—somehow—the standout was the salad. It has pork belly, yes, but also crispy fried “kickass rice” that I could easily eat like popcorn (there are few limits I am placing on myself in these trying times, but not eating deep friend rice by the handful is one). The light ssamjang dressing is the perfect drizzle atop the mixed herbs and pork. And it’s truly a beautiful dish—way prettier than what you’d normally expect from a food truck (make no mistake, I’ll never turn down a hot mess in tin foil). Perhaps, as the new year dawns, I will be, as they say, turning over a leaf. As long as there’s pork under it.—Alyssa Hirose, assistant editor

Chicken Banh Mi – Thu Hien Deli

I went to a fair amount of nice restaurants this year: Wolf in the Fog, Savio Volpe, Ask for Luigi, I could go on. They were all fantastic experiences, as they always are. But the most mind-blowing meal I had in Vancouver this year cost $6.50 and I got it from a place that you can’t sit down in. 

Right beside the excellent Do Chay (also went there, maybe its potstickers take the cake next year) on Kingsway is a Vietnamese grocery store/sandwich shop that is so unassuming it makes our Casual Restaurant of the Year, DownLow Chicken Shack, look like Eleven Madison Park. Yellow crates everywhere, Vietnamese delicacies scattered about and people yelling at each other throughout the store—it’s a lot. 

But wait your turn (yep, there’s going to be a line) and order a Number 13. That would be the chicken banh mi. Until recently, I had considered Ba Le and its two locations a quite good purveyor of banh mis. That’s a side effect of living near Main, I guess. I’ve lived in this city most of my life, and it took going to Thu Hien to realize I don’t even know it. 

Perfectly sauced and roasted chicken, fresh vegetables and a generous heaping of jalapeno on fresh bread made for (by far) best sandwich I had this year. And in my books, that’s enough to be the best thing I ate this year, too. 

Sorry Ba Le, you’re perfectly fine. And I will never visit you again.—Nathan Caddell, associate editor