It’s called, simply, “Eat Street.”
That, at least, is how locals refer to the stretch of Alexandra Road in Richmond, British Columbia, that is end to end mouthwatering, authentic Asian food. You could eat every day in Richmond and still spend weeks chewing, slurping and sighing with satisfaction without running out of new places to try.
The Vancouver area of British Columbia has long been known for decent Asian food because of its connection to Hong Kong, which was once part of the British Commonwealth. Since Canada is also part of that Commonwealth, when Hong Kong was handed back to China, a flood of Hong Kong’s elite moved to the place it considered its sister city.
Today, the Vancouver suburb of Richmond is 65 percent Asian. There are Hong Kong-style malls, 200 restaurants, Buddhist temples, a Chinese New Year’s Festival that is arguably North America’s finest. You can buy wine from an Asian-owned winery that has won awards in China and gourmet chocolates made by a Japanese couple with flavors that include wasabi, green tea and sake. You can also get tutored in table tennis. At times, you are almost startled if a shopkeeper responds to you in English. It is, one local only half joked, a trip to Asia minus the jetlag.
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When you are in the middle of it, you’d think all of Richmond is Asian but, actually, the Asian core, known as the Golden Village, is hardly more than four or five blocks long and wide. And don’t expect some kind of grand entrance — say, a gateway or banner or Chinese lanterns. This area was never intended to be an Asian district. It just happened.
So now you are here. And bewildered. And looking for direction.
Start with dim sum. “Dim sum” translates to “little bites” but also “touch the heart.” Either way, it means yum. Dim sum, in the olden days, was a mid-morning meal served by rich ladies who had the time and resources to do an assortment of dishes, each of which is a production by itself.
Today, it’s customarily eaten for brunch in a restaurant. So a restaurant that might be known for its dinner may also be popular separately for its dim sum.
We headed for a local favorite, Fisherman’s Terrace Seafood Restaurant in Aberdeen Center. which had 75 items to choose from, ranging from simple pork-filled dumplings to chicken feet.
Prawn dumplings are not only a great starter, they are a classic and a test of how good your chef is. Each tiny bite is surrounded by a pleated wheat starch skin thin enough to be translucent but strong enough not to break when you pick it up with your chopsticks. Folding those pleats takes intricate finger work and shows the chef’s skill with his hands. The dumpling should have a nice chew but not be tough.
And that’s only one dish.
You could follow them with the chicken feet. Or maybe not. They’re an acquired taste. The skin is soft, almost gelatinous and the feet taste like, well, whatever spice has been used, which in this case was mostly the star anise from five spice.
On, then, to the rest of the shopping center, one of three huge centers within walking distance of each other in the Golden Village. This is not your neighborhood mall. It sounds, looks and feels like you’ve stepped into somewhere in Hong Kong. It’s brighter, noisier, flashier than home. There’s a lot of gold jewelry, gold-plated good luck statues and Hello Kitty stuff.
The food court is not filled with burger stands and fried chicken. Rather, it’s Chinese, Japanese, Malay, Thai. It’s dim sum and noodles and soups.
And frappe. You have got to try frappe. This isn’t shave ice or a slushie. It’s ice, flavored with green tea or fruit that has been shredded into delicate slivers and topped with fresh fruit, red beans, taro and more. It’s so light, it just dissolves on your tongue almost without substance. Alone, it’s a great palette cleanser; topped with ice cream, a killer dessert.
You could chew your way through the shopping centers (and the supermarkets which sell everything from dim sum to sushi) and never walk into a restaurant. But you should do some sit-down dinners.
One night we headed for Clay Hot Pot. By day, it does dim sum and custom-served tea. For dinner, it’s “hot pot,” which is like meat fondue. Assorted broths come out with raw meats and you have at it. It’s not only a great communal experience but it’s very tasty.
And, finally, there was our ceremonial gorging at Richmond Night Market, the larger of two night markets held every Friday, Saturday and Sunday night.
This night market is county fair on steroids, with 200 trinket booths and nearly 100 food booths. The trinkets run along the lines of Hello Kitty dolls, cellphone cases, jewelry and T-shirts. There’s also entertainment, but it’s the food everyone actually comes for.
But it’s not where you go if crowds and noise make you nervous. It’s tight, it’s close, it’s hot. It’s also exciting and quite the rush, and oh, so tasty.
Sacrificial lambs that we are, we munched our way through half a dozen booths, starting with “rotato.” These are potatoes cut on a machine into connected disks that are skewered on a stick, coated, fried and spiced with 10 spices. They are a meal in themselves and very popular with the Korean crowd.
From here, we nibbled Hong Kong-style curry fish balls (soft, heavy on the curry) and Japanese bakudanyaki, which is a huge dumpling stuffed with squid, shrimp and veggies. Then we moseyed over to the lobster stand where we had to try abalone, and the lobsters were surprisingly not overcooked. Next we came upon more Japanese tidbits — buckwheat noodles topped with, among other things, a teensy baby octopus.
Skipping the squid and many other unidentifiable goodies, we landed at the dragon’s beard candy booth where the stuff was being made on the spot. It’s sugar spun into microscopically fine threads, then filled with a sesame/peanut mix. It comes off in taste as a cross between cotton candy and Middle Eastern halvah.
At a drink booth, we also found mango bubble tea — one of the best we’ve ever tasted. This is saying a lot since they make it in bulk to serve a clamoring thirsty horde.
From here, we were supposed to try Fly Zone, one of those vertical wind tunnels that simulate parachute jumping. But that didn’t seem like such a great idea under the circumstances. With all that food in our bellies, we just went shopping.
Going to Richmond, British Columbia
Getting there: Richmond’s Aberdeen Station, the center of the Asian district, is nine stops from the Vancouver City Centre stop on the Skytrain’s Canada line. The “Golden Village” is fairly small, only four or five blocks across. There are some two dozen hotels in all of Richmond including several in the Asian district.
Chinese New Year: Though this area rocks year round for food, the big event of the year is Chinese New Year, which in 2015 falls on Feb. 19. Celebrations usually go on for at least a week.
Aberdeen Centre: www.aberdeencentre.com
Lulu Island Winery: www.luluislandwinery.com
Fisherman’s Terrace Seafood Restaurant: Aberdeen Centre, 604-303-9739
Clay Pot Hot Pot: 604-284-5181