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Brightly balanced pan-Asian treats satisfy in Chinatown at The Union

Crispy fried tofu (left) and Cha ca fish are served at The Union in Vancouver.

For The Globe and Mail/Laura Leyshon

1 out of 4 stars

The Union
219 Union St., Vancouver, British Columbia
Snacks, $7 to $12; bowls, $10 to $17
Rating System

"219 Union, please. Do you know where it is?"

Our grey-haired taxi driver says he knows the neighbourhood well. Great, because I have no idea where we're going. In fact, I don't think I've ever once set foot on this sketchy Chinatown side street next to the Georgia Viaduct. And I've lived in downtown Vancouver for 11 years.

"That's where Vie's Chicken and Steak House used to be," the old-timer nods, dropping us off in front of the Jimi Hendrix Shrine, a small red shack plastered with psychedelic portraits of the late electric guitarist. Although closed for the evening, the memorial's outdoor reproduction of the Hendrix family's Seattle burial site (replete with plastic grass and hand-painted headstones) is ablaze in spotlights and Christmas garlands.

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It's Thursday night, about 8 p.m., and The Union is packed. Located across the alley from the Hendrix shrine on the ground floor of the new V6A mid-rise, this modern pan-Asian pub is a concrete oasis of photo-box vibrancy in a dark, desolate wasteland.

The industrial-style warehouse space, wrapped in glass and reclaimed barn boards, is run by the Cascade Company, a design-forward restaurant group that also owns Habit, Cascade and El Camino further south on Main Street. I guess Vancouver's so-called condo king, Bob Rennie, was right. The hipsters are all moving to Chinatown.

I don't recognize any famous musicians in the crowd. But it's not just pimply video-game developers squeezed into The Union's three long communal tables (flanked by half a dozen two-tops for date nights). There's a whole row of sweaty soccer players who must have marched right over after a game at nearby Strathcona Park.

Then there's the marvellously elegant woman (an artist patron?) draped in fine, flowing linen; several surfer dudes who appear to have washed up from Kits Beach; a couple of bushy haired architect types sporting thick, dark-rimmed glasses; and a randy old codger, presumably escaped from Yaletown, who shoots us a wink the minute his much-younger date gets up to go to the bathroom. Oh, and an Irish balladeer on the sidewalk who will serenade you with warbling folk songs for the cost of a pint.

Eclectic? The only person missing from this panoramic snapshot of urban diversity is the late city councillor Jim Green. If still alive, I bet he'd be perched on a bar stool sipping a coconut tom-yum collins and smiling into his fedora.

The tropical drinks are impressive. They're banged and muddled behind a bar that looks like a Bangkok produce stand, piled high with wicker baskets of pineapples, lemongrass and coconuts. In a city crawling with cutting-edge bartenders, Arthur Wynne is probably the only one offering house-made drinking vinegars (the latest cocktail craze) on his regular drink list.

I can only imagine how good his Thai-basil shrub mixed with tangerine, cucumber, peppermint and soda would taste with a shot of lychee liqueur. (Even as a virgin cocktail, the elixir was addictive.) Next time, I'll try the coconut-rum shooter served with a calamansi and chili-water chaser.

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Executive chef Lisa Henderson oversees a surprisingly good pan-Asian menu that roams all over Southeast Asia. I say surprising because it's hard to hit all the right notes when you're uniting the most popular dishes from Indonesia (nasi goreng), Thailand (pad Thai) and India (pakoras) in the same kitchen.

But the food here is all very tasty, brightly balanced and true to its national cuisine. The Vietnamese cha ca fish is definitely a hit. The lightly grilled ling cod, served on a plate of rice vermicelli, is kicked up with ginger and a sunny chorus of fresh herbs over a groovy bass line of fermented-fish sauce, all gently harmonized in a creamy coconut-milk melody. If dishes were music, this would be a bouncy summer pop song.

There's nothing too psychedelic on the playlist. No weird sour notes or challenging textures. Crispy fried tofu comes with a typical red-curry Thai sauce. The kalbi beef shortribs are incredibly tender, but not as gamey or funky as you'd find in most Korean restaurants. Roghan josh lamb is so richly braised you barely have to chew.

Some dishes could be more daring. If ordering mussels, you'll probably want to add a few shakes of fish sauce to the broth. Shanghai peanut noodles are definitely improved with a few spoonfuls of spicy sambal.

But the Vietnamese subs, served warmly grilled on great baguettes, would satisfy any fervent banh mi fan. And the bun vermicelli bowl, bursting with fresh herbs and tangy pickles, sure beats the average deep-fried pub fare.

This isn't a destination for mind-blowing Asian cuisine. It's a well-conceived concept restaurant, where the food is delivered quickly, the portions are generous and the prices are reasonable. The room is comfortable and lively. There's no pretension.

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And it's a hopping neighbourhood fixture.

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About the Author
Vancouver restaurant critic

Alexandra Gill has been The Globe and Mail’s Vancouver restaurant critic since 2005. She joined the paper as a summer intern in 1997 and was hired full-time as an entertainment columnist the following year. In 2001, she moved to Vancouver as the Western Arts Correspondent, a position she held until 2007. More


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