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Embrace the chaos and savour the one-pot wonders at Too Two Chinese Sauerkraut Fish


Embrace the chaos,
savour the one-pot wonders

A Chinese chain – cheap, cheerful and family-focused – arrives in British Columbia with open arms

Pickled fish soup.

Too Two Chinese Sauerkraut Fish

101-4940 No. 3 Rd., Richmond

Price: Raw bar and appetizers, $12 to $18; soups, sandwiches and salads, $9 to $22; mains, $26 to $45

Cuisine: Sichuanese

Additional info: Open daily, 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.; 5 to 10 p.m.; reservations recommended.

A Cheap Eats pick, where you can dine well for under $30 before alcohol, tax and tip.

Richmond's Too Two Chinese Sauerkraut Fish can easily get lost in translation if you dig too deep for meaning in the quirky name of this unexpectedly charming chain restaurant from China that specializes in Sichuanese suan cai yu, a hot-and-sour fish soup that is served with pickled mustard greens.

"Too Two," as one friend explains, is a homonym for the Mandarin slang word for "silly boss." According to legend, the original restaurant owner earned the nickname because he was too much of a perfectionist and would only use the best ingredients, often choosing to close for the day rather than serve an inferior fish soup.

But ask someone else and you get an entirely different answer.

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According to another friend, "Too Two" is a homonym (or is it a homophone?) for tai yee, which in Cantonese means "too easygoing."

In this version of the brand mythology, the silly boss was told he would never be successful because he didn't work hard enough.

Given that the restaurant group now has 18 locations (this appears to be the first in North America), his nickname is cheekily trumpeted in the slick marketing – which also includes a two-finger gesture, opening the door to several possible crude interpretations.

My suggestion? Put away Google Translate (some of the signage gets way too weird) and just soak up this wonderfully chaotic, delightfully spicy cultural immersion.

Here is a simplified guide for everything you really need to know.

Call ahead

Of all the Chinese restaurants in Richmond, this is by far the most popular at the moment.

There is usually a long lineup outside the door and without reservations you will probably have to wait about 90 minutes for a table.

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Chinese doughnuts.

Don't worry, they speak English – and Cantonese

The clientele is 99-per-cent mainland Chinese. And yet, there are no Lamborghinis in the parking lot or vintage champagnes on the menu, proving that our preconceptions of the new Chinese immigrants are unfairly skewed.

This is a cheap-and-cheerful, family-focused, middle-class joint where the service is exceedingly friendly and everyone is made to feel welcome.

Although it wasn't this way in the beginning, there is now an English menu and servers on the floor who speak fluent English and Cantonese, in addition to Mandarin.

Peach slush drinks.

Not soured on the soup

The menu may be two pages long, but it all revolves around one shared dish – suan cai yu, a hot-and-sour fish soup with pickled greens. A Sichuanese specialty, it is more balanced and complex than the commonly known and numbingly spicy water-boiled fish (shui zhu yu). Here, it is served in three sizes: small ($39.95, enough to feed two to four people), large ($59.95) and ginormous ($89.95).

Clay pots containing pickled mustard greens.

No, it's not Chinese-German

The "sauerkraut" is pickled mustard greens, which are made in-house, stored in large clay jars in a glass-walled room near the restaurant entrance and fermented for 30 days. I know this for a (semi-reliable) fact because there is an animated video on constant loop shown on several screens throughout the dining room. No knowledge of Chinese language required.

It tastes really good

The combination of tingly Sichuan peppercorns (ma) and dried chillies (la) is the hallmark of Sichuan cuisine. But it doesn't always have to taste like a scorching blast of Novocain. In this dish, the tangy pickles tame the heat, a richly built broth gives the soup a luxuriant silkiness, and secret spices add bright citrus and floral notes. Any MSG in the dish is naturally occurring from the funky greens (no headaches or fuzzy mouth). The tilapia is cut in thin strips and velveted (blanched with hot water) so it maintains a soft, silky texture. You will sweat, cough and perhaps even get a runny nose from the chillies. But the symptoms will pass quickly and be relatively painless.

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Put away Google Translate (some of the signage gets way too weird) and just soak up this wonderfully chaotic, delightfully spicy cultural immersion.

Order rice, not rice cakes

There are dozens of additions, starters and sides to choose from. You don't need many. Start with something light and bright to prepare the palate, perhaps the salted key lime shredded chicken or long-stemmed Taiwanese cauliflower with sweet soy sauce and sautéed shallots. For the hotpot, lotus root adds nice crunchy texture (don't bother with spindly enoki mushrooms, which disappear in the thick stew). Chinese doughnuts are fun for dipping (the broth cuts the grease), but sickly sweet mochi rice cakes might make a better dessert. Do ask for plain white rice even though it doesn't appear on the English menu. The starch soaks up the broth, allowing its clean flavours to shine and fills out the meal.

There is usually a long lineup outside the door and without reservations you will probably have to wait about 90 minutes for a table.

Drink corn milk

The beverage list includes tea, beer, pop and several types of slushees. But the one drink you must try is the corn milk. It's a thickly mashed, naturally sweetened yet oddly bland corn milkshake that really softens the chilli heat and soothes the stomach. I preferred the warm version over the cold, which had a stronger corn flavour. It was actually my favourite discovery of the night.

Wear concert earplugs

The restaurant is really loud. You will have trouble conversing over all the booming Mandopop, jangly videos, shouting and slamming of plates. The restaurant management is not trying to turn tables in a hurry or drive you bananas. This is yeet lau (heated noise), a loud, lively environment desirable by all Chinese diners, mainlanders in particular. This explains why Chinese restaurants are all brightly lit. Embrace the chaos. Consider it a cultural learning experience.

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