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Gritty diner hurtles us back to a simpler time

Pulled Pork Pancakes with Jack Daniels maple syrup are served at the Red Wagon Cafe, 2296 East Hastings Street in Vancouver, BC.

laura leyshon The Globe and Mail

Red Wagon Café
(604) 568-4565
$35 for breakfast for two with coffee, tax and tip

Sitting at a window table in the Red Wagon Café, I feel as if time has been trapped in a Fred Herzog photograph. Mr. Herzog, for those who haven't had the pleasure, is one of Vancouver's great flaneurs, a gentleman observer who strolled the streets in the 1950s and 1960s capturing the city's raw urban underbelly - the barbershops, vacant lots, screaming neon billboards and greasy spoons - in brilliant Kodachrome colour.

Fast-forward to the present day, to this weathered, working-class strip in Hastings-Sunrise. Squinting into the setting sun, I watch a Filipino grocer lock up a storefront plastered with garish yellow-and-red signage and do a double take when a young woman totters by in glittery, royal-blue platform stilettos.

The gritty streetscape feels vibrant and real, almost hyper-real. As does this diner, which hurtles us back to a simpler time when cows weren't jacked up on hormones and corn was grown for humans to eat.

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Unlike many of the retro theme-ride lunch counters that have become trendy of late, the Red Wagon Café hasn't been fancied up or glossed over with kitsch. The plate-glass windows, frosted pendant lights and pale-wood panelling have all been here for decades. Mismatched plates with faded trim were inherited from a succession of Chinese-Canadian restaurants that previously inhabited the space. A rusted Coca-Cola sign was salvaged from underneath the old wok burners. Even the new additions - the sagging particleboard shelves behind the turquoise server station, for instance - have a comfortable, lived-in look.

All this nostalgia isn't meant to imply that I'm averse to the progress. Have you ever eaten at the Ovaltine Café? It is not a pleasant experience. The grub at the Red Wagon Café, made with high-quality ingredients, is infinitely more flavourful than the average greasy spoon.

Owner Brad Miller has been serving all-day breakfast and lunch since he opened the restaurant last fall. Having recently acquired a liquor licence, he now also offers dinner Tuesday to Saturday. Weekend brunch is booming. And after the first bite of pulled-pork pancakes - yes, pulled pork pancakes - you'll understand why, on a busy Saturday morning, customers will patiently wait 20 to 30 minutes for a table.

I must admit that I was skeptical about this dish, which consists of three buttermilk pancakes layered with house-smoked pulled pork, all doused in Jack Daniels maple syrup. Though it sounds gluttonous, this is a match made in heaven. The pancakes here are fluffy and savoury, with no sugar added to the batter, so why not sandwich them between shredded, slow-cooked pork (or firm tofu)? The meat is soft and moist, bathed in a juicy barbecue sauce that gently swings between hot and tangy notes. The boozy maple-whisky sauce is goosed with fat pats of melting butter.

"Order it," I urged everyone in line when I swooned out after breakfast still licking my lips.

There are other draws. The pork belly confit - served with two eggs, chunky home fries, griddled tomatoes, fiery salsa verde and lemony hollandaise - is very good. The fatty slab is thickly streaked with sweet, smoky meat that's been rubbed with Chinese five-spice powder and nicely crisped.

The Casa del Caffe coffee - bottomless, yet short on bite - was a bit of a letdown. But the toast, thick-sliced light rye from Richmond's Island City Baking, is amazing. It really tastes of rye. Service is laid back and super friendly.

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"I like the simple done well," says Mr. Miller, who has worked at Bistro Pastis, West and Au Petit Chavignol. "Everyone wants to cook the fancy food. But I find that people are ecstatic when they get their eggs cooked correctly."

The dinner menu, which launched about a month ago, follows a similar philosophy. There are the basic diner dishes done well. This includes items like thick hamburgers made with grass-fed meat that tastes earthy and full-bodied, like the beef you ate as a kid. And the smoked short rib sandwich, a rare-cooked roast sliced really thin and slathered with melting Brie, sherry-sautéed onions and arugula on a ciabatta bun. The latter is served with hot, home-fried chips.

Then there are the specials, mostly French bistro classics, like pork rillettes and chicken liver parfait. A frisée salad with poached free-range egg (now added to the regular menu) is tossed with thickly cubed homemade lardons. The only quibble about the mussels, a large bowl simmered in a chunky tomato and wine broth, is that it's served with only one small toast point. This is a dish that cries out for a big, crusty baguette to sop up all the juices.

Desserts are limited. There is an apple cake, which sounds delicious, or an extremely buttery almond cake with hand-churned vanilla ice cream, which tastes delicious. The wine list is fairly priced. We had a decent bottle of Argentine malbec for $32.

But the best part about dinner? Those crazy-good pulled pork pancakes are served all day.

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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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