There's been a whole lot of media chit-chat about the new vibe of Vancouver's old Chinatown. Are the hipsters ruining or saving this storied neighbourhood?
I can't speak to the longboard shops. But I can tell you that many of these gentrifying restaurants and food purveyors are exactly the kind of boutique establishments that I really wish I could find in my own West End neck of the woods.
After a recent crawl through the fringes of Chinatown, I came up with this curated list representing the best of the new bunch. Although it doesn't include The Union, a fun, casual pan-Asian restaurant that I've previously reviewed, I do suggest you either begin or end your crawl with a rooster shooter from its bar. This sweet shot of coconut rum with a chaser of apple juice, orgeat, calamansi and chili water makes a great sipper, too.
Harvest Community Foods
243 Union St., 604-682-8851. Harvestunion.ca
Who knew public democracy could taste as mouth-watering as Harvest's fatty pork-shoulder ramen bedecked with candied bacon? This tiny grocery and noodle counter began as a community project 18 months ago, when owner Michael Leung canvassed the neighbourhood and held a vote to determine the use and name of the 600-square-foot space. Now leased by Andrea Carlson (former executive chef at Bishop's and proprietor of the coming Burdock & Co. restaurant), the shop is stocked with locally made products (Sapadilla's plant-derived household cleaners), artisan foods (Beta5 chocolates, Mellifera Bees cardamom-infused honey, puttanesca Sugo Sauce) and requested staples (almond milk, canned tomatoes, etc.). Fresh produce can be purchased à la carte or packaged into bi-weekly Community Supported Agriculture shares that include organic fruit and vegetables from local farms, grains, heirloom legumes and cool surprises (a recipe for nettle-hazelnut pesto was tucked into last week's box). Go for the excellent ramen. But don't leave without a scoop, or jar, of Earnest salted caramel ice cream. It's decadently creamy.
237 Union St., 604-779-3804. Theparkervancouver.com
A new addition to Vancouver's blossoming vegetarian restaurant scene, the Parker punches above its size (20 seats) while keeping its waste weight astonishingly low (about one pound a month). The lack of trash is achieved by sourcing seasonal products from local farmers without any throwaway packaging. Truth be told, there's probably no room to store any additional garbage. The open kitchen is a 60-square-foot corner nook that looks like a prep station at the end of the bar. Working within such narrow quarters, chef/owner Jason Leizert produces some surprisingly voluptuous small plates for his daily changing menu – velvety chickpea fritters; zingy Brussels sprouts garnished with walnuts, onions and crème fraiche; and a moan-inducing carrot cake slathered with salty butterscotch. Co-owner Steve Da Cruz (they worked together at Corner Suite Bistro De Luxe) shakes up masterfully meaty cocktails. Do try the Precious Twin (tequila and quince purée with pumpkin seed dust rimming the glass). The familiar plywood and mirrored decor, which often looks cold and unfinished in larger spaces, feels warm and cozy here. Great for date nights.
East of Main Cafe
223 East Georgia St., 604-899-2777. Eastofmaincafe.com
This isn't the best Mediterranean tapas fare in town. The tomato-cucumber fattoush salad could use more sour tanginess to brighten its toasted flatbread. The Moroccan lamb meatballs in spicy tomato sauce are just a wee bit dense. But this high-ceilinged loft space is such a lovely little spot in which to lean back and watch a flock of origami paper cranes drifting above the bar. The classic cocktail and craft beer offerings compare to some of the city's better known boîtes. And the restaurant, owned by sisters Maureen Webb and Donalda Weaver, has a great raison d'être. All proceeds go toward supporting the sisters' other local venture, Project Limelight, a non-profit society that offers free theatre arts programs for youth who live in the Downtown Eastside. Bravo.
The Pie Shoppe
721 Gore St., 604-338-6646. Thepieshoppe.ca
There's no such thing as too much pie. At this adorable cubbyhole, pie is the only item, other than coffee, on the menu. The niche selection doesn't make it any easier to choose from classic apple, chocolate pecan, blackberry-apple and the wonderfully tart raspberry rhubarb. Flaky crusted and sprinkled with sugar, the fresh pies (sold whole or by the slice) are baked daily by owners Stephanie and Andrea French. The two sisters also own Panoramic Roasting Company. Their small-batch single origin coffee, roasted at a rooftop studio in Kitsilano, is brewed to order in single cups by Aeropress or manual pour-over. Get there early. The shop opens at 11 a.m. and closes when the pies run out.