In 2008, when the inaugural Chinese Restaurant Awards (CRA) was launched, a ceremony was held at Edgewater Casino. Drinks were poured, canapés were served, several politicians attended to hand out the plaques – and nobody in the Metro Vancouver Chinese restaurant community gave a hoot.
“The restaurant owners didn’t know who we were so they all sent their grandmothers and nannies to pick up the awards,” founder Craig Stowe recalls with a laugh.
Now the longest-running Chinese culinary awards in the world with vast global reach (nearly half of the website’s 50,000 average monthly hits are from outside Canada), the CRA celebrated its 10th anniversary with a ceremony at the River Rock Casino on Tuesday. To the best of my knowledge, not a single nanny was sent to represent the 44 winners in categories that included Diners’ Choice (selected by 36,000 online voters), the Hennessy Elite 10 Awards (for the 10 most outstanding restaurants of the past decade) and the Critics’ Choice Signature Dish Awards (for which I was a judge, alongside Lee Man and Brendon Mathews).
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I write quite a lot about Chinese restaurants in this column. That’s not just because I’m a judge for these awards. It is because Chinese and Taiwanese cuisine is what Metro Vancouver does best. We are so incredibly lucky to have such a deep pool of outstanding restaurants in our backyard – one that keeps growing larger and stronger every year. To wit: five of the 10 winning restaurants in this year’s Critics’ Choice Awards are first-time recipients that have been open less than two years.
Still, many readers tell me that they’re intimidated about going to Chinese restaurants; they don’t know what to order. This list of Critics’ Choice Signature Dishes for 2018 presented by the Alberta Canola Growers is an excellent place to start. We on the judging panel ate far and wide (putting on many pounds since October) to find these 10 must-try dishes that range from elaborate and modern to traditional and comforting, but all wowed us with their precise technique, pristine ingredients, care and creativity. These are the dishes that kept us digging in with our chopsticks and fighting for the last bites, then lingered in our memories long after the meals had finished.
Minced prawn steamed with fish maw
- Kirin Restaurant (Richmond location)
- 7900 Westminster Hwy., Richmond, B.C.
Fish maw is the dried swim bladder of a large fish, which is typically used to bulk up fine soups. Similar to shark fin, it is relatively tasteless, absorbing the flavour of other ingredients. For this dish (available only at Kirin’s Richmond location), it has been cleverly deconstructed into an open-face dumpling that swims in a rich bowl of superior broth and is topped with shrimp paste. Wondrously tender, the steamed “dumpling” sheets make excellent use of the maw’s thinner pieces, which would normally go to waste.
Steamed bun filled with salty egg yolk lava
- Chef Tony Seafood Restaurant
- 101-4600 No. 3 Rd., Richmond, B.C.
As eye-catching as it is addictive, this black (charcoal-powder-infused) bao bun is painted with gold and filled with a creamy salted-egg-yolk custard that oozes out piping-hot like a molten lava cake. While there are many renditions of this trendy dish, Chef Tony’s impeccable pastry team steams up the most voluptuous version we tried: one that is soft and buoyant; sweet yet savoury, sandy and at the same time silky.
Honey glazed BBQ Iberico pork, steamed rice roll
- 1161 West Georgia St., Vancouver, B.C.
Mott 32’s signature Iberico pork – double-glazed with Yellow Mountain honey, lightly charred around the edges and melt-in-the-mouth tender – is used in several dishes. But it really shines brightest when wrapped in these house-made cheung fun. Steamed to order, the lustrous rice rolls are thin enough to reveal the filling inside, yet springy enough that they don’t crumble when picked up with chopsticks.
Pan seared oysters in supreme soy sauce
- Red Star Seafood Restaurant
- 8298 Granville St., Vancouver, B.C., 604-261-8389
- 2200-8181 Cambie Rd., Richmond, B.C., 604-270-3003
An excellent fry is a rare and beautiful thing. These plump oysters, coated in a wafer-thin batter, have a crisply crunchy, frilly-edged exterior that yields to a buttery centre. They are glazed in supreme soy sauce (the very best drops from the first brewing extraction) that has been reduced to a gloriously rich stickiness. Consider it the Korean fried chicken of the ocean.
Chinese sauerkraut fish
- Two Two Chinese Sauerkraut Fish Restaurant
- 101-4940 No.3 Rd., Richmond, B.C.
This hot-and-sour hot pot distinguishes itself from other variations around town with its house-made pickled mustard greens, which tame the tingly ma la heat of Szechuan peppercorns and dried chillies. The richly built broth has a luxuriant silkiness and the velveted fish, cut to order, has an exceptionally smooth mouthfeel. Served in large cauldrons, it’s a fun dish for sharing.
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Claypot chicken with trotters
- Geng Shi Ji
- 1211-8388 Capstan Way, Richmond, B.C.
This is not a chicken for low-fat diets. Fabulously decadent, the soy-sauce-marinated bird is steamed for two hours then placed over roasted pork trotters and steamed for another two hours. The chicken itself is incredibly tender and bursting with clean, farm-fresh flavour. But the real treat is when you dig deep into the pot and swipe the juicy chicken morsels in a pool of liquid pork fat warmly spiced with star anise.
Squid paste-stuffed Chinese doughnut with mountain yam in golden sauce
- The Jade Seafood Restaurant
- 8511 Alexandra Rd., Richmond, B.C.
I couldn’t get enough of this dish, which looks like a junk-food platter elevated from the PNE food fair and tastes unlike anything else I’ve had in a Chinese restaurant. A Teochew specialty, it consists of flaky, golden Chinese doughnuts stuffed with chopped squid that has been folded and brightened with green onion. On the side are bright-orange batons of mountain yam that are coated in a chalky, salted-duck-yolk sauce. A textural delight, they look like powdered Cheetos and crunch like water chestnuts.
(Jade Seafood Restaurant is moving to a new location in June.)
Szechuan-style braised B.C. sturgeon in spicy chili, clay pot
- 39 Smithe St., Vancouver, B.C.
What a terrific use of local, sustainable seafood. This Szechuan clay pot is simmered with the meaty loins of white sturgeon that is farmed in land-based tanks at Target Marine Hatcheries in Sechelt, B.C. The firm fish adds textural depth to a rich broth that is remarkably clean (not oil-slicked, as many are) and soothingly spiced without tipping too far into tongue-buzzing numbness.
Beef brisket curry
- Chinatown BBQ
- 130 E Pender St., Vancouver, B.C.
Old-fashioned, comforting and creamy, this beef brisket curry is softer than most versions commonly found today. The recipe rises from the ashes of downtown Chinatown’s beloved Daisy Garden, which burned down three years ago. The brisket has a tender bite, the potatoes are partially blended to add homestyle heft and the spicing is gentle. In the words of another judge, “No one else makes it like this any more.”
Tofu with crab cream sauce
- Dynasty Seafood Restaurant
- 108–777 West Broadway, Vancouver, B.C.
An affordable luxury at only $5 a serving, this sumptuous slice of tofu is served in a gold-plated, dome-shaped caviar dish. The showy presentation alone makes it a remarkable dish. But the sauce – luscious, creamy crab roe unadulterated with colouring or spice – is what really impresses. Add a splash of black vinegar to brighten, tighten and round out the sweetness.