The 11th annual Chinese Restaurant Awards, announced Tuesday, encompass much more than just the Critics’ Choice Signature Dish Awards. There are the immensely popular Diners’ Choice Awards; Lifetime Achievement Awards (this year bestowed on the recently retired Chef Leung Yiu Tong of the now-closed Hoi Tong Chinese Seafood Restaurant); and Ocean Wise Sustainable Seafood Awards (because not all Chinese restaurants serve shark fin).
Launching this month, there is also a new dinner series called Dining by the Awards, which pair acclaimed Western chefs with Chinese masters to raise money for culinary scholarships.
In other words, the Chinese Restaurant Awards are not just a ceremony. They are a movement to raise awareness of the exceptional Chinese and Taiwanese cuisine in Metro Vancouver and create stronger ties between communities.
But given that I am a judge for the Critics’ Choice Awards, and just spent the past six months eating voraciously with fellow judges Brendon Mathews, Lee Man and William Ho Wood Kuen, this is my focus today. Here is this year’s list of 11 Critics’ Choice Signature Dishes and our reasons for choosing them.
CRISPY ROAST PORK BELLY
130-6200 River Road, Richmond; 604-285-8980
Suckling pig might be the signature feast at this opulent Mainland Chinese restaurant, but a more affordable platter of thickly sliced pork belly is no less thrilling. Roasted in-house, the pork is burnished with an exceptionally crunchy golden skin and boasts a perfect ratio of luscious meat to melting fat, or what the Cantonese would call “five layers of flowers.”
SHANGHAI-STYLE FRIED PORK BUNS
103-11782 Hammersmith Way, Richmond; 778-297-1618
Among this casual café’s many recommended dishes (silky tailed wontons, thick and zesty hot-and-sour soup), the pan-fried buns are a standout – and often sold out – thanks to their perfectly pinched bottoms, delicate wheat-dough wrappers that hold the soup without absorbing it and soft centres of hand-cut organic pork brightly flecked with ginger.
GRILL ROCK FISH WITH SPICY AND CHINESE SPICE
4-3377 Kingsway, Vancouver; 604-568-1832
Chongqing-style fish (roasted whole and slathered in a choice of peppercorn sauces) originated in Sichuan, but is now extremely popular in Metro Vancouver. Of all the renditions we tried, this one impressed the most. The fish was fresh and firm (many turn into murky, sauce-logged sponges) and rubbed with a dry spice mix for extra zing.
DUNGENESS CRAB WITH ZHAJIANG SAUCE & NOODLES
2408 Saint Johns Street, Port Moody; 604-939-8833
This brass-railed time capsule looks like a relic from the 1950s, but the cuisine channels Hong Kong, circa 1980. Familiar yet innovative, the Dungeness crab (only $20 a pound) is tossed with a zhajiang sauce that is sticky, tangy, loaded with chopped garlic and typically only found in wonton houses.
STIR FRY SPICY CLAMS
1170-8391 Alexandra Road, Richmond; 604-284-5393
Kissed with the smoky breath of the wok, the spicy tangle of well-sorted Manila clams (not a closed dud in the bunch) is glazed with a glossy sauce that tastes of Chinese wine and might remind you of Italy.
B.C. GEODUCK DUO: STEAMED FILLETS WITH WASABI, AND STIR FRY WITH EGGS & BLACK TRUFFLE
101-4600 No. 3 Road, Richmond; 604-279-0083
Geoduck, a pricey local delicacy, has never tasted so refined. In this creative two-way take, the neck is sliced into batons and steamed with wasabi until crunchy. Ginger takes the edge off the sinus-tingling spice, while a splash of olive oil gives it a softly rounded finish. For the second dish, the mantle is tossed in a fluffy mess of scrambled eggs showered with black truffle and hit with an echo of ginger.
BRAISED SPARERIBS WITH CRANBERRY
Happy Valley Seafood Restaurant
3432 Lougheed Hwy., Vancouver; 604-216-0100
The sauce isn’t made with cranberries. They’re hawthorn berries, which are also tart and used by many chefs in Hong Kong for an elevated version of sweet-and-sour pork, but rarely seen in Vancouver. Whatever they call it, these ribs are terrifically crunchy crowd pleasers from an out-of-the-way restaurant that often hits higher than its unassuming exterior would suggest.
SLOW-COOKED ANGUS TRIPLE: A SHORT BEEF RIB WITH BLACK PEPPER SAUCE
280-2811 No. 3 Road, Richmond; 604-249-0082
In Cantonese restaurants, it’s unusual to find big cuts of beef taking centre stage. This excellent slow-cooked short rib, blanketed in honey and black-pepper sauce, is sliced thin and tender; the sauce thick and gloopy, but not overly starchy. It’s crowned with rings of lightly blanched onion, which balance the honey and brighten the pepper.
DRIED SCALLOP AND VERMICELLI IN CLAY POT
280-2811 No. 3 Road, Richmond; 604-249-0082
The vermicelli stir-fry is tossed with bouncy clusters of egg floss, sprouts, sweet lapsang sausage, mushrooms, onions and dried scallops (or sometimes shrimp).The flavours meld together in a warm, comforting jumble that will keep you digging in for more.
HERBAL CHINESE WINE CHICKEN POT
1120-8391 Alexandra Road, Richmond; 604-370-4833
This is a soup guaranteed to cure whatever ails you. The rich, restorative broth, heady with medicinal herbs and sweet wine, is clean, comforting and thick with large chunks of poached chicken that are well seasoned and tender. Choose your own vegetables to bulk up the soup to your liking. When in season, be sure to pile on crunchy chrysanthemum greens, which taste mildly grassy.
ROASTED SALT-FREE RANGE CHICKEN
4989 Victoria Drive, Vancouver; 604-321-6862
Best known for its dim sum, this old-school Cantonese restaurant in East Vancouver blew us away with its chicken. It’s actually poached, not roasted. And that poaching broth is deeply infused with sharply citrusy galangal, otherwise known as Thai ginger, which seeps into every nook and cranny of an incredibly silky chicken rendered free of fat.