Potluck Hawker Eatery
- Location: 3424 Cambie St., Vancouver
- Website: potluckyvr.ca
- Phone: 604-423-9344
- Prices: Snacks and sweets, $7 to $14; shared plates, rice and noodles, $16 to $25; frequent large-format specials.
- Cuisine: Southeast Asian street food
- Hours: Tuesday to Sunday, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., 5 p.m. to 8:30 p.m.
- Takeout: UberEats or pre-ordered pickup through websites; frequent family style specials.
- Additional information: Call for reservations (recommended); no patio; contact-tracing collection needs to be tightened.
The one thing I’ve learned about eating out in Vancouver in the time of a pandemic is that some restaurants have excelled at takeout and some have done a great job of adapting their dine-in experience, but very few can do both well.
Potluck Hawker Eatery is one of the rarities.
This bright, bold, modern take on Southeast Asian street food markets is owned by Justin Cheung, the former chef at New Westminster’s Longtail Kitchen, and Dominic Sai, who worked there with him.
The menu is a frequently changing riot of cuisines, leaning heavily to Malaysia (where Mr. Cheung’s family is from), but reaching as far as the Philippines (the crispy pata, when available, sells out in a flash) and often brilliantly creative (the salted-egg-yolk fried-chicken sandwich is a handheld foodgasm that casual-dining connoisseurs will be telling their grandchildren about).
The 18-seat restaurant (down from 32) is as cute as a button. Metal stools and chairs are painted in a rainbow of colours and the bathrooms are covered in durian fruit-patterned wallpaper.
One side of the room is a wall-to-window pantry shelf stacked with Super Q Special palabok noodles, Koon Chun fine shrimp sauce and other cult-favourite kitchen essentials that are hard to source (and available for purchase if you ask).
The other is a plastic barrier separating the dining room from the walkway to the front counter, which sees a steady yet orderly stream of customers picking up takeout that can be ordered online in 15-minute intervals.
Unfortunately for them, they can’t try the new dine-in-only cocktails, which includes a terrific Thai milk tea spiked with coriander-and-peppercorn spiced rum.
The original idea was to offer a rotating potluck-style family menu featuring centerpiece dishes such as whole-fried fish fleshed out with snacks, salads, small sides and sambals.
COVID-19 threw a few wrenches in the plan. Mr. Sai got stuck in South Korea, the renovation slowed down and a spring opening was delayed until summer.
But to Mr. Cheung’s astonishment, the potluck concept translated almost seamlessly into family style takeout.
He first tested the waters at Thanksgiving, with a whole coconut-milk-fried chicken and Singaporean black-pepper crab feast. The surf-and-turf combo, which cost $200 and fed four to six people, came with all sorts of street-food fixings, including golden mantou buns and salted-egg-yolk polenta. He expected to sell 25 sets, but eventually had to cut off the pre-orders at 100.
Then came Christmas and the crab feast series, which included his sensational Dungeness chili crab – the claws flash-fried to tighten up the meat and the body filled with a thick, piquant tomato sauce swirled with egg.
For Lunar New Year, there was an eight-course smorgasbord with a whole hainanese chicken in truffled soybean sauce.
New Year’s rolled into Dine Out, during which I had the pleasure of ordering fried duck leg and salted-egg-yolk lobster dusted in a sweet-gingery house seasoning. Both were served in recyclable bento trays with separated sections for pickles, crispy anchovies and peanuts, coconut rice, a sambal-marinated boiled-and-fried egg and the restaurant’s own stellar versions of kale (deep-fried and coconut-creamed, the latter a voluptuous version of Filipino laing). The trays are a smart way of keeping each distinctive dish in its own sandbox, while also reducing waste.
My only concern is that with so many different menus and systems, there seems to be a lack of integration. The last time I visited, the contact-tracing information was being collected through a pop-up on the QR-code menu. It was actually quite annoying because the prompt popped up every time you looked at the menu and could actually be bypassed.
This is likely a problem for many restaurants that are trying to do everything and navigating a hodge-podge of platforms on the fly, but it’s a COVID safety gap that needs to be addressed.
Not in the mood for a feast? You can order most of the regular menu for delivery through UberEats.
The bestsellers include Mama Cheung’s Laksa, a rich and creamy curry variation with a swampy undertow of fermented shrimp (from the house-made chili rempah, which is much like a Malay sofrito and the base for several dishes). Fans of fish sauce will love its depth of funky flavour. Diners with more delicate palates will be surprised how fast they acclimatize to the aroma, which quickly mellows into citrusy soapiness from the addition of fresh laksa leaves.
Then there are the crispy free-range chicken wings glazed in the sweet, slow burn of caramelized fish sauce infused with pandan and dried chili.
And of course, I must tell you more about the salted-egg-yolk fried-chicken sandwich. I’ve had two different versions. Both contained juicy chicken thighs, marinated in coconut milk and rempah for 24 hours, dredged in tapioca flour, double-fried and spiked with butter-garlic salted egg yolk. And both were dressed with tangy green-mango slaw and a thick smear of sweet-and-sour tamarind jam.
The first sandwich was bundled in grilled milk bread and topped with crunchy, green-rice cereal. The second was squished between a brioche bun and served with Malaysian shaker fries – frozen crinkle cuts taken to the next level with a sprinkling of sugar, galangal powder, salt, chili and fried curry leaves.
I’m not sure which of the two sandwiches I liked better, but I know I didn’t leave a crumb on either plate.
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