- Name: Beijiang Restaurant
- Location: 8111 Leslie Rd., Richmond, B.C.
- Phone: 778-297-4988
- Website: beijiangrestaurant.ca
- Cuisine: Halal Uyghur
- Additional information: Open daily, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.; reservations accepted
- Rating: Cheap Eats
- Name: Sweet Memory
- Location: 130-8080 Leslie Rd., Richmond, B.C.
- Phone: 604-370-2882
- Website: memorycorner8.com
- Cuisine: Taiwanese desserts
- Additional information: Open daily, 5 p.m. to 12:30 a.m.
- Rating: Cheap Eats
Happy Easter. Some people celebrate the holiday with chocolate eggs and marshmallow bunnies. Me? I’m a blasphemous nonconformist. I’ll be celebrating this year’s moveable feast by dining in Richmond, B.C., a city in a galaxy not so far away, but one in which the eclectic restaurant scene can transport you to the remotest corners of China and beyond, while never ceasing to amaze.
Take Beijiang Restaurant, for instance. Now here is an oddball eatery after my own heart. Specializing in Chinese halal cuisine, it recently relocated from busy Alexandra Road to this quieter strip-mall street for the cheaper rent and abundant parking.
There was obviously some money spent on the modestly flashy renovation. Wrapped around one sharply curved corner is a splendiferous mural of a camel caravan crossing the brilliant-orange Taklamakan Desert. A handful of large televisions (playing the hockey game and a Mandarin version of American Idol) are mounted on stacked-stone walls. The lights, although blazingly bright, are recessed around the ceiling. Chairs are draped in gold-tasseled covers; there is a red carnation on each white-clothed table. A showpiece bar is festooned with brass lanterns and well stocked with beer taps, red wine and baijiu.
Wait. A bar? In a halal restaurant? It obviously gets a good workout. Over on the far side of the dining room, a large group of loud mainlanders slam copious shots of pricey Moutai poured from crystal decanters.
A few tables over, a devout Middle Eastern Muslim family, the mother cloaked in a red hijab, quietly concentrate on their dinner.
Isn’t alcohol a contradiction for a restaurant that specializes in food and drink only permissible by Islamic law? Although Beijiang is promoted as a Uyghur-style restaurant (Uyghurs being a repressed Turkic-Islamic ethnic group who have long inhabited the disputed, resource-rich Xinjiang province bordering Afghanistan, India, Mongolia and Russia), it’s actually more of a mixed regional Chinese bag.
“It is a problem,” says owner Richard Li, who is Hui (a Chinese Muslim minority) from Beijing, where traditions are more relaxed. “But we’re in Richmond. There is a lot of competition. I cannot run a restaurant without alcohol.”
A stylish gentleman sporting thick-framed glasses and spiky hair, Mr. Li is certainly an experienced business operator. He studied hospitality at Toronto’s George Brown College, has worked for the Sheraton Hotel group and owned several Japanese restaurants in California. Beijiang boasts one of the very few Chinese-restaurant websites I’ve seen, locally, that lists its “team” bios – in English.
The website, mind you, is slightly out of date. Mr. Li recently franchised the second Beijiang Restaurant, on Kingsway in Vancouver, to his former chef. “They are not a halal operation at all,” he explains by phone. “They serve pork.”
This establishment’s menu is a thick, sprawling tome that offers almost everything else under the sun, from haggis hotpot, beef burritos and braised frog legs to the more ordinary Sichuan-style hot-and-sour shredded potatoes and water-boiled fish.
It does, however, concentrate heavily on humanely slaughtered, halal-certified lamb, which is about as festively Christian as this non-traditional Easter feast is going to get.
From the Uyghur selections, there are tender, spicy lamb kebabs coated in sandy cumin, charred over charcoal and skewered on sharply pointy lauan-wood twigs. Yes, they are reused, but apparently get sanitized in the dishwasher.
Roasted lamb ribs, pulsing with gamey flavour and layered with softly chewy fat, are butterflied with a bone-side hinge. Served in a glistening heap on golden platters, they are served with warm nang buns (a Uyghur flatbread), cilantro, onions and a dipping bowl of powdered five-spice blend anchored by cumin and slightly smoky.
A lovely server, very attentive and motherly in nature, coaxes us into believing that Xinjiang “pizza” is extremely authentic and the fresh, barely broiled, homestyle taste is kind of addictive. Still, we can’t help wondering if those grilled hunks of lamb might not be better complemented with a flatbread crust that is slightly more crispy and buoyant, or a medley of bell peppers that aren’t quite so raw.
There are long, elastic, hand-pulled noodles, roughly chopped and stir-fried with wok-breathy curls of onions, peppers and silky-soft velveted beef.
Thicker noodles, in ribbons as wide as Italian pappardelle, are added to a bubbling banquet tray of salty, bluntly spicy red broth bobbing with bite-size pieces of bony dapanji chicken that has been prebraised in soy, spices and broad-bean paste. There’s also a whole, stir-fried grouper smiling back at us with its gaping maw and sharp little teeth. The fish is overcooked and pulling apart at the skin.
Next time, I’d order the dapanji chicken by itself. Or better yet, the whole salt-and-pepper chicken that is air-dried before being deep fried so the skin crisps up extra crackly and darkly golden. This dish, however, should be ordered in advance as the kitchen only prepares two birds a day for walk-ins.
Beijiang isn’t one of the best restaurants in Richmond, but our small sampling of the massive menu seems to indicate that kitchen cooks with care. More interestingly, the uncommon Uyghur dishes represent the next-level regional diversity of Richmond’s Chinese dining scene. It’s not all Cantonese all the time any more, which is great for those of us who like to mix it up.
Hold on, we’re not done eating quite yet. What’s an Easter holiday without a little something sugary?
Directly across the street is a Taiwanese dessert joint called Sweet Memory. It’s actually dusty, dimly lit with red lanterns and kind of scary inside. The tables are rickety and short. There is a creepy collection of fantastical Ming-dynasty warrior dolls trapped in a glass display against a blazing, sunset backdrop; a weird wooden-slatted canteen in the middle of the room; and faded pin-up girls on cement-block walls. It looks like a haunted house.
“My mother would run screaming out of here,” my friend Lee Man says.
But they do offer some weirdly wonderful desserts (in addition to boiled pork intestines on rice). There is an exceptionally smooth, homemade tofu pudding, strawberry hotpots, pillowy slices of gooey marshmallow toast and big bowls of fluffy shaved ice topped with taro balls, condensed milk or balsamic-glazed tomatoes.
Before we depart, another friend in the party returns from having a cigarette. “I couldn’t figure why there were so many single men outside,” another friend chuckles. “Then I realized that there’s a massage parlour next door.”
Good Lord, welcome to dark side of Richmond, where the black sheep tend to flock.