Uncle’s Snack Shop
8180 Westminster Hwy, Richmond, B.C.
Open daily, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Patio, no delivery
18 East Pender St., Vancouver
Open Tuesday to Sunday, 11:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.
No patio, delivery (ubereats.com)
The marvellous Bunny Burger at Kouign Café in Vancouver’s Chinatown isn’t actually a burger.
It’s a mortadella sandwich squished between a black sesame sourdough baguette that has a curiously bruised-purple crumb. It’s layered with melted gouda, Kewpie mayonnaise, house-made kimchi and a thick, chunky swipe of gloriously vibrant mint, Thai basil and lemongrass salsa verde.
Andrew Han created his Bunny in homage to the Benny’s Burgers (also made with mortadella) at Benny’s Market, an iconic Italian deli on Union Street, where he used to grab lunch as a kid, whenever his mother gave him a dollar to splurge.
“I loved those sandwiches,” Mr. Han enthuses. “And I miss my childhood, how free and magical everything felt then. I want to share that magic and make food that takes people to a time and place that was happier.”
Likewise, the corn dog at Uncle’s Snack Shop in Richmond isn’t exactly the same as the ones sold at Disneyland.
This garlicky twist on the carnival classic starts with a sweet, charbroiled Taiwanese sausage flecked with large hunks of fat. It’s hand-dipped to order in a standard corn batter that fries up thick and spongy. Then it’s served with an explosive flavour bomb on the side – soy sauce infused with brown sugar, chili and raw garlic.
“Disneyland is my favourite place in the world,” says chef-owner Kevin Lin. “Me and Steph [his girlfriend] kill ourselves eating way too many corn dogs whenever we go. So this was the first dish to hit the menu. I just want to make food that’s fun and playful, but a little closer to home.”
These two new Asian eateries – a Richmond snack shop and a Chinatown café – were both born during the pandemic and are deeply steeped in nostalgia.
They offer comfort foods that are bold and colourful with unusual twists and big dollops of whimsy.
The flavour memories they are meant to evoke might not be familiar to everyone, but the bittersweet cravings baked into every delectable bite will ring true. After a long year of isolation, loneliness, pent-up wanderlust and pandemic frustration, this is exactly the type of food we all need right now.
Uncle’s Snack Shop was originally a Phase 2 project, scheduled to open after the three partners, Mr. Lin, Patrick Do (Do Chay Saigon Vegetarian) and Osric Chau (a screenwriter) got their first Vancouver project up and running: Saola, a modern Asian restaurant on Main Street.
Although they had hoped to open Saola in February, they are still waiting for city permit approval to begin building – and paying $13,000 in rent. Losing money hand over fist, they got cracking on Uncle’s and opened last month.
The cheerful fast-food outlet, with its bright yellow awning and sky-blue patio, is located in a strip mall where Green Lemongrass used to stand. The Vietnamese restaurant, owned by Mr. Do’s uncle, was where he and Mr. Chau used to hang out every day after high school.
Before this, Mr. Lin was a longtime manager and sommelier for the Global Group.
The small menu is a fatty, deep-fried, addictively delicious amalgamation of their collective childhood memories, cooked with grownup flair and garnished with an eye for Instagram.
The fried Chick Sandys, made with dark drumstick meat, are battered in a thick, crunchy popcorn-chicken-like coating. The scallion-ginger oil on the OG is terrifically punchy. But the fry bread sandwich, with its crackly curry leaves and buttery salted-egg-yolk coating, is the standout.
For snacking, there are honey-garlic chicken knees (like the chicken cartilage served at dim sum) crunchy chicken skins and tater tots with shaker toppings.
Nearly half the dishes are vegan, including the inventive mapo tofu made with Impossible ground meat, and an incredibly zingy, wonderfully textured pomelo salad punctuated with fresh mint, pickled watermelon rind and a spicy tamarind dressing.
Each day, Mr. Lin comes up with a daily feature that is reminiscent of the easy, quickly assembled dinners his parents used to make him – things such as Bolognese over rice and chicken mushroom with crispy noodles.
They’ve struck a nostalgic chord. “Pure Asian-kid, after-school snack genius,” wrote one happy customer.
Back in Chinatown, Kouign Café (pronounced “kween”) is named after the buttery Breton cake. But here they are baked with White Rabbit candies, as are Mr. Han’s famous white rabbit cookies.
For those who don’t know, White Rabbits are beloved Chinese milk candies wrapped in edible rice paper.
Mr. Han, like many Asian kids, has fond memories of shopping in Chinatown, very close to where he grew up, with his mother. On days when he was exceptionally well behaved – or intolerably cranky – she’d buy him a bag of White Rabbit candies.
Back then, they were soft and creamy, almost like toffee. Today, the candies are hard and brittle. But by baking them into the cookies and pastries, which are studded with dark chocolate chips and Maldon sea salt, he is able to restore their chewy texture.
“Each item on the menu tells a story and describes a significant memory from my childhood,” Mr. Han says.
The Lunchbox cookie, with its spicy peanut dough folded with Chinese sausage, pork floss, nori and white sesame seeds, are a magical combination of the flavours he used to take to school.
The dreamy Tea sandwich is egg salad marinated in black tea, cinnamon, star anise and dashi broth, in honour of the Vietnamese soy-tea broths his mom used to make.
Mr. Han, a former government worker who went back to culinary school late in life, first launched his cookies and pastries at the Ca Phe Vietnamese coffee bar pop-up in Chinatown. They were a local phenomenon that sold like hot cakes.
His own storefront, in the Chinatown Cultural Centre, opened in August. When the pandemic hit, he tried to get out of his lease. A few months later, when he lost his Instagram account and primary source of marketing, he really had his doubts. His sister convinced him to stay the course.
“People have been waiting for you since the pop-up,” she said. “They’ve been waiting for these cookies and they need them more than ever right now.”
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