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Feel like Chinese in Vancouver? Follow the heat

At Spicy Beauty, dishes show off the chef’s creativity.

Laura Leyshon/The Globe and Mail

When Chinese families across Metro Vancouver gather for their New Year festivities this weekend, the dining tables will look drastically different than they did a decade ago.

There will be dumplings galore, dumplings being the most auspicious celebratory dish in northern Chinese cuisines. But the banquet boards will also be laden with water-boiled fish swimming in fire-engine red chili oil, cumin-scented lamb, smoked pork, pickled peppers, preserved mustard greens and cold-poached chicken smothered in dried chilis and tingly Sichuan peppercorns.

The recent explosion of Mainland Chinese immigration has brought drastic change to local Chinese cooking. Goodbye, mild Cantonese. Hello, spicy Sichuan.

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The immigration patterns are quite astounding. According to Andy Yan, an urban researcher with Bing Thom Architects, Mandarin speakers from Mainland China and elsewhere, including Taiwan, increased 91 per cent between 2001 and 2011. (The numbers are based upon the Canadian census question of "language spoken most often at home." While there were some changes in measuring methodology, he says the numbers are comparable.)

Vancouver's new diversity and taste for bolder flavours is the largest trend in Chinese dining. To celebrate the year of the snake, I called upon some of my favourite Chinese-food feasting partners to share their best-of restaurant list. Although I wouldn't recommend heading to any of these eateries this weekend unless you made reservations months ago, we hope it will help you navigate the new spice trail.

Spicy Beauty: 1707 Kingsway, Vancouver; 604-559-6611

The newest Sichuan restaurant on the scene isn't the greatest. Mutton with wild pickled peppers was overly marinated and spongy the night I visited. And many of the dishes tasted dark and acrid, as if the chilis had lingered too long in a sizzling wok. But the chef, who is actually Sichuanese and cooked at a high-end Sichuan restaurant in a Hong Kong hotel before coming to Vancouver, shows creativity: the spiral crackers added to his chili chicken are a decidedly modern textural innovation. The spiffy décor – dark wooden tables and chairs are all imported from China – is a step up from the standard hole-in-the-wall linoleum.

Ma La Niu Niu (Spice Girl Hotpot): 1185-8580 Alexandra Rd., Richmond; 604-303-0086

All-you-can-eat hotpot is the most popular way to eat Sichuan in Vancouver, says food blogger Fernando Medrano of Whereas a Japanese hotpot is served with one shared vat of boiling broth in which to dip your meat and vegetables, a Sichuan hotpot is split into two sides – one hot, one mild. "I'm a spice fiend," Mr. Medrano says. "But this one was a challenge."

Alvin Garden: 4850 Imperial St., Burnaby; 604-437-0828

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If Sichuan's distinctive ma la seasoning is too numbing for your palate, you might enjoy the chili-oil-glistened shininess of Hunan cuisine. Rather than just piling on the mentholated peppercorns, Hunan uses more pickled peppers, smoking and braised meats. The food can be blistering hot at this little place in Burnaby, especially if you order da la (which literally means big heat). "But there's a tightness and focus to the cooking," food writer Lee Man says. "You can taste the underlying freshness." Mr. Man recommends beef stir-fried with pickled pepper, Hunan bacon with smoked bamboo shoots, sliced pig heart and the celery and tofu skin salad.

Lucky Noodle: 3-3377 Kingsway, Vancouver; 604-430-8818

Another Hunan restaurant, the cooking here is a bit more rustic, a little less finessed than Alvin Garden. Lucky does a bang-up job of dongting (water-boiled fish in chili soup). "It gives you a big punch in the face," exclaims Mr. Medrano, who also suggests ordering anything with house-made bacon and smoked bamboo. I vouch for the sour shredded potatoes with chili. It's like Chinese poutine.

Li's China Grill: 4-3377 Kingsway, Vancouver; 604-568-1832

Located next door to Lucky Noodle, Li's is a Sichuan barbecue joint that specializes in Chongqing grilled fish, which is apparently very trendy in Singapore and Beijing. Served whole, the fish (here it's typically rock cod, ling cod or catfish) is grilled in the kitchen then served at the table (in a big sharing pan over a butane burner) heaped with a choice of four toppings. Mr. Medrano and friends preferred the dry chili rub. "It had a nice char and smokiness. It tasted like a beach fish fry in Thailand."

Corner 23: 4008 Cambie St., Vancouver; 604-879-8815

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Taiwanese cuisine, a reflection of its multicultural population, is influenced by aboriginal, Japanese, Fujian, Hakka and Sichuan flavours. Stephanie Yuen, author of the new cookbook East Meets West, recommends this quirky sit-down bubble tea café for a twist on spicy Chinese cooking. Although best known for its pork hocks, Corner 23 does a decent spicy noodle beef soup. (For an exemplary version of this richly braised dish, try Chef Hung in Richmond or West Vancouver).

New Spicy Chili: 160-4200 No. 3 Rd., Richmond; 604-273-3388

The beef brisket and tripe at this newly renamed (formerly Golden Spring) Sichuan restaurant was raved about by almost everyone I spoke to. A typical northern Chinese dish, known as Husband and Wife Lung, the braised beef is chilled, sliced extremely thin and tossed with cilantro and peanuts.

Nine Dishes: 960 Kingsway, 778-282-8699

Everyone loves Nine Dishes. Not because of the food, which is basic Sichuan at best. But because of the owner, an eccentric named Yves Shen, who presides over the gonzo atmosphere. Want to eat? Fill out your own order and bring it to him at the counter. Feel like rice? Go scoop it out of the cooker in the corner. Thirsty? The choice is beer or beer, but it's only $2 a bottle. Dry sausage, studded with peppercorns and thinly sliced, is the house specialty. You might also want to try cumin-grilled lamb shoulder skewers and boiled fish served in a metal tureen. Mr. Shen presents the fish with a ceremonial flourish, scooping off what looks like two pounds of dry chilis to reveal velvety poached basa filets floating in oil. But if you want to take home the leftovers, you'll have to pack it yourself.

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