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Pulled Pork Pancakes with Jack Daniels maple syrup are served at the Red Wagon Cafe, 2296 East Hastings Street in Vancouver, BC.

Red Wagon Café
(604) 568-4565
$35 for breakfast for two with coffee, tax and tip

Sitting at a window table in the Red Wagon Café, I feel as if time has been trapped in a Fred Herzog photograph. Mr. Herzog, for those who haven't had the pleasure, is one of Vancouver's great flaneurs, a gentleman observer who strolled the streets in the 1950s and 1960s capturing the city's raw urban underbelly - the barbershops, vacant lots, screaming neon billboards and greasy spoons - in brilliant Kodachrome colour.

Fast-forward to the present day, to this weathered, working-class strip in Hastings-Sunrise. Squinting into the setting sun, I watch a Filipino grocer lock up a storefront plastered with garish yellow-and-red signage and do a double take when a young woman totters by in glittery, royal-blue platform stilettos.

The gritty streetscape feels vibrant and real, almost hyper-real. As does this diner, which hurtles us back to a simpler time when cows weren't jacked up on hormones and corn was grown for humans to eat.

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Unlike many of the retro theme-ride lunch counters that have become trendy of late, the Red Wagon Café hasn't been fancied up or glossed over with kitsch. The plate-glass windows, frosted pendant lights and pale-wood panelling have all been here for decades. Mismatched plates with faded trim were inherited from a succession of Chinese-Canadian restaurants that previously inhabited the space. A rusted Coca-Cola sign was salvaged from underneath the old wok burners. Even the new additions - the sagging particleboard shelves behind the turquoise server station, for instance - have a comfortable, lived-in look.

All this nostalgia isn't meant to imply that I'm averse to the progress. Have you ever eaten at the Ovaltine Café? It is not a pleasant experience. The grub at the Red Wagon Café, made with high-quality ingredients, is infinitely more flavourful than the average greasy spoon.

Owner Brad Miller has been serving all-day breakfast and lunch since he opened the restaurant last fall. Having recently acquired a liquor licence, he now also offers dinner Tuesday to Saturday. Weekend brunch is booming. And after the first bite of pulled-pork pancakes - yes, pulled pork pancakes - you'll understand why, on a busy Saturday morning, customers will patiently wait 20 to 30 minutes for a table.

I must admit that I was skeptical about this dish, which consists of three buttermilk pancakes layered with house-smoked pulled pork, all doused in Jack Daniels maple syrup. Though it sounds gluttonous, this is a match made in heaven. The pancakes here are fluffy and savoury, with no sugar added to the batter, so why not sandwich them between shredded, slow-cooked pork (or firm tofu)? The meat is soft and moist, bathed in a juicy barbecue sauce that gently swings between hot and tangy notes. The boozy maple-whisky sauce is goosed with fat pats of melting butter.

"Order it," I urged everyone in line when I swooned out after breakfast still licking my lips.

There are other draws. The pork belly confit - served with two eggs, chunky home fries, griddled tomatoes, fiery salsa verde and lemony hollandaise - is very good. The fatty slab is thickly streaked with sweet, smoky meat that's been rubbed with Chinese five-spice powder and nicely crisped.

The Casa del Caffe coffee - bottomless, yet short on bite - was a bit of a letdown. But the toast, thick-sliced light rye from Richmond's Island City Baking, is amazing. It really tastes of rye. Service is laid back and super friendly.

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"I like the simple done well," says Mr. Miller, who has worked at Bistro Pastis, West and Au Petit Chavignol. "Everyone wants to cook the fancy food. But I find that people are ecstatic when they get their eggs cooked correctly."

The dinner menu, which launched about a month ago, follows a similar philosophy. There are the basic diner dishes done well. This includes items like thick hamburgers made with grass-fed meat that tastes earthy and full-bodied, like the beef you ate as a kid. And the smoked short rib sandwich, a rare-cooked roast sliced really thin and slathered with melting Brie, sherry-sautéed onions and arugula on a ciabatta bun. The latter is served with hot, home-fried chips.

Then there are the specials, mostly French bistro classics, like pork rillettes and chicken liver parfait. A frisée salad with poached free-range egg (now added to the regular menu) is tossed with thickly cubed homemade lardons. The only quibble about the mussels, a large bowl simmered in a chunky tomato and wine broth, is that it's served with only one small toast point. This is a dish that cries out for a big, crusty baguette to sop up all the juices.

Desserts are limited. There is an apple cake, which sounds delicious, or an extremely buttery almond cake with hand-churned vanilla ice cream, which tastes delicious. The wine list is fairly priced. We had a decent bottle of Argentine malbec for $32.

But the best part about dinner? Those crazy-good pulled pork pancakes are served all day.

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