I wonder if this is what the original Momofuku felt like, back before David Chang's noodle bar in New York's East Village exploded into an empire.
We're at Dunlevy SnackBar on Dunlevy Avenue, a scrubby side street in Vancouver's Chinatown. Nestled alongside a sad little florist with browning spider plants on display and the cheerful headquarters of the Strathcona Midwifery Collective, this unassuming restaurant is a subtle beacon of gentrification.
The front windows are fogged over with steam and the air is sweetly pungent from a fresh batch of ginger syrup. It's a late-night spot that does not really get going until 9 p.m., when the DJs arrive to spin their vinyl (ambient, bossa nova or bedroom rap, depending on the evening) and an artsy crowd spills in for a frequent rotation of launches and happenings, all accompanied by killer cocktails and tasty Korean-fried-chicken buns.
Proprietor Theo Lloyd-Kohls has heard the comparison to Momofuku countless times and says he is always flattered. He readily admits he is not trying to reinvent the wheel. He just wanted to create a contemporary, on-trend menu that was reasonably priced and a comfortable fit for both the depressed neighbourhood and the Dunlevy's tiny open kitchen.
"I want to have really good quality everything – visuals, music, food – that creates a vibe and is welcoming to a lot of people," says the peripatetic hipster, who has studied culinary arts, theatre and interior design.
And it is a very nice hangout for food and culture enthusiasts of all stripes. The narrow space (a former hair salon) is Spartan, yet eclectic. There are Chinese caricatures on the front window and a menu on the back wall composed with sandwich-board style stickies. The tables are made of floorboards from the old Pantages Theatre, and the bar counter is fronted by humble pegboard. Currently, the walls and ceilings are appointed with sparkly paper-ring and yellow-yarn installations by local artist Maya Beaudry.
The drinks are of the same calibre you would find in any of Vancouver's fine craft cocktail bars. Do try the Gershwin, a floral ambrosial stirred with gin, vodka, ginger syrup and rose water. Or the fernet and rootbeer-bitter fortified 4:11 for a concoction more bracing. Plenty of well-edited craft beers are available, although the wine selection is limited to one cheap Spanish red blend and a sweet Hungarian pinot grigio.
But what more do you need when dining on okonomiyaki (a greasy Japanese shredded-cabbage pancake) and Khmer roasted peanuts (addictively candied in lime, sugar and soy)?
When the Dunlevy SnackBar opened three years ago, it was a simple coffee, brunch and lunch spot that hosted private events in the evening. Mr. Lloyds-Kohls, who came to Vancouver from Toronto to study mime, fell in love with the Downtown Eastside while volunteering at the Carnegie Centre.
Raised in a foodie family (his mother ran the artistically inclined and widely renowned Treadle's Café in Pembroke, Ont.), he decided to create his dream restaurant in the under-serviced neighbourhood.
Last summer, he hired Aarin Smith (formerly of Toronto's Grand Electric, a trendy taco spot) on a short-term contract. The new dinner menu is a medley of Asian-inspired small plates for sharing. There is a bibimbap rice bowl piled high with shiitake mushrooms and a soft-boiled egg, a crunchy yam salad stirred with puffed funky homemade kimchi. The pickled preserves are actually better than those found in most Korean restaurants.
The steamed buns, à la Momofuku, are the standout. Filled with buttery pork belly and spicy lime gochujang, crispy fried chicken and lime mayo or smoked tofu and tangy shredded potatoes, they're finger-licking delicious and a good deal for $5 apiece.
The only dessert item is a seasonal crepe folded with apple compote, caramel sauce and sharp candied ginger. If you'd like to try everything on the menu, you can have it all for $55. It would easily feed a group of four.
Some might say Dunlevy SnackBar is a hipster restaurant. But that implies a certain level of pretension. Nothing about this place is pretentious. Even though the staff look uber cool in their handlebar mustaches and matte black lips, they're really friendly and lovely. Customers come in all age brackets. And everyone seems chill.
If the benches were a little more comfortable (my only complaint), I'd be hanging here all the time.