I pause in the doorway at Chinatown BBQ, soaking up the sweet, roasted scent of golden-lacquered ducks and crisp pork bellies that are hanging off hooks in an old-fashioned storefront frame overlooking the servery. A grey-haired Chinese man bumps into me on his way out.
"Sorry, sorry, sorry!" he exclaims, jostling his knotted plastic bags as he grabs the door and graciously gestures for me to enter. "I hope you enjoy your dinner."
At first, I think he must be an employee, leaving to make a delivery. Then I realize he is just another customer – an extremely happy one, at that – who has claimed a charming sense of ownership to this casual diner, one which offers a promising glimpse into the neighbourhood's future through a reflection of its past.
Opened in November, Chinatown BBQ is owned by Carol Lee, a powerhouse businesswoman, philanthropist, culture maven and, now, reluctant restaurateur. Her office, headquarters to Linacare Cosmetherapy Inc., is located across the street, behind the restored façade of a century-plus heritage building that once housed her grandfather's dry goods and furnishings store and has been owned by her family since 1921.
For years, Ms. Lee watched Vancouver's historic Chinatown hollow out and fall into decline as shops closed and the local Chinese community migrated to other areas of town.
In 2009, she established the Vancouver Chinatown Foundation, which has now raised more than $2.5-milllion to retain affordable housing for low-income seniors (it purchased and is now restoring the May Wah Hotel); build a major new health and housing project (a proposal to rezone 58 West Hastings St. for a 10-storey mixed-use building was heard by Vancouver city council this week); and create new cultural spaces (the Chinatown Storytelling Centre will be going into the old Bank of Montreal at 168 East Pender St.).
But for Ms. Lee, a vibrant Chinatown also had to include affordable restaurants, which are so integral to Chinese culture. Three years ago, afraid that all the old storefronts were going to be filled with taco shops and hipster clothing stores that had no relation to the neighbourhood's history, she bought two restaurant businesses and rented a third space, a former pottery shop, which has been turned into Chinatown BBQ and is the first to open. (Disclosure: I participated in a gala auction benefiting the foundation, which sold two buy-out dinners at the restaurant for $30,000 a piece. I'll be one of several celebrity servers.)
Ms. Lee says she had three guiding principles when building the restaurant, something she had no experience doing and still can't quite believe she did: The look and feel of the place had to capture the historic spirit of Chinatown; the food had to be good (and obviously Cantonese); and it had to be affordable enough to ensure the low-income seniors who still populate the neighbourhood feel like they belong.
She has succeeded on all counts.
With the help of local restaurant designer Craig Stanghetta, Chinatown BBQ looks like a well-preserved time capsule. Simple yet cozy, it has creamy white walls punctuated with emerald-green wood panelling, bright-red chairs (retrieved from Foo's) and black-and-white checkered flooring. The booths are spacious, the walls are covered in old photographs and the pendant lighting glows warmly. Even the table legs are turned in the style of the period. As a bonus, the wallpapered bathrooms appointed with antique cabinetry are the cutest to ever grace a Chinese restaurant in this city. "I tried to elevate some elements," Ms. Lee laughs over the phone.
A classic barbecue menu is prepared daily by the husband-and-wife chef team who used to work at nearby Daisy Garden, until it burned down in 2014. The generously sized chef's plate ($14.50) over rice includes crispy-skinned pork belly with thick fat melting through tender layers of plump meat, addictively chewy honey-glazed barbecue pork and sweetly marinated soy-sauce chicken drizzled with green-onion-and-ginger sauce.
I also recommend the roast duck (darkly caramelized and moistly puffy when freshly chopped) and the beef brisket curry (thick and spicy, with warm notes of five-spice powder and melting hunks of meat that are slowly braised until they are just about to fall apart).
There is a whiff of palate-parching MSG in the food, so be warned. And the stir-fried gailan, while brightly green, perfectly crisp and carefully cut with a leaf to each stem, might be a bit garlicky for some. Overall, it's not quite as tasty as HK BBQ Master in Richmond (my personal favourite), but it is what it is – comforting, simple and true to tradition.
Since I visited in December, the restaurant has been licensed to serve beer and wine. And come spring, noodles will be added to the menu, along with later opening hours. I should also add that the service is incredibly sweet and attentive.
But the best part of the Chinatown BBQ experience is the mixed crowds it is already attracting. The booths are filled with happy seniors, such as the gentleman I encountered in the doorway. There are also families, cool teenagers in groups, serious foodies snapping up photographs for Instagram and couples on dates. Ms. Lee set out to build a nostalgic space for the existing community and ended up creating something new that is welcoming to everyone.