Fat Dragon Bar-B-Q
566 Powell St., Vancouver
$120 for dinner for two with drinks, tax and tip
Cuisine: Asian fusion
Vegetarians, beware. And no, I'm not referring to the pink-tented tunnel entrance, which vaguely looks like fiery dragon's breath, among other things that start with the letter v.
Fat Dragon may offer non-meat eaters several options. But if you think you might be offended by the sight of a smoked pig head – served on a family-style platter with ears, snout and teeth intact being ravenously picked apart with chopsticks – steer clear of this audacious new barbecue joint. (For everyone else, the crispy cranium is a must-try.)
I use the term "barbecue" loosely, because Southern Q doesn't adequately describe the kitchen's intriguing slow-smoked nose-to-tail cooking. Nor does Asian fusion, which could mean almost anything, especially in Vancouver. What we actually have here is a pan-Asian menu – from Indonesian gado-gado salad to northern Thai pork links – infused with wood-smouldered twang.
The Downtown Eastside restaurant, owned by the same team that brought us Campagnolo, Campagnolo ROMA and the now defunct Fuel (later renamed Refuel), borrows heavily from New York chef David Chang and his nouveau Korean school of fatty off-cuts, stuffed bao buns and soft-serve ice cream. But Fat Dragon's Ole Hickory Smoker gives it an original, mouth-watering spin, and the Asian elements are executed with balanced delicacy.
Well, there's nothing remotely subtle about the half pig's head, which is cured overnight in salt and sugar, then smoked for 18 hours over maple, apple and cherry woods. After being ordered, the porcine pate is roasted for 30 minutes, with most of its thick cheek skin peeled back to brown the thick layer of gelatinous fat underneath. Imagine the plush texture of a bacon marshmallow camp-fired to a golden crisp.
There are more tasty parts (fleshy jowls and ruby red neck flakes) for excavating. Just don't try chewing the ear and risk breaking a tooth. The platter is served with spicy bean sprout kimchi, soothing ginger-cilantro chutney, ground crackling, lemon wedges and a big bowl of lettuce leaves, for slathering, squeezing and wrapping. Though it really should come with more than one knife.
Get your elbows up. There's something about a pig's head that makes carnivores childishly excited.
The $45 price tag seems awfully steep for a throwaway appendage, especially when $5 can buy an entire hog head at 88 Super Market. Mind you, these are premium noggins (from Sloping Hill and Gelderman farms) that could easily satisfy a hungry family of five with a couple of appetizers added on.
And isn't it just great to see a restaurant paying respect to the whole hog philosophy by showcasing the odd bits, instead of just slicing the cheeks into guanciale and grinding the rest into salami?
Soy-marinated pork trotters are given a similar shock treatment, with a giant gnarly hoof poking out of an enameled cast-iron crock. More conventionally minded diners may want to opt for the Flintstones-esque beef ribs (a perfect blend of sweet sugar glaze and Asian crackle), smoked duck and chicken, or some of the seafood dishes, which include whole sea bass steamed in banana leaves and smoke-fried Dungeness crab.
Smaller meat dishes are created with similar dashes of succulence and derring-do. Lamb heart larb is lightly smoked (the traditional northeast Thai dish is often served raw), finely diced and tossed with chili, onions, mint and toasted rice. It could use a bit more seasoning. But the thick-cut, Szechuan-peppercorn-cured pork belly is absolutely divine right down to the last squishy bite of crust-less white bread dripped with meat juices.
Whatever you order, start with the house-steamed boa buns – all four if you can manage it. Crunchy squid and smoked kabocha squash are my favourites for textural contrast, though the marinated tofu is surprisingly meaty and the slow-beef deckle (or brisket) is fall-apart tender.
You'll want to add some veggies to cut through all the richness. Skip the crispy cauliflower (ridiculously priced at $16 for a big head of smoky blandness). The slivered green papaya and cabbage salad buried under a heap of fried shallots is a much better bet.
Wash it all down with a drink or two from Fat Dragon's amply stocked bar, which features creative cocktails (love the refreshing chili-sherry shaken Lotusland), several non-alcoholic tipples and a discerning selection of craft beer and wines (Driftwood White Bark Ales brightens all Asian flavours, while the grüner veltliner has enough acidity to cut through those pillowy pork cheeks).
Save room for the daily cone of soft-serve ice cream in such refreshing flavours as Thai basil, ginger and kaffir lime leaf. Or take a toasted rice, coconut and cinnamon milk chocolate bar to go (the entire menu is actually available for takeout).
Located a few steps away from Oppenheimer Park, Fat Dragon isn't a restaurant you're likely to stumble across. But with its excellent barbecue, daring menu, modest décor and down-to-earth service, it's an out-of-the-way destination that deserves a visit. And once you taste that succulent pig's head, I honestly swear you'll want to go back for more.