Skip to main content
the dish

Chef Felix Zhou presents the chicken rice bowl at the Heritage Asian EateryBen Nelms/The Globe and Mail

The pork belly at Heritage Asian Eatery is a thing of beauty. When portioned into tall squares, it looks like a fluffy block of frosted cake. The thick base of sweetly aromatic, fork-shreddable meat (cured for three days in shaoxing wine and house-made five-spice powder) is topped with a pale layer of melt-in-the-mouth fat (rendered marshmallowy from a slow braise, after which the skin is peeled back) and glazed in a runny sauce (reduced from the braising juices and duck-bone stock).

The classic, time-intensive technique that goes into making each piece is what one might anticipate from a chef as serious as Felix Zhou, who apprenticed at Vancouver's West Restaurant, worked in London for hotshot Simon Rogan, then returned to Vancouver to lead the kitchens at the Parker, Big Trouble Chinatown and (briefly) Beach Bay Café.

Yet who would expect to find such finessed cooking at a casual counter service eatery where the kitchen closes at 8 p.m., the menu is lit up on a retro-diner letter board and the dishes top out at $15?

Take a look inside Heritage Asian Eatery

Surprising, yes. But perhaps a sign of things to come in a city where commercial real-estate prices are out-of-reach, skilled staff is in short supply and a new generation is demanding better work-life balance. Mr. Zhou, 28, weighed all these variables when opening his first restaurant with partners Natasha Romero (the co-owner of West Vancouver's the Anchor Eatery) and Paul Zhang (a former owner of several franchises, including Uncle Fatih's Pizza and Donair Dude).

The small, narrow storefront (formerly a law office) in the Coal Harbour financial district, which is bustling with office workers by day, but fairly quiet at night, lent itself to a fast-food concept.

After gutting the space and giving it a humble retrofit with an exposed ceiling, polished concrete floor, industrial pendant lighting and rustic wooden tables, Heritage Asian Eatery opened last fall. At first, it served only breakfast and lunch. Then it expanded to an early dinner service, and more recently weekend brunch.

The first time I tried that luscious pork belly, it was sliced into a squishy bao bun smeared with sticky house-made hoisin sauce, stuffed with crunchy kimchi-daikon fingers and spilling over the edges with crispy fried onions. My fellow judges and I for the Chinese Restaurant Awards were so impressed with the flavourful sandwich, we chose it as one of 10 signature dishes for this year's Critic's Choice awards.

The pork belly also comes in a rice bowl, one of several types that include duck, marinated eggplant and fried chicken. The latter comes with a terrifically zingy scallion-ginger mince (almost as good as they make, minus the MSG, at HK BBQ Master in Richmond.) Topped with bright yuzu slaw, fresh watercress, more crispy onions, various fermented veggies and a fudgy slow-cooked egg, the bowls make a wholesome, filling, texturally satisfying meal.

For brunch, the pork belly comes in a massive spread called the Big One, replete with three poached eggs, lightly lemony Hollandaise, shredded duck leg, green-onion pancakes and potato rosti (shatteringly crisp sticks that yield to a pillowy soft interior).

There is an awful lot of repetition on the menu, with the same proteins and fixings popping up in various iterations, and several meat sauces repurposed for vegetable dishes. For example, the duck's Peking sauce (nicely acidulated with tamarind) is also used for the shiitake bao, giving the shrooms more meaty heft. The chili-ginger-garlic dressing drizzled over thinly sliced beef tataki shows up again in the (beautifully deep-fried) eggplant bowls.

But the sameness makes sense for a tiny kitchen that cooks almost everything from scratch. And when the quality is this good, the star ingredients don't become tiresome.

Granted, there are a few loose threads. The green-onion pancakes are a bit too raw and floury, while the wrappers for the pork dumplings (a limited-time special) were thick and hard around the edges. Deep-fried cauliflower is soggy, heavily saturated with oil and sprinkled with a hot spice mix (the same used for dry-baked chicken wings) that is overwhelming salty.

But for every dud, there is a tightly woven winner. The udon bowl, ringed like a wreath with slivered nori, shimeji mushrooms, kimchi daikon and ginger-scallion sauce, is served with a runny poached egg for piercing and swirling that makes it more of a carbonara-style pasta than a soup. It's a sensational dish, as is the breakfast congee, pan-cooked to order with a brightly floral, white-pepper duck stock until it comes together like gluey risotto.

Come summer (once a liquor licence is, with hope, approved), Mr. Zhou plans to roll out a small happy-hour menu with snack-sized finger foods. And if business continues to pick up, he might extend the dinner hour.

It's great to see a modest counter-service restaurant that puts out really flavourful, high-quality fast food grown organically. There are many cheap, casual concepts sprouting up all over Vancouver these days. But rarely do you find one with such integrity and soul.