Let me tell you about the time I went to Richmond for Szechuan food and fell down the proverbial rabbit hole.
On a quiet side street beside Costco, there is a three-storey clad in pebbledash, red banners and assorted signage emblazoned with crescent moons. Entering from the front foyer, you can either, a) climb a tall wooden staircase that leads to a locked gate, beyond which lies a warren of small offices behind closed doors, or, b) go straight and enter a spacious restaurant with a soaring atrium that looks like a Mad Hatter's tea party held in an all-night dance club.
Sugary Cantopop blares from a high-tech karaoke stage beside the front door. Oversized, wavy-backed sofa booths upholstered in dusty mauve are mounted on step-up platforms set against a wall of tall windows draped in gauzy sheers. A massive crystal chandelier hangs from the coffered ceiling above. In the back, there is a more casual café-style seating area and covered patio. Bright neon lights blink, flash and strobe everywhere.
Welcome to the newly resurrected Nine Dishes, the spicy domain of self-taught chef and mad scientist Yue Shen, who prefers to be called "If" – because it reminds him that "life is full of possibilities."
A former hippie and electronics engineer, he studied at a Beijing university and previously worked at an optical-research institute developing laser technology. After years of travelling around the world, he landed in Vancouver and opened the original Nine Dishes on Kingsway in 2010.
The casual hole-in-the-wall developed a cult following for its mouth-burning water-boiled fish, spicy skewers and cold "drooling" chicken, all washed down with $2 bottles of Yanjing beer. The eccentric owner was a big part of the appeal. When he was in a good mood, he'd pick up his guitar and strum the blues. When he was in a cranky mood, he'd spend the whole night playing solitaire. Thirsty? He'd drop off a six-pack and an opener. Want rice? Help yourself, he'd say, nodding to the self-serve cooker in the corner.
Last winter, about two years after the original Nine Dishes closed down without warning (the landlord apparently sold the building to a developer), Mr. Shen quietly opened in this new location off the beaten track.
When I first visited in April, the restaurant was empty, save for a young Caucasian hipster couple that sat down, looked around, perused the menu, then promptly stood up and walked out. There had obviously been customers earlier in the evening, as several tables were covered in dirty dishes. The bathroom was also a mess. Mr. Shen didn't say much. He spent most of the night behind the bar, scrolling through his phone and passing our plates over the counter.
Even at its original location, the beer-drinking pub fare was never spectacular. But that night, the water-boiled fish served in a tureen of dried chili peppers was slicked with a one-note pool of oil that seemed thicker than normal. The deep-fried Thousand Chili Chicken nuggets were a little bit greasier. The hand-cut noodles were grey and lifeless. The smashed cucumbers were pulverized into a sloppy mash. The fried potatoes doused in black vinegar were undercooked and crunchy – although still immensely addictive. The lamb skewers were gristly.
Perhaps Nine Dishes was always this way. But relocated in this Disney-esque mausoleum, it had lost its former charm. And what about those empty offices upstairs? Was the restaurant a cover for an underground massage parlour?
Curiouser and curiouser! As I later discovered, this is Café 1029, a Mainland Chinese crowdfunding club that costs $10,000 to join and has earned its own fair share of controversial notoriety. One of the members was a fan of Mr. Shen's cooking on Kingsway and asked him to set up independently downstairs. The bizarre decor was inherited from three cafés and restaurants that previously occupied the space.
I returned with a friend who has attended a couple of pitch meetings in the upper offices. He made the reservation with Mr. Shen through WeChat. It was a very different experience.
This time, the restaurant was busier and the customers awfully eclectic. Sitting across from us was a mother and son, she casually dressed in a girly eyelet sunhat, he in shorts and sneakers. Beside them was a handsome couple who appeared to have sprung from the pages of a glossy fashion magazine, he in a three-piece suit and bright harlequin-patterned silk socks, she in silver slippers. (The latter must have been club members.)
Mr. Shen was in a chipper mood, coming to our table frequently to chat and drop off complimentary morsels, including an excellent lotus-root sandwich (lightly deep-fried in an airy batter and stuffed with minced pork).
This time, accompanied by my friend's wife, who once lived in Beijing and has travelled extensively through northern China, we ordered better.
Highly recommended is the Old Jar Pickle Fish, which is only advertised on the daily specials menu written in Mandarin (#801). Although similar to the more familiar water-boiled spicy fish – with thinly sliced Dover sole simmered in a spicy broth of hot dried chili peppers, mentholated Sichuan peppercorns and sweet chili bean paste – this dish had a special sour tang from the addition of house-pickled mustard greens. The chartreuse soup was thick, rich and glistening (not coated) with oil. Big chunks of ginger added another layer of complex spice. And the tingly, numbing ma la flavour – the key characteristic of spicy Szechuan cooking – sneaked up slowly on the back of the throat, rather than beating you breathless.
Huge braised pork balls, a Shanghainese specialty often called Lion's Head when served with a "mane" of bok choy, were juicy, light and airy. Were they fluffed up with mashed tofu, we wondered, or milk-soaked bread, as Italians sometimes do? No. They were simply whipped with egg whites, quickly fried (yet barely browned) and simmered in a soy-based broth flecked with warmly spiced star anise.
There was also collapsed eggplant stewed in dark garlic sauce made from caramelized sugar, and excellent Shanghainese chicken noodle soup (better than mama would make). We chewed rustic Szechuan sausages (also made in-house with big globs of melty fat) and curious fried wheat balls – Beijing student comfort food, tossed with salty yellow bean sauce, corn niblets, shrivelled peas and caramelized minced pork.
"That's the Maillard reaction," Mr. Shen enthused, still an engineer at heart. "Chinese cooking is broad and deep, but they take the techniques for granted. Western cooking tells you why and how. If it doesn't have Maillard reaction, it's a fail."
The menu at the new location is much larger and roams all over China. "I cook what I want, but I make it all myself. I'm a chef. If it's not made from scratch, what's the point?"
After ranting and raving about Vancouver's real estate market – "It's ruining the city and draining all the talent" – he excused himself, flipped on the TV at full volume (a Heat vs. Lakers NBA game – from 2013) and returned to the kitchen.
Eccentric as ever. Try it if you dare. But don't say I didn't warn you.