The sweet and sour pork at Hoi Tong in Richmond, British Columbia, certainly looked familiar enough: Our server set down a plate heaped with glossy, battered nuggets. Blocks of pineapple and curled pieces of red and green bell peppers speckled the dish like colorful flags planted on a bare mountain. Its appearance conjured the many saccharine iterations I’d scarfed down in the Chinese-American restaurants I loved as a kid.
But the Hoi Tong version tasted nothing like them at all. This sweet and sour pork delivered suspense. First, there was the character of the meat: the coating, still retaining its crunch, gave way to taut pork shoulder, the same cut preferred for char siu (barbecued pork). Against its sharp contrasts, the pineapple and peppers registered equally as distinct textures and flavors. As for the sauce: with every ping of sweetness came an equal pang of acidity. And then there was the tart undercurrent — something that tasted distantly of cherry-apple juice?
“Hawthorn berry,” said Lee Man, a writer for Vancouver magazine and a generous guide to Richmond’s astounding density of restaurants. Also known as haw, the fruit resembles overgrown cranberries and is used for candies and herbal remedies in China. “The chef once showed me his batch of the hawthorn extract he adds to flavor the sauce,” Man said. “But he wouldn’t tell me exactly how he made it.”
Whatever the mystery technique behind its secret ingredient, the dish flaunted a mastery that’s two-thirds of a century in the making: Chef and owner Leung Yiu Tong has been cooking professionally since 1954, and his restaurant was the first place Man directed me when I asked him for some explicit guidance: Where could I find outstanding Hong Kong-style Cantonese cooking in the Vancouver area?
The question was precise by necessity. Vancouver’s metro region houses an estimated 600 Chinese restaurants, many of them concentrated in Richmond, technically a separate city just south of Vancouver where Asian-Canadians comprise 76 percent of the population. As when eating in American communities like Flushing, Queens and the San Gabriel Valley near Los Angeles, the breadth of regional Chinese cuisines — including Sichuan, Shanghainese, Shandong, Hunan, and far-western Uyghur as mere starting points — could take lifetimes to devour.
I visited British Columbia specifically to zero in on the local arc of Cantonese cuisine — the cooking of China’s coastal Guangdong province (previously known to Westerners as Canton), which sits adjacent to Hong Kong. Cantonese cooking arose from its native region’s mild climate, rich farmlands, and plentiful seafood from both fresh and salt waters. Even if a dish employs complex techniques, it most matters that the ingredient tastes of itself, at its pinnacle of quality. Hong Kong’s prominence as a trading port, and its duration under British rule, also meant Western influences occasionally slid into the modern Cantonese lexicon: Worcestershire sauce as a popular dipping sauce for spring rolls at dim sum, as one example.
In the United States, familiar “Americanized” Chinese restaurant dishes like hot and sour soup, fried wontons, spiced spare ribs, and, yes, sweet and sour pork can trace their circuitous lineages to Cantonese traditions, which arrived in the U.S. with Chinese immigrants starting in the mid-1800s, and again in the 1940s and 1960s after rollbacks of exclusionary laws. It is possible to find worthwhile Cantonese cooking in the United States — most easily in the form of dim sum; I’m thinking of places like Yank Sing and Hong Kong Lounge II, Elite Restaurant in the San Gabriel Valley’s Monterey Park, and Joy Luck Palace in Manhattan’s Chinatown.
In Vancouver, though, the landmark advent of Cantonese culture began in the 1980s and 1990s, when some Hong Kongers of Chinese descent began looking for a new home in anticipation of the city’s revert to China’s rule in 1997. Vancouver was on the global stage after hosting a World’s Fair in 1986; Canada’s immigration policies proved relatively lenient to Hong Kong residents with the means to relocate.
I crossed national borders in search of a concentration of Cantonese cuisine where the lineage to Hong Kong-style cooking endures and where long-established kitchen leadership retains its vitality. Nearly a week in Richmond and Vancouver convinced me of their unique, sustained Cantonese riches; I ate at three restaurants in particular that warrant brandishing a passport to experience them.
“Part of the reason places like Hoi Tong have remained excellent is that the competition here is staggeringly fierce,” said Man. Tong has operated various restaurants in the area since the mid-1980s; he opened his current one nine years ago. It resides at the far end of a red brick strip mall, among warrens of other strip malls along Richmond’s Westminster Highway, its window shades forever drawn but its small dining room always crowded for dinner. “Businesses depend on word of mouth,” Man said; his parents arrived in Vancouver from Hong Kong when he was three months old. “I’ve watched once-filled dining rooms empty within weeks and then close after their reputations soured. There’s no room for sloppiness.”
Nothing even close to slapdash ushered out of Tong’s kitchen. Man worried aloud that when Tong, who is cagey about his age but is at least in his mid-70s, retires, his distinctive recipes will disappear. Alongside the sweet and sour pork, he and his cooks produced a greaseless rendition of pipa tofu, tapered quenelles of fried tofu fashioned in the shape of a stringed Chinese instrument. Bits of cured meats and seafood seasoned the tofu; their flavors were fleeting in a way that made me take bite after bite to keep recapturing their essence.
Tofu’s first cousin — yuba, or soymilk skin — appeared in sheets as delicate as crepes and wrapped around shiitake mushrooms. Uniform hearts of bok choy lined either side of the rolled yuba. Every texture maintained its individual integrity; each flavor was a variation on earthiness, but the interplay between the ingredients kept the dish compelling.
A bitter melon omelet perhaps tipped too far into subtlety. The vegetable had been over-leached of its sharpness; I wanted its full punch to add tension against the mild browned egg. I pointed to a shiny red orb roosting on top of the omelet. A candied hawthorn berry as garnish, perhaps? Man laughed. It was a maraschino cherry. The perfect retro touch in a magnificently timeless restaurant.
If Hoi Tong preserves the fundamental subtlety and nuance of Hong Kong’s midcentury cooking, Dynasty Seafood Restaurant in Vancouver, open since 2009, specializes in another aspect of Cantonese cuisine: Chiuchow (alternately spelled Chaozhou or Teochew), named for a coastal city in the Guangadong province east of Hong Kong that’s known for top-tier seafood and dishes that sometimes veer into brasher seasonings. (Vancouver and Richmond, also port cities with lavish natural resources, prove hospitable to Cantonese cuisine’s reliance on the freshest ingredients.)
Our meal started with a spectacle: A server toddled over to our table hoisting a platter piled with what looked like a sculpture of Cousin It from the Addams Family, built from Dungeness crab and rice. It was extraordinary. Heads turned. Mouths gaped. Man had joined me for lunch the day after dinner at Hoi Tong, and he’d called ahead to order this feast, listed on the menu as “typhoon shelter crab with sticky rice.”
The presentation is executive chef Sam Leung’s version of a famously over-the-top creation from a Hong Kong restaurant called Under Bridge Spicy Crab. Once we began to deconstruct the behemoth, the care taken with each component was conspicuous. The crab had been deep fried, though its meat remained delicate; the literal hill of rice had been zapped with plenty of fried garlic, minced preserved meats, sliced green chile, and egg. Bread crumbs and fried wonton strips lent two kinds of crunch. It was the kind of full-sensory, buffet-on-a-tray scenario into which a group could joyfully and chaotically disappear.
The typhoon crab with sticky rice might best be saved for dinnertime; most other customers were focused on dim sum during the lunch hours. We were handed a menu to check off our dim sum choices, rather than selecting from roving carts. Clanging trolleys might disrupt one of the main pleasures, beyond the food, of dining at Dynasty: Its view from a corner perch on hectic Broadway in the Fairview Slopes neighborhood. On a clear day (always a gamble during much of the year in the Pacific Northwest), the restaurant’s picture windows look out over Vancouver’s downtown skyline and beyond it the North Shore Mountains, which frame and dwarf the city in their vastness.
Leung arrived in the Vancouver area from Guangdong in 1985, and over the years, he has stealthily incorporated some creative Western spins into his cooking without alienating his Asian customer base. For dumplings filled with shrimp and crab, he colored the dough with tomato until the bundles glowed the reddish orange of tangerines. His barbecue pork pies were two-bite marvels: the filling pulsed with white pepper, a telltale Chiuchow touch, and the sugared pastry was cut with lemon; the flavor tottered on the very thread between sweet and savory. He stuffed fried taro dumplings, all surfaces wispy crackle, with duck rather than the more traditional pork and shrimp for richer, gamier impact.
But Leung doesn’t sacrifice craftsmanship for inventiveness. His har gow — translucent shrimp dumplings, always a dim sum litmus test — were the most faultless paradigms I’ve tasted outside Hong Kong. They were steamed to the precise second where the wrapper was tender-firm, and the shrimp pieces inside, free of filler, had satisfying bounce. I left as impressed by Leung’s miniature efforts as I did with his towering showmanship.
The gateway dish to May Chau’s genius at Golden Paramount in central Richmond was much less assuming than the blockbusters at Hoi Tong and Dynasty: spring rolls filled with daikon, a dish I would have passed over entirely if it hadn’t been specifically recommended. As ever with the finest Cantonese cooking, the virtuosity was as much about texture as it was flavor. The fried dough of the rolls flaked in thin, clean-cut layers, and the daikon inside trembled somewhere between al dente and juicy collapse. It needed only a light swipe through Worcestershire sauce to be complete.
As with Hoi Tong, the shades at Golden Paramount remain drawn, giving the air of a private club. Inside, the room is spare but calm and welcoming — and full of diners who know the treasure they have in this place.
Chau first moved to Canada in the early 1980s, where she cycled through various kitchens in Vancouver and Richmond, honing her skills with dim sum and pastries. Her family also maintained a restaurant in Hong Kong, where she would return frequently. (Man told me the ’80s-era nickname for people who spend so much time shuttling back and forth between Vancouver and China: “astronauts.”) Last decade her family shuttered their Hong Kong establishment and Chau settled in Richmond, opening Golden Paramount in 2007.
Eating lunch here felt like a master class in model dim sum dishes of all varieties, beginning with siu mai (pork dumplings) whose ruffled, open-face wrappers clung to the meat without dissolving. Then a plate of beef chow fun, the noodles scented with the smoky heat from the wok’s inferno. And crab dumplings, a signature, so sheer they could only have held together through Chau’s willpower. And gorgeous fried wontons, each pleated with a tiny pocket of pork. We dragged these through house-made XO sauce, the flavors of dried shrimp, dried scallop and jinhua (Chinese ham) in precise ratio.
For comparison’s sake, we ordered Golden Paramount’s take on sweet and sour pork, which was nearly as revelatory as Tong’s. I remained most enthralled by Chau’s smaller plates, like a dish that resembled steamed chicken over snow pea leaves. It wasn’t until my chopsticks made contact that I remembered the star ingredient wasn’t poultry but yuba, made so pale as to resemble chicken breast. The idea came out of Buddhist vegetarian traditions — though seafood broth enveloped the soy and the greens with its sweet fragrance. It was a perfect palate cleanser between dumplings.
Golden Paramount won’t occupy its low-profile space much longer. Its current home has been sold to developers, and sometime this spring, Chau will move her restaurant just around the corner to larger and wholly different digs, in a condo building with some wild geometric stylings. I’d worry that the change in setting would disrupt the sense of community her current location engenders. But someone who ran restaurants on different continents can surely transpose and maintain the excellence that helps Richmond stand as a global standard bearer for Cantonese cooking.
Hoi Tong: 8191 Westminster Highway, Suite 160, Richmond, B.C., (604) 276-9229
Dynasty Seafood Restaurant: 108-777 West Broadway, Vancouver, B.C., (604) 876-8388
Golden Paramount: 8071 Park Road, Richmond, B.C., (604) 278-0873