My first introduction to Dim Sum gets major points for ambiance, but negative twenty for actual taste. On our first trip to San Francisco (do NOT call it ‘Frisco or San Fran, everyone who lives in Northern California just calls it “The City”) we wandered through Chinatown and soaked in the atmosphere. There were boxes of live frogs squirming together like a plague just waiting to be released, turtles patiently climbing over one another and giant sized vegetables of every description. Stores extended past their doors and windows to encroach on the sidewalks, almost forcing people to walk in the streets, or run the risk of accidently placing your foot in bucket full of glistening eels. The size, density and variety made Victoria’s Chinatown seem like the tiny little corner that they added into Old Towne in the Royal BC Museum.
Overwhelmed by the hoi palloi, we slipped into some random restaurant and pointed to some Dim Sum items through the finger prints on the menu. My memories of this first Dim Sum consist of a few sensory impressions: cold, dry, greasy and stale. So, it was a dining option we didn’t explore further until years later.
Fast forward about four years when I began venturing out in Vancouver to explore the diversity of Dim Sum, as there are plenty of options. This time I did some research and tried out Sun Sui Wah on Main. A big banquety space with carts racing around and the chatter rising up to fill the high-ceilinged room it was worlds apart from that first random incident. The cart approach is good for first-timers and large groups. You just take a whiff and a glance then point to what you want to try. The hard part is trying to remember what you liked for the next time. It’s a lot of fun with large groups of adventurous friends, or somewhat picky eaters who are looking to expand their horizons. I’ve taken a few Dim Sum Virgins to Sun Sui Wah and everyone got into it. It was fun first foray, but the carts were starting to lose their appeal.
My husband, the Executive Chef of my heart, told me about the Imperial on Burrard. He’d been there with some co-workers and he liked the dishes better than Sun Sui Wah. Wanting to do it right, I organized an upcoming birthday do for my two friendettes with back to back birthdays for a Dim Sum adventure. The Imperial is in a beautiful old building down by the water with a typically gorgeous Vancouver mountain/ocean view. The room was more elegant than Sun Sui Wah and without the perils of being run over by runaway carts. Ordering from the menus wasn’t the sensory experience of having everything brought by for inspection, but allowed more discussion and planning. A word about my friendettes, they get just as giddy over food as I do and it just makes me love them more than I would anyway. My b2b b-day girls were my Sushi Friends back in the day and could always be relied on to join me in a couple of rolls whenever the desire struck.
Back to the Imperial, well I did go back a couple times and the food was better, but I still wanted something more. I liked all the flavours and textures, but I still wasn’t finding the freshness. Eliminating the middle men running the carts was a step in the right directions. But, I was looking for more umami , something that would curl my toes and turn my raincoat red (I don’t know what that means, I just like the alliteration. Also I don’t know that I really want curled toes).
Exec Chef knew a guy who was related to a guy who ran a Chinese restaurant called Fisherman’s Terrace in Richmond (of course! I should have been looking in Richmond all along.). We went for dinner one night and had this amazing crab dish that was a whole crab covered in a dry “sauce” of crunchy bits of goodness. I could see the glint in his eye that means Exec Chef is gathering inspiration that will result in a new dish. All the dishes were tasty, but what really impressed me was the bright and fresh quality of the flavours. We went there a couple more times for dinner before it dawned on me to try their Dim Sum!
The next time we found ourselves near Richmond around lunch time we headed to the Aberdeen Mall for Dim Sum and Daiso. We had our son, Young Fresh Chef, with us and we had to wait with the rest of crowd that spilled out into the mall. When we finally got a table and a pot of Jasmine tea, we were presented with a paper menu list and a pencil. I ticked the items that tickled my fancy (including sticky rice and shrimp dumplings for Young Fresh Chef) and passed it to Exec Chef for his perusal. While waiting for the food, they boy and I wandered over to the fish tanks to check out their residents. The restaurant is huge and busy, the atmosphere a cross between Sun Sui Wah’s hustle/bustle and Imperial’s dignified calm. Back at the table, when the food arrived, I was overcome by the heady scents. I dove right in and only came up for air to help Young Fresh Chef unwrap his sticky rice and give him a shrimp dumpling refill.
This was it! This was what I was looking for! The flavours were big, bold and balanced (the 3 B’s of flavour, according to me). The fried items were hot and crisp, the BBQ Pork Buns were clouds of dough filled with sweet and smokey goodness. There wasn’t a clinker in the lot. All the classics I’d had before were the best version I’d had and the “doughnuts” in a noodle wrapper were a revelation. It’s hard to describe in print, it made me want to laugh and cry at the same time. It shouldn’t be good, but it is, IT IS.