© Jeremy Ferguson
Victoria's real secret
The best Asian restaurants in BC’s capital for when you’re tired of holiday turkey
Humbug. Humbug to the Christmas frenzy that begins before Halloween. Humbug to the new wave of consumerism driven by Facebook envy (keeping up with all those perfect lives). Humbug to the piped-in degradation of some of the most beautiful music ever written. Humbug to the lighting orgies that make suburban lawns visible on Mars. Humbug to the hymn of the cash register: profits trump prophets at this birthday party.
And, oh yes, humbug to turkey, the foulest of fowl. Not because of the legendary post-feast flatulence that rocks Canadian homes with seismic fury from Dildo, Newfoundland to Tofino, BC every December 25. I have a problem eating a bird so dumb it can drown in a puddle, that’s all.
This is excuse enough for me to jump on my broomstick and escape to Asia, but mine is a homeowner’s wallet and I’m stuck in the here and now. On the other hand, I’m home in Victoria and don’t need the broomstick. Victoria’s real secret is its Asian restaurants, the ones you don’t see in tourist bumf. A Christmas week with chopsticks and my battered psyche is ready for the next round.
The provincial capital is fond of pointing out that it has more restaurants per capita than any other city in Canada. But this also means it has more bad and mediocre restos. When I want to eat accomplished French, Italian, seafood or fusion, I hop a ferry to Vancouver or Seattle.
Vic’s Asian restaurants are its saving grace. They’re many fewer than their counterparts in Vancouver and Toronto, but for this little city, they represent a surprising diversity of Asian cuisines — Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Indian, Lao, Thai, Vietnamese, Indonesian, Himalayan — and the best deliver authenticity and big, big flavours. Try the ones that follow.
3366 Douglas Street; tel: (250) 383-8718; jadefountain.ca
The subterranean Jade Fountain occupies an elevated niche in our Chinese dining scene. Vic’s Chinatown may be the oldest in Canada, but many of its eateries haven’t changed since 1951: retro Chinese surfs out on tidal waves of grease and salt.
But under the helmsmanship of hardworking Johnny Woo (he’ll go as far as Vancouver to get his fish), Jade Fountain champions Cantonese dim sum in a room closer to Hong Kong flash and dash than Chinatown kitsch.
The trolleys roll from 10:30am to 2pm, bearing masterworks of the steamer, the stir-fry and sin-crusted deep-fry. How this kitchen loves shrimp: steamed dumplings come packed with shrimp and Chinese chives. Seafood rolls bring shrimp and chives wrapped in tofu skin and deep-fried to unctuous crispness. Open-face dumplings of steamed scallop and shrimp sport caps of crunchy tobiko, flying fish roe.
Sundays offer a brief immersion in Chinese food culture as families of three and four generations fill round tables and commune over aromatic soups, alps of dim sum and chicken feet. We non-Asians should turn purple with envy. We have no parallels. Protein-driven Western food is too expensive to allow for such casual, happy-making get-togethers.
At dinner, the clientele is 90 percent Chinese (it does tell you something). Festive occasions call for iconic shark’s fin, but the smart money goes to Dungeness crab with black bean sauce and Peking duck: crackling skin (the highlight of the ritual) with pancakes, scallions and hoisin; then duck meat sautéed with five-spice and vegetables.
3500 Quadra Street; tel: (250) 385-4944
Most of us grew up on Canadian Chinese that endured until the Hong Kong exodus of the 1980s. Then, suddenly, it was, bye, bye, breaded almond chicken, hello Peking duck. Well, breaded almond chicken and its retrokin hang on gloriously at this cheery family-run restaurant.
I’ve been crazy for the allegedly Detroit-born breaded almond chicken since I was 15 years old. It has this indescribable flavour that surfaces only in this dish. I’ve polled Cantonese chefs and Hong Kong immigrants about this for years, and although every short-order Chinese cook in Canada knows the secret, nobody spills. Even Google can’t find it for me.
The father-and-son brigade of Yuk-Chi and Wesley Ieung works feverishly in the kitchen, turning out such masterful dishes as the fluffiest shrimp dumplings in town, chili-boosted kung pao chicken, crispy ginger fried beef and salt-and-pepper squid. The human hurricane running the front of the house is Sherry Ieung who knows regulars on a first-name basis and welcomes newbies who think it’s too good to be true.
1684 Douglas Street; tel: (250) 590-8302 Barbecued dog and cobra wine aside, Vietnam boasts some of the most refined fare in Southeast Asia. Think impeccable freshness, delicate fish and seafood, and the senses rocking with lemongrass, chilies, ginger and herbs. Victoria boasts a fistful of Vietnamese eateries, all specializing in pho, the ultimate Vietnamese street food, beef-and-rice-noodle soup roaring with sweet basil and star anise. One such resto is cleverly named Pho-Ever and another, Phonomenal.
The amiable Greenleaf Bistro journeys beyond its best-in-town pho with a sprawling range of vegetarian, rice and vermicelli plates spiked with nuac mam, the pungent fermented anchovy sauce that gives much of Vietnamese cooking its addictive edge.
I can’t stay away from Vietnamese fried rice, the most sophisticated of all fried rices, short-grain rice lightly fried with fish sauce and Vietnamese spices, then tossed with fat shrimps, Chinese sausage, fried onions and a rainbow of julienned vegetables. I’d order it for lunch, dinner or the afterlife, lacing it with sriracha, the fiery Vietnamese chili sauce, and woofing it down with distant dreams of the China Seas.
1245 Wharf Street; tel: 250-382-8662; indiabistro.ca
Victoria has long been short-changed by subcontinental spicemeisters. So it was a great relief when India Bistro signalled the arrival of restaurants that show respect for Mother India’s kitchen and we who crave it. The room is free of the usual kitsch: no Krishna frolicking with his gopis here. The menu covers the usual North Indian suspects (South Indian has arrived with Saaz just up the street) from mild butter chicken to seething vindaloos. Prices are higher than average, but so is the cooking.
Crackling papadums with coriander-mint and tomato-chili chutneys make for a promising first nibble. Crisp onion bhajia, India’s answer to deep-fried onion rings, tops the apps. The Goan specialty chicken vindaloo lives up to its hot-and-sour reputation, vinegar and chilies howling, its gravy heavenly. The milder lamb shahi korma, in a sublime gravy of cashew nuts and spices, effortlessly enchants, a perfect into for acolytes. Eggplant bartha, the measure of any Indian restaurant, marries the smoke of the open flame to tomatoes, onion, garlic and ginger. The gods, all 333 million of them, must be smiling.
701-771 Vernon Avenue; tel: (250) 475-3522; laovientianerestaurant.com
If Thai and Vietnamese dominate Southeast Asian cuisines here, Lao has little presence at all. If Thai is hot and sweet, Lao is hot, sour and savoury. “Lao people don’t like sweet,” says chef-owner Jess Keoxayavong.
Jess arrived in Victoria as a nanny, married Glenn Gibson and boldly decided to realize her dream of pleasuring the populace on a plate. Educating your market is a daunting challenge, but they were smart enough to bolster their menu with popular Thai dishes.
Lao? Not as easy to love as Thai, but worth the effort. The flavour onslaught includes duck, lamb, dried garlic, basil leaves, creamy Lao fish sauce, lime juice and coconut milk. Jess’s most popular Lao dishes are the shar-tasting Lao-style green papaya salad (actually favoured by Victoria Thais over their own papaya salad), chopped duck salad with ground roasted rice and lovely chicken green curry.
Others keep up in the new-one-on-me department: Lao tom yum talay is a sour-and-spicy soup loaded with fish and shellfish. Ped, a soup of house-made noodles with marinated roast duck, dried garlic and coriander, kicks in with pungent exoticism. Lamb turns up in three racy curries. Proceed fearlessly.
The Tibetan Kitchen
680 Broughton; tel: (250) 383-5664; www.tibetankitchen.com
More pan-Himalayan than Tibetan — yak not readily available in these parts — the Tibetan Kitchen is another ground-breaker. The room itself is warmly done in the colours of the Tibetan flag with Tibetan Buddhist thankas and prayer flags hung on the walls.
It’s plenty healthy with cashew paste, not cream, in its curries, mild spices and local, organic ingredients with vegetarian and vegan options. But this feisty little kitchen overseen by chef Pemba Bhatia, who was born in India’s Himalayan foothills, doesn’t shrink from the pleasure principal.
Pan-fried momos — beef, pork and vegetarian dumplings — are the real Tibetan thing. Better still are Pemba’s curries of beef, local lamb, Berkshire pork or veg in rich, silken gravies that leave the mouth in a swoon; balm for refugees from turkey sandwiches and leftover Christmas pudding.
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