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Vancouver's Chinatown: what's the scoop?

So yes, this is another "I'm going to Vancouver B.C. on a trip sometime this year and I need food advice" post. This one, however, is less a request for suggestions (although those are certainly welcome) than an open question for any and all: what's the scoop on Vancouver's Chinatown?

Let me give you some short back story.

Down here in Portland, the popular opinion is that we have neither good nor authentic Chinese food. People here talk in hushed, reverential tones about Vancouver, about how big its Chinatown is, and how much great Chinese food can be had there.

Over the course of my trawling for information on Chinese eats in Vancouver, however, most of the places that get recommended seem to be located outside of Vancouver's Chinatown, and instead are in places like Richmond.

So what's the deal? Are there any good Chinese places in Chinatown? Is it just a touristy shopping area with mediocre Westernized Chinese food like I can get here at the local Chop Suey house?

I want to experience Chinatown, and leave for home looking over my shoulder wishing I had three more days, a bigger stomach, and a lot more money to spend there. Is this possible, or is this a fantasy that only an outsider / first time visitor can have? What's the *real* story here?

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  1. Vancouver's Chinatown has had better days. The city is having a tough time dealing with drug trade in the neighbouring area (the Downtown Eastside). The problem seems insurmountable.

    There are a few bright spots in Chinatown. Phnom Penh - Cambodian/Vietnamese is probably the biggest draw. There are some old-school BBQ Houses (Americanized-Chinese) that I like for comfort food (Gain Wah is my favourite there.)

    I see some revitalizing happening in one area towards the Sun Yat-sen Gardens - where a couple of hip restaurant-lounges are being built.

    The best Chinese to be had in town are in Richmond (mainly for Cantonese, but with Regional Chinese places proliferating) , Burnably (for Hunan), and a few spots right in the city (a couple of Dim Sum places and some Regional Chinese places).

    If you really want to visit Chinatown, then eat at Phnom Penh for lunch. You will have time to see Richmond - the "new" Chinatown, if you take the Skytrain on the Canada Line. Get off at Aberdeen Centre and go have dinner somewhere.

    9 Replies
    1. re: fmed

      As usual, fmed is spot on. I spend a fair amount of time in Chinatown because relatives live nearby, and growing up in Van we were down there every second weekend for dimsum, so the contrast is quite sad for me. It is still pretty good for getting produce, particularly Asian stuff, and there are lots of Chinese medicinal stores and a few diehard "nicknack" touristy places but it's hard to recommend a stroll there to a visitor. There are a couple of hip stores, and a Chinese antique store on Pender that are cool but really not much else anymore. The biggest non-food draw is the Sun Yat Sen Gardens fmed mentioned -- they really are beautiful, with a free area and a worth-the-fee paid area. I like Gain Wah too but you have to be prepared for street presence, something I've not witnessed at my other old-school favourite, Foo's Ho Ho (try the stuffed chicken or the lemon chicken), or at Phnom Penh which is great if you order right. New Town is a Chinese/Filipino bakery that has tasty coconut buns and apple tarts, especially if they're fresh baked. We also like Golden Garden for bahn mi and other Vietnamese food. Oh and just a few blocks north is Deacon's Corner for non-Asian breaky, brunch or lunch, or the Alibi Room for a variety of cold brewed beverages. But that's about it... it's nothing like the Chinatowns in Toronto or San Francisco, both of which are much more amenable for strolling visitors IMO.

      1. re: grayelf

        Just want to add that New Town also has the best "Dai Bao" (big bun): steamed bun filled with pork, salted egg, ham. It is delicious!

        1. re: Fid

          Good rec, Fid, I'll have to try one. We usually get sucked in by the sweet stuff at New Town :-).

          We were on our way to Deacon's this morning and I posed the OP's query to my SO for his always level-headed feedback. He thought we were being a bit hard on the 'hood but did point out how important it is for visitors to know the boundaries in this area. Going just one block in the wrong direction can land you in the middle of some as he put it disconcerting stuff. So for the OP, check a map and be sure to know where you are in relation to Hastings Street in particular as it relates to Main and let's say six blocks west and east, which is the epicentre of "behaviour." If you don't loiter and keep your wits about you, you will be fine but it can be disturbing.

          Having said all that, we stopped at the TD Bank at Main and Pender (just two blocks south of Main and Hastings and just across from Golden Garden) and had the most pleasant banking experience I can remember: tons of young, cheery, well-dressed professionals who couldn't have been more helpful, and no wait. That ain't happening on the west side ;-).

          1. re: grayelf

            I think Chinatown is probably worth a visit. I still remember when it was a very vibrant market street. Now many shops are boarded up, but it definitely still feels, smells, and looks like a Chinatown. It is still very busy.

            As far as eating Chinese food is concerned, I think it is no longer the place to get it if you are a visitor - especially considering the food you can eat in Richmond.

            As a local, I still have hankerings for some of the old-school stuff (eg New Town's steamed buns, BBQ, Western-Chinese ) fullfilled there. It is no longer much of a shopping destination for me as I can get most of my Chinese shopping done at a place like T&T (which, for the benefit of the OP, is a large and modern Chinese/Asian supermarket - not unlike 99 Ranch). Even fresh seafood is cheaper at shops outside Chinatown nowadays.

            Re the "behaviour" -- The junkies/etc tend to say right along Hastings St. (Actually, even that area is worth a visit in a Scared Straight sort of way - very surreal and depressing).

            1. re: fmed

              I just looked at the OP's profile and noticed he's into dim sum -- I can't think of anywhere in Chinatown I'd do that nowadays, sadly. There used to be a tiny place on Keefer that I liked for HITW dim sum but it closed a few months ago. Park Lock was not bad but it also closed recently... I'm seeing a pattern here.

              1. re: grayelf

                The closest dim sum to Chinatown is probably Pink Pearl (which too has seen better days.)

                1. re: fmed

                  Thanks to everyone for the replies, it has been most helpful. It looks like I'll need to do some digging through the posts here to research Richmond options.

                  It's rather interesting that the quality Chinese experiences have migrated to the suburbs. Here in Portland the story is much the same, albeit on a far, far smaller scale, as our Chinatown is practically a ghost -- a garden, a few knicknack stores, and maybe 6 restaurants -- while a new one seems to be rising in the southeastern extremity of Portland along 82nd Avenue.

                  I'll still take a stroll and see Chinatown -- not all of life is pretty -- but Richmond will have to make my list now. Hopefully enough of it will be within walking distance of the Canada Line, since I will be without a vehicle for my stay.

                  1. re: route99west

                    This should help out with places close to the Canada Line, c / o fmed:
                    http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/645202

                    1. re: el_lobo_solo

                      Oh, awesome! Thank you!

                      Most helpful board ever.