Spanish, Tapas

Review: Como Taperia

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By Michael White

At the risk of you tagging out before this first sentence is complete, I’d like to state at the outset that Jewkarta was conceived as, and its first year has proved to be, a love story — love for food and restaurants, of course, but also love for the people who work in those restaurants, as well as the love between Kley and I. (Wait, don’t go!)

When Kley and I first met, in July 2019, food literally was our first topic of conversation, and within two weeks we were discussing vague ideas about combining my journalism background, his flair for photography and social media, and our shared gluttony, and producing something very similar to what Jewkarta has since become. (All credit for our name goes to Kley, which suggests that maybe I shouldn’t be the person responsible for words in this venture.) The passing of several months, the arrival of a global pandemic, and subsequent mutual unemployment had to happen before Jewkarta became a reality. But once it did, it quickly evolved from something embarrassingly crude into something still occasionally crude but weighted with a significance we couldn’t have foreseen.

Jewkarta began at the height of dine-in restrictions, and so our initial aim was to review the only option available to us: takeout. But once restrictions eased — first for patios, then indoor spaces — we began crossing paths with the proprietors, servers, cooks and other assorted industry professionals whose precarious livelihoods gave Jewkarta a reason to exist. And we soon found that our thoughts were becoming occupied as much with these overworked-yet-somehow-still-kindly individuals as with what they were bringing to our table. Maybe it was the hangover of lockdown (a circumstance that, at the time of this writing, may soon be making a comeback), but we felt an outsized gratitude for their efforts in the midst of the unprecedented hardships they faced, among them slashed profits, staffing shortages, profound threats to their own health, and the undeserved entitlement of customers who had somehow taken the pandemic as their cue to begin seeking revenge against strangers who were only trying to serve them a fucking meal without anyone dying.

Last spring, we went for the first time together to the acclaimed Como Taperia, which had recently reopened its lively dining room after several months of inactivity (save for the ongoing sale of packaged goods from their in-house pantry). Kley had never been; I’d dropped in once, long before, for a hurried cocktail and a shared order of chorizo, but had experienced too little to form an impression. The pandemic had been a particular affront to Como, modelled as it is after Spain’s small, cramped, gleefully elbow-to-elbow tapas bars. It was in the midst of a slow, cautious comeback. Sitting on their patio during one of the season’s first utterly beautiful afternoons, while heroically affable servers brought us plate after delicious plate of unpretentiously presented meats, cheeses and seafoods — as well as aromatic gin-forward cocktails unlike any other in the city — we knew we’d made the acquaintance of something special.  

And throughout the months that followed, Kley and I found ourselves returning again and again, on nights when we could have, arguably should have, continued our professional mission of trying new spaces. But Como remained too exciting a proposition to resist. We introduced it to others and sung its praises to anyone who would listen. Staff came to recognize our faces, so familiar a sight had we become. We were in love with the damn place.

So, when we learned last month that the proprietors of Como had recently travelled to Spain, for the first time in years, for the purpose of conceiving new dishes, and were serving the results of their findings as a special limited-time menu called Taste Our Travels, we shouted “Take our money!” and left dust trails behind us as we ran toward their door.

Seated at a counter facing the open kitchen, we experienced a sort of dinner theatre — grill flames engulfing a slab of octopus, a steak being sliced to reveal its perfectly pink centre, the tattooed limbs of cooks scurrying everywhere — as the plates arrived in overwhelming succession. It began understatedly with an 18-month Manchego, marinated in olive oil until it had achieved a sublime near-melting texture, then moved on through a thrillingly absurd seven further courses. Highlights were variously simple (golden fritters of salt cod speared with toothpicks, like you might eat from a paper cone on the Mediterranean beach of your dreams) and high-flying (pork in a blazing orange whisky sauce that seemed to have more going on in its savoury depths than the most ingredient-laden Bouillabaisse). Kley enjoyed eggplant for perhaps the first time in his life, served here as fried discs dressed ingeniously with spiced honey and rosemary. A pile of clams steamed in sherry, chili and herbs was as transporting as a first-class ticket to Madrid and as colourful as an Almodóvar film.

Fed beyond reason, attended to past the point of hospitality, we wiped our mouths with napkins imprinted with the declaration ¡Como no te voy a querer! (“How am I not going to love you?”), took a deep breath, and ordered patatas bravas — in essence, the French fries of tapas culture — from the permanent menu. It makes no sense now, but it did in the moment. That’s love for you.

Como Taperia
201 E. 7th Ave., Vancouver
604-879-3100
comotaperia.com / Instagram: @comotaperia

(Photo: Kley Klemens)

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Thai

Review: Kin Kao Song

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By Michael White

Three months ago, Kley and I decided rather spontaneously to have dinner at Kin Kao, a Thai restaurant we knew had been routinely filling its spartan 25-seat Commercial Drive space since opening in 2015. There was no particular reason for our having passed it by for so long — some restaurants, no matter how grand their reputation, simply fail again and again to place first among an evening’s list of contenders.

In a short Instagram review of our experience, I remarked that we felt ridiculous for having denied ourselves the pleasure of eating there for so long. But as much as we loved the food we were served — which we did a great, great deal — what lingered equally in our memories was the overwhelming kindness with which we were treated, from my being unhesitatingly seated before Kley arrived to the engaged, unhurried conversations with our server, Anna, about, among other things, their compact but wonderful selection of B.C. natural wines. (Kley found his introduction to the likes of Scout Vineyard and A Sunday in August so transporting, his prior self, which was perfectly happy drinking any $10 bottle of mass-produced plonk, had died before the cheque arrived.)

In the interest of fairness, we entered the new Kin Kao Song* this past weekend with modest expectations — not because we weren’t expecting whoever was in the kitchen to match the standards of its original sister restaurant, but because it was only the fourth night of service, and it isn’t uncommon for the most experienced restaurateurs to require weeks or months for a new venture to find its rhythm.

The masses, however, had no interest in letting Kin Kao Song ease into its debut. The room — much larger than Kin Kao’s, but sharing a similar aesthetic collision of industrial workspace and Brooklyn garage sale — was full when we arrived, and seemed somehow more full when we left. An assertive but not obnoxious bass-heavy playlist matched the energy of plates zipping by the dozens from kitchen pass to server to table. It was a scene, but a civilized and convivial scene that we were happy to join.

Speaking of servers, here was Anna again, having relocated full-time to this outpost and taking full control of the wine program, which remains 100 percent natural but now spans from the Okanagan to France to Slovakia. I, tragically, was driving, but took consolation in Jasmine Dream, one of several non-alcoholic drinks here that isn’t a veiled “Up yours” to teetotalers. Kley, meanwhile, made fast friends with the Kalamansi Old Fashioned: true to its name, the titular classic whiskey cocktail dosed with kalamansi reduction as well as floral bitters — like all the liquids here, a thoughtful complement to the food.

And so to the food. It was explained to us (thank you again, Anna!) that the menu here — unlike at Kin Kao, which is much longer and hews closely to classic Thai stir-fries and curries — was borne out of the freewheeling, semi-improvised staff meals that founding chef Tang Phooncha and his crew would make before service. Consequently, while the flavours and aromas at Kin Kao Song are unmistakably Thai, they arrive in forms you likely haven’t seen before. What the menu calls shrimp toast is in fact white bread spread with shrimp paste and given an egg wash before being deep fried to an addictive crunch; a side of “achat” pickled vegetables counters its richness in the way that acidic condiments always do so marvellously in Thai cuisine.

Jaew, a masterfully complex chili dipping sauce made with toasted rice powder, plays a similar contrasting role alongside thin slices of delicious pork jowl, and those achat pickles return to brighten the smoky depth of a trio of beef satay and their accompanying peanut sauce. To the great surprise of these two insatiable carnivores, our mutual favourite was a vegan pomelo salad in which the little-seen Southeast Asian citrus fruit is tossed with crispy shallot and shredded coconut (plus optional tiger prawns) for the cumulative effect of a very good ceviche — light yet substantial, savoury and sweet, a starter that wouldn’t disappoint as a meal on its own. We both would come back just for this.

Kin Kao Song’s current menu will change at the end of winter, but chef’s specials, new wine selections and more will arrive at regular intervals. This long-in-coming restaurant (yet another sufferer of pandemic-related delays and staffing shortages) has achieved the remarkable feat of already feeling confident and lived-in after less than a week. We can’t imagine what they’ll be capable of in a few months’ time, but we won’t be six years late in finding out.

*(“Kin Kao” is the literal Thai translation of “eat rice,” although it’s also a greeting that roughly means “Have you eaten?” “Song” means “two.”)

Kin Kao Song
317 E. Broadway, Vancouver
604-568-0400
kinkao.ca / Instagram: @kinkaosong

(Photo: Kley Klemens)

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Italian

Review: Caffé La Tana


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and click here to see our video!

By Michael White

It was roughly 90 minutes after walking into Caffé La Tana — when three plates of food had been delivered, and we’d drained our first cocktails and were making quick work of a bottle of wine we had no intention of ordering until the spirit of the evening swept us up — that Kley and I exchanged an incredulous glance that essentially said, “Is this happening?”

Because what was happening was nothing less than a convincing approximation of life as we vaguely remember it from almost two years ago, but without the reckless disregard for public health such a statement might imply. It was dreamlike and magical and slightly disorienting — much like almost every aspect of our meal.

When we first visited earlier this year, largely to investigate the Italian-style donuts Kley had seen online (and which didn’t disappoint), Caffé La Tana’s dine-in service was suspended, as it was everywhere else, and was operating solely as a grocery and take-out counter. This has always been part of its business model — the vintage shelves and refrigerated case inside the entrance have been stocked since day one with cheeses, condiments, dried pastas, imported canned seafood, and much more. And you can get, say, an excellent breakfast sandwich with prosciutto, a kale salad or a house-made pasta to go.

But last week, we opened the door onto a very different scene. It was essentially a civilized party in full swing — the bustling Italian café its owners had always intended this space to be — for which the price of admission was providing ID and proof of vaccination. While servers were masked, as were patrons when they stepped away from their responsibly-distanced table, we otherwise felt as if we’d somehow time-travelled backward to the innocent, happy-go-lucky heyday of February 2020.

Every table had been claimed (there aren’t many), but we were happy to graze and gulp around the edge of a large communal standing table — in fact, when seats did become available, we elected to stay where we were. (Similar to Mount Pleasant’s Como Taperia, Caffé La Tana encourages a Eurocentric casualness we’d love to see more North American eateries adopt.)

From the compact but diverse evening menu, we chose a meltingly tender Albacore tuna crudo (pictured above), simply yet impeccably dressed with lemon, basil oil and flecks of Calabrian chili; and a basket of ingenious Cacio e Pepe fritti (the invention of chef Phil Scarfone), in which the classic cheese-and-pepper pasta is battered and fried like arancini.

Co-owner Paul Grunberg — a familiar sight from sister restaurants Savio Volpe and Pepino’s Spaghetti House — implored us to order an off-menu special that would “knock [our] fucking socks off”: a beef tartare atop which he shaved a possibly immoral amount of black truffle. And it was at this point that the night tipped over into a sort of benign surreality. The intense deliciousness of everything we were putting into our mouths, combined with an atmosphere borne of profound gratitude that this sort of gathering together is possible again (which led us and our fellow diners to talk to one another as if we were all long-lost friends), seemed to envelop the room in a glow of contentment so total, we were reluctant to ask for the cheque for fear of breaking the spell.

Fortunately, there was still to come a daily pasta special (striped ravioli with shrimp, confit garlic and a lemon-butter sauce — as good as it sounds), a more-chocolate-than-chocolate Torta Tenerina with Amarena cherries and mint, and a pair of utterly transporting grappas we tried at the urging of chef Vish Vaishnav. In total, it was the sort of experience for which you become nostalgic while it’s still happening.

Outside on Commercial Drive and in the wider world, life was up to its usual nonsense: all manner of heartbreaks and infuriations and petty grievances and people who won’t compromise their “freedom” for the greater good and just get the fucking shot already. But those things weren’t welcome inside Caffé La Tana, and it was as good as a vacation at a fraction of the cost and effort.

Caffé La Tana
635 Commercial Dr., Vancouver
604-428-5462
caffelatana.ca / Instagram: @caffelatana

(Photo: Kley Klemens)

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American, Farm to Table, Fusion, Gastropub

Mini Review: Straight & Marrow

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By Michael White

Straight & Marrow didn’t set out to be a divisive restaurant. Its menus aren’t conceived to repel timid diners or upset vegans — although it might do either. But possibly more than any restaurant Kley and I have discovered since Jewkarta began, it has its own point of view and its own notion of delicious, and either you agree with it or are keen to investigate, or else you keep a very wide berth.

We ran toward it with great enthusiasm, and not only were we not disappointed — you might say we got carried away.

Straight & Marrow chef Chris Lam’s mission is to spotlight “overlooked ingredients,” meaning proteins and “off-cuts” of which the mainstream (in this part of the world, at least) is either unfamiliar or finds off-putting. On the night we visited, that meant octopus carpaccio, beef heart tartare, frog with grits, braised lamb neck and other assorted creatures and parts rarely seen on North American menus. The space (formerly home to the much-missed Bistro Wagon Rouge) is narrow and dark and emits an unmistakable “dude” energy but isn’t obnoxious about it.

Once we settled in at the bar and were served the first of many inventive cocktails made for us by the engaging @chadaptation (we both raise two thumbs up for the “Bent, Not Broken,” essentially a Vesper with the shouldn’t-work-but-it-does addition of charred-rosemary olive oil), we began eating and didn’t stop for quite some time.

We ordered so much, in fact, that the very thought of detailing everything here is exhausting. But we can say we unreservedly loved — LOVED! — the above-mentioned octopus and its smoked-paprika aioli; luscious bone marrow decorated with pickled shiitake, porcini dust and chicken crackling; charred “street” corn mingled with delicate gnocchi, cotija cheese, chili crème fraîche and fried shards of pig’s ear; and perhaps the most convincing argument you could find that frog has the potential to be nose-to-tail cooking’s answer to the hot wing.

Side note: While the dishes might be perceived as somewhat primal, the plating is anything but. This is very pretty food, presented as if you were in a room that charges twice as much and serves everything with a side of attitude.

Between the food, the drinks, the room and the service (and our not having to work the next day), we emerged three hours later, bouncing in a bubble of happy and (over-)satiety — no straighter than before, but absolutely converted to their culinary orientation.

Straight & Marrow
1869 Powell St., Vancouver
604-251-4813
straightandmarrow.com / Instagram: @straight_and_marrow

(Photo: Kley Klemens)

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American, Brunch, Canadian, Gastropub, West Coast

Review: Belgard Kitchen


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By Michael White

This isn’t a restaurant review so much as a remembrance of some time Kley and I spent in a restaurant recently. You might argue that this is exactly what all restaurant reviews are, to which I would counter: Shut up and let me make my point.

This isn’t a bona fide review because a review wouldn’t be fair to Belgard Kitchen right now. Nor, I think, would it be fair to any restaurant struggling to maintain an illusion of normalcy and full-fledged functionality at time when society at large is capable of neither. Yes, the masses are now beginning to receive their vaccinations (Kley and I were cheerfully penetrated last week) and our collective fantasy of a “Dancing in the Street”-style celebration that draws a line under this interminable pandemic has begun to feel vaguely plausible. But, I doubt I need to tell you, we still have a long road ahead of us. Few people feel this reality more acutely than restaurant owners and staff, who still are not only struggling to survive, but are simply trying to anticipate from day to day what is and isn’t possible for their industry amidst the loosening and tightening of restrictions.

Case in point: When we visited Belgard Kitchen last Friday, for happy-hour-leading-into-dinner, it was their first night of service in six weeks, and the first night ever for their new street-side patio, which seats a maximum of 48 people. We weren’t expecting perfection, nor necessarily even greatness. We simply wanted to sit under a hospitably blue late-afternoon sky and watch it dim into evening while eating and drinking and then, in all likelihood, eating and drinking some more.

We did just that. And everything was very good. In most cases, better than we expected.

Which isn’t to say we were expecting to be underwhelmed. Both of us had been to Belgard Kitchen before — although, admittedly, it was many years ago, before we knew each other and decided to make a hobby of using the internet to exhibit our mutual gluttony to strangers. Belgard Kitchen first opened in 2014, and was something of an event — the first destination restaurant to try to make a go of it on the mean streets of Railtown (still a volatile neighbourhood today, but much more so then). This was no modest venture either: Belgard is housed in an almost 8,000-square-foot industrial space, known as the Settlement Building, that began life as a steel foundry in the 1920s. It shares this space with an onsite small-batch winery (Vancouver Urban Winery) and a craft brewery (Settlement Brewery). This is the sort of environment for which real-estate marketers coined the term “soaring.”

But unless you need to pass through it on your way to the toilets, you can’t spend time in Belgard Kitchen right now. The province’s indoor-dining ban remains in effect, so be sure to place a reservation for a patio table — there are only eight of them. At the time of this writing, the patio is open for weekday lunch (11:30am-3pm), weekend brunch (10am-3pm) and daily happy hour and dinner (3pm-close). We arrived at 5pm, at which time the patio had fallen under the shadow of the Settlement Building, and a brisk wind blew down the Dunlevy corridor toward an unexpectedly moving view of shipping containers suspended above the East Vancouver port lands. Sunworshippers may not appreciate this, but myself, having been born Whitest Man on Earth and distressingly prone to burning, was as content as a suburban grandmother at Fabricland.

We adored our server, who seemed to either intuit that we were here to play or isn’t the sort to recite a memorized script of Tonight’s Offerings.

Me: “What’s the feature cocktail right now?”

Her (following a comedic pause and a survey of the heavens): “I don’t know.”

We howled.

I did very much want that cocktail, the name of which I’ve now forgotten, but I can tell you it was a variation of a Manhattan that seemed to have been liberally dosed with cacao bitters. She also brought us an excellent on-tap negroni ($11) and the Grape Expectations wine flight (a happy hour bargain at $12; $14 at other times), of which we both instantly fell in love with a 2018 Pinot Gris from Penticton’s Roche Wines. Kley’s Tasting Paddle of four featured beers ($9.50) further stoked the glow in his happy gut.

We consumed solids as well! An appropriately rich and unctuous mushroom-and-bacon pâté ($11.50 at happy hour; $15 otherwise), which prompted a request for more grilled sourdough; the justifiably self-named Belgard Burger (Cache Creek beef between a brioche bun, in the company of Swiss cheese, beer-brined pickles, and red-pepper relish — very fucking good; $17); and Fettucine Nero ($22), an attractively plated mound of squid-ink noodles mingling with a chorizo-prawn ragu, snap-snap-snappy jalapeno pesto, and herbed breadcrumbs. So much food, yet so much of the menu left unexplored.

The bill paid, we wobbled like Weebles toward home (stopping off for gelato because the weather called for it and because we have trouble stopping what we’ve started). Despite our vague gastronomic stupor, we talked — as we seem to always be doing nowadays — about the ongoing plight of restaurants and the additional burdens facing the likes of Belgard Kitchen, which has to contend with the overhead of a massive space and being slightly off the beaten path. Their patio was decently but not spectacularly busy during our visit, so we hope word spreads quickly about it now being open. Despite their enforced hiatus, they’ve hit the ground running. So run toward it.

Belgard Kitchen
55 Dunlevy Ave., Vancouver
604-699-1989
belgardkitchen.com / Instagram: @belgardkitchen
Delivery platform: DoorDash

(Photo: Kley Klemens)

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Caribbean, Cuban, Latin American, Mexican, Tacos

Review: Havana

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By Michael White

I’ve had a tendency to defer too much to the superior wisdom of The New York Times when I write for Jewkarta, and I had no intention of doing so again today. But then, mere hours ago, as if it had prophesied what I was struggling to articulate in the sentences that follow here, the Gray Lady published an article that provides a perfect framing for why Kley and I are so fond of Havana right now.

In the Times piece, California restaurant critic Tejal Rao ponders the increasingly lopsided balance of power in the relationship between servers and customers. During a time when all of us should be hyper-aware of the stress and sadness roiling inside our fellow humans — including, if not especially, those struggling to maintain a livelihood preparing and bringing us meals — instead we learn that public-facing workers, from restaurant staff to supermarket cashiers to Amazon drivers, are being subjected to more disrespect and outright abuse than ever from the masses.

This, needless to say, is some bullshit. Not only does it fly in the face of basic social decency; it lays bare a grotesque lack of gratitude toward people whose job is to risk their own health for no reason other than to provide us comforts we want but don’t need, perhaps even to pierce our year-plus bubble of loneliness with a warm-seeming “Hello,” an attentive “What can I do for you?”

What does this have to do with Havana? Frankly, everything.  

Havana has been a fixture of Vancouver’s Commercial Drive for more than 20 years. If ever it was considered one of the city’s crucial restaurants, it was before I lived here. It isn’t among the best, nor the most creative. Its menu is more Cuban-inspired than Cuban in practice. (I doubt any bona fide Cubanos consider carnitas tacos or pulled-pork eggs Benedict to be signatures of their homeland’s cuisine.) But none of this matters in the least. Because what Havana seems to want to be more than anything is A Great Hang: an environment in which we have an opportunity to not feel the rough edges of everyday life for a short time; where the food and drink are reliably good (at times great); where, if not everybody knows your name, at least a few staff are likely to remember it if you’ve become a familiar enough sight. Havana is where, lately, Kley and I have most consistently been able to forget — despite our servers’ masks and the sanitizer dispenser at the door and the plexiglass partitions hanging behind our backs — that we currently live under profoundly fucked-up circumstances. This is no small feat.

“Unlike service, which is technical and easy to describe, hospitality is abstract, harder to define,” writes Rao. “It doesn’t hinge on the quality of the glassware, or the folding of a napkin while you’re in the bathroom…. Hospitality is both invisible and formidable — it surrounds you.” The individual components of the hospitality we’ve routinely experienced at Havana are nothing remarkable. In an ideal world, they would be par for the course. But, of course, this isn’t an ideal world, and hospitality workers are performing their duties under such pressure nowadays that I don’t take it personally if they don’t seem receptive to my pathological politeness. I understand their inertia: I’ve had it up to here with people, too.

So, I don’t know to what I should attribute the happy hum of energy that the staff at Havana have consistently brought to our table — long before they discovered we were unimportant food bloggers with a three-figure following. They’ve brought the sort of genuine (or else very impressively faked) engagement and kindness that make people like us become regulars, even though Havana isn’t remotely close to either of our homes.

But I don’t mean to suggest Havana is worth your time and money simply because chances are the person taking your order will be nice. I’d cross the city again just for the Cheesy Poblano & Corn Dip ($15), a gorgeous sludge of niblets and molten herb-garlic Oaxaca cheese, crisped and blistered from the broiler. Grilled octopus ($19) is among the best I’ve had in a long time, imparting beautiful smoke and perfect texture, mingled with other good things including chorizo and charred shishito peppers in a smoked Romesco sauce. And we both quietly lost our collective shit over Mariquitas ($7): long, curling strips of fried plantain served with a chimichurri aioli that I implored the manager to bottle and sell. (He’s considering it.)

At brunch recently, Kley made best friends with the Governor Sour ($12), a pretty and bracingly — but not cloyingly — sweet cocktail of pisco, passionfruit, coconut, lime and egg white. I tend to skew bitter (ask anyone) and so was very taken with the Cuban old fashioned ($14), which builds upon an unlikely base of brown-butter Havana Club rum dosed with Angostura and cacao-coffee bitters. Our glows thus stoked, we sat further back in our patio chairs and watched the Drive’s bohemian and hipster-parent hordes parade past. Against all odds, life seemed sweet.

Speaking of patios… at the time of this writing, British Columbia’s indoor-dining ban continues, and so the covered patio is the only seating at Havana for the time being. This is no bad thing. Spring has sprung, and everyone seems all the more content (for reasons of both public health and general happiness) to be here next to the benign din of the sidewalk. As I write this, I wish I were there.

Havana
1212 Commercial Dr., Vancouver
604-253-9119
havanavancouver.com / Instagram: @havanavancouver
Delivery platform: DoorDash

(Photo: Kley Klemens)

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American, Vegetarian/Vegan

Review: Beetbox

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By Michael White

Would you punch a cow in the face if doing so led to the reward of a cheeseburger? Would you set fire to several thousand acres of forestland, thus causing the tormented demise of its countless fur- and feather-bearing inhabitants (as well as the homes of the humans who live among them), if it ensured the safe passage to your mouth of every cheeseburger you hope to eat before you expire?

If eliminating or vastly reducing the meat in one’s diet were simply a matter being presented with the reams of evidence proving the moral, ecological and economic damage of continuing to eat it, most of us would have done so years, decades, ago.

But we — myself included — are slaves to our dietary cravings, particularly those related to the customs in which we were raised.

I was born into a middle-class North American suburb of the 1970s — the breeding ground of the chain restaurant. My palate may have grown to love the comparatively exotic, rarefied likes of uni, Romanesco, and heavily peated Scotch, but to this day I’d sprint across six lanes of freeway traffic for a Quarter Pounder with Cheese. The sight of multiple fast-food marquees illuminated against a summer sky at dusk instills in me a visceral happiness that a lifetime of accumulated knowledge is helpless to undo. I may eventually get around to thinking about these brands’ immeasurable carbon footprints; the misery their shared disregard for living wages, animal and human welfare, and environmental responsibility has wreaked around the globe; their unequalled contribution to society’s obesity epidemic…. But first, I think about the seductive flavours, textures and aromas of their food; the inexplicable contentedness that comes from ripping open one of their bags to retrieve its wax-paper-swathed contents, or piercing the lid of a soda-fountain cup with a (non-biodegradable) straw. In that moment, I’m happily complicit in their assorted miseries. I am, in my own small way, a fucking monster.

But… but… change is taking place. It may not be happening fast enough (not even close), but it’s happening. And this is in no small part because culinary and scientific innovations have finally begun catching up with the demands of our pathetic appetites. If we can’t yet bring ourselves to do what we know is right at the expense of transient gastronomic pleasure, we at least now have the option of choosing responsible substitutes that decently mimic the foods that push our most vulnerable buttons. Which is why the availability of the plant-based Impossible Burger expanded in only one year from 150 U.S. grocery stores to almost 17,000, and why Impossible Foods’ closest competitor, Beyond Meat, is now selling its actually-not-meat products to everyone from Dunkin’ Donuts to KFC to, as of a couple of weeks ago, McDonald’s. Some lifelong carnivores are beginning to visualize a future in which they might not be such terrible people.

At a much smaller scale, but no less encouraging, is Beetbox, which opened in Vancouver’s Davie Village in late 2019. It bills itself as “Conscious Comfort Food,” meaning it wants to be the ethical surrogate for the meat- and dairy-based colon bombs we all know and, for the most part, love. Every ingredient employed on the menu here is of plant origin, but the vibe Beetbox means to radiate to the masses is, “This tastes just like the junk you love!” And to my ritually abused taste receptors, it does. Sometimes it actually tastes better.

The food at Beetbox was developed by chef and co-owner Bryan Satterford, who also fulfills similar roles at Chinatown’s popular Juke Fried Chicken. (Beetbox’s sole location was previously home to a smaller Juke outpost, but for some reason the neighbourhood didn’t take to it.) Which is to say, Satterford is a practicing carnivore who can empathize with the desires of other carnivores, not just committed vegans. He understands, too, that even vegans want in on the salt-sugar-fat sensations that define the fast-food experience. So, while his Nashville Fried Chick-Un Sandwich ($9.50) may not deliver the reputed heat of Nashville’s famed hot chicken, but it’s crisp, moist, and altogether more delicious than the majority of chicken sandwiches I’ve had at the usual haunts. To whatever extent the patty (made with hydrated wheat gluten, otherwise known as seitan) doesn’t taste like actual chicken has been well concealed by good marinade, a slathering of miso-based aioli, spiced pickles, and a superbly squishy brioche-style bun. I suspect the calories and fat content of this specimen aren’t much more virtuous than analogs containing dead bird, but at least you haven’t contributed to the murder of a bird.

Impressive, too, is the Crispy Gordita ($9.50), in which black beans, fried oyster mushrooms, vegan “cheeze,” pickled slaw, and avocado dressing are crowded into a comically large corn tortilla which, true to its name, is crisped up nicely on the griddle.

We also tried the Peanut Tempeh Bowl (one of three “warm bowls”; $15 each), featuring a generous pile-up of lemongrass-marinated tempeh (a popular meat substitute made of fermented soybeans), cucumber salad, mild kimchi, and peanut dressing. Kley, Jewkarta’s other half, grew up in Indonesia, where tempeh is both common and revered — he found its texture somewhat lacking, but my ignorance was bliss. We both appreciated the bowl’s harmonious array of flavours and textures, and I can report from firsthand experience that anything left over is just as good cold the next day.

Between the two of us, we didn’t have the opportunity to sample the cheeseburger, Reuben sandwich, chili-cheeze fries, or any of the cold salads. But as introductions go, I’m very happy to have made the acquaintance of Beetbox, and I plan to explore more of its menu very soon. I don’t know to what extent Satterford and co. are visualizing expansion, but their compassionate creations are of a calibre (and an affordability) that Beetbox deserves to scale up across the city and beyond. If something as indefensible as Subway can achieve worldwide ubiquity, why not a concept that’s not only immeasurably better, but that doesn’t make you an accessory to, I don’t know, the death of the planet?

Beetbox
1074 Davie St., Vancouver
604-233-8269
beetboxveg.com / Instagram: @beetboxveg
Delivery platforms: DoorDash, Skip the Dishes

(Photo: Kley Klemens)

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Farm to Table, Fusion, Japanese Cuisine, West Coast

Special-occasion review: Dachi

By Michael White

Seemingly no type of dining space, no matter how well-funded, has been immune to the economic ravages of the COVID-19 pandemic. To wit, within a five-kilometre radius of Jewkarta headquarters, in Vancouver’s West End, we informally estimate that two-thirds of the Starbucks locations that were here have shuttered during the past year — papered over, gone forever. Few of us mourn their passing — another one is never far away, after all — but if this globe-spanning coffee colossus can be so dramatically cut down to size in so short a time, what chance is there for the little people?

Wherever you live, you’ve undoubtedly seen the casualties. What famed New York chef Gabrielle Hamilton referred to (in her heartbreaking New York Times essay) as the “sweet, gentle citizen restaurant” is struggling to survive the storm most of all, sending up distress flares while frantically bailing buckets of rainwater overboard. This is the sort of restaurant that defines neighbourhoods and cities, that gives them their character and enlightens the populace about previously unknown possibilities for food and drink. If they all go, so too does the evolution of dining (and the futures of many who trained for careers in this world).

So it was all the more reassuring to walk into Dachi — as sweet and gentle a citizen restaurant as you could hope to find — one recent Saturday night, in celebration of my 97th birthday (give or take), to find it very much alive and, it would seem, thriving.

Dachi opened in late 2018 in Hastings-Sunrise, in an unassuming corner lot previously occupied by Campagnolo Roma. It had its work cut out for it — everyone had loved Campagnolo Roma’s pizzas and pastas, and Dachi co-owners Miki Ellis and Stephen Whiteside would be bringing into the space a much more rarefied experience, informed by their shared history at the Aburi restaurant group. There would be sakes and obscure natural wines, and a menu informed not by a particular cuisine but by what local purveyors and the seasons make available at any given time. A little Japanese, a little West Coast, a lot farm-to-table.

And hey, presto! The locals (and many from far beyond) love it, because Dachi is what all neighbourhood restaurants aspire to be: a spot worthy of both destination dining and a casual drop-in.

We loved it, too. A year into the pandemic, we could almost believe, for a couple of hours, that it wasn’t happening. It all felt so normal. Dachi made the sophisticated decision to partition its tables not with plexiglass but with plants, and the normally 40-seat space has been reduced in capacity just enough to ensure safety but to retain liveliness. Aside from the masks our terrific servers (which included co-owner Whiteside) were wearing, we felt we’d been transported back to the Before Times, lazing in the low hum of positive energy that occurs when everyone in the room is happy and the kitchen is sending out many delicious things.

Speaking of which…. Our delicious things included delicate slices of barely seared beef (pictured above), attractively plated with pickled daikon, finely cubed carrot and celery, and dabs of pungent chimichurri. More rustic in presentation, but no less savagely devoured by us, were a thick slab of pork-and-duck pâté with grilled sourdough (which was properly sour) and an assortment of house-pickled vegetables; and meaty, smoky strands of Pacific octopus mingled with cilantro, watermelon radish, and salsa macha — the Mexican equivalent of chile crisp.

After stoking the evening’s glow with house cocktails (including the Just Might Work, which is built upon a foundation of peated whiskey and is, therefore, my new favourite thing), our server directed us toward an extraordinary, intensely aromatic Alsatian Gewürztraminer that tasted like the attainment of every vacation we wish we’d been able to take over the past 12 months. After polishing off the bottle, I no longer felt the sting of being so damn old.

Dachi is the sort of restaurant we need to be here right now while this clusterfuck of global events sorts itself out, and the sort of restaurant we’ll want to still be standing when it all finally blows over. Support it, and others like it, if and when you can. In a small but not insignificant way, the soul of your city depends on it.

Dachi
2297 E. Hastings St.
604-569-0456
dachivancouver.com / Instagram: @dachivancouver

(Photo: Kley Klemens)

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Indian Cuisine

Review: Mumbai Local

Watch the video review here!

By Michael White

What, until very recently, was wrong with me? What, for that matter, continues to be wrong with the hundreds, thousands, of Greater Vancouver residents who haven’t yet come to Mumbai Local and availed themselves of every menu item their wallet will allow?

Since its opening in Summer 2018, I’d walked past this attractive Davie Village space at least twice a month — aware of its reputation (Alexandra Gill, Vancouver’s highest-profile food writer, raved about it), intrigued by its concept — yet never through its door. I’ve never seen more than three tables occupied at one time while furtively glancing through the windows en route to home or some other, probably less-deserving restaurant.

And now I’ve sampled a small fraction of its menu, and I want to rewind the past two-plus years to redress my neglect. Mumbai Local may very well be serving the most delicious food in the West End, and without question some of the best Indian cuisine I’ve eaten in my life.

Unlike virtually every other Indian restaurant in this city, Mumbai Local’s focus isn’t the Punjabi warhorses North American diners recognize and enjoy. There is no butter chicken here, nor is there anything cooked in a tandoor. The word “curry” appears sparingly, and only as a concession to customers who otherwise might not understand what they’re being offered. True to its name, Mumbai Local’s overwhelmingly abundant menu (more than 40 choices, not including desserts and drinks) is an evocation of the dishes one would find in Mumbai, from where the restaurant’s principals all originate.

Street food is a key part of Mumbai food culture — locals are united in their passion for it, and tourists design their itineraries around sampling from as many hawkers as their stomachs can bear — and the fare at Mumbai Local is heavily weighted toward what you might find at the countless stalls in that city. Take, for example, Vada Pav ($8 for two) — seriously, take as many of them as you can carry! To merely describe them might not inspire a stampede of salivating gourmands, but a single bite should. Inside a delicately sweet slider-sized bun (pav), a golden patty of spiced potato (fried in a wondrous chickpea batter) is painted with both tamarind-date and mint chutneys. The resulting collision of flavours and textures — crunchy and soft; fattiness and astringency; sweet and sour and savoury — is, in its own modest way, a fireworks show on your palate.

Dahi Puri ($8) are hollow, spherical rice crackers the size of a large gumball, each of which has a hole into which you smear your choice of various accompaniments: spiced yogurt; seasoned mashed potato; more of those chutneys, plus another that’s as red as a brick and with heat to match; little shards of fried chickpea noodle called shev. Think of it as interactive snacking in which every bite has the potential to be, in the words of a famous Canadian pitchman, a whole new ballgame.

Chicken Sukka ($10) is described by the menu as “lip smacking,” but I’d compare it to an unrestrained make-out session with the spice gods. Which isn’t to say this is heat for the sake of it. This is spice deployed with thoughtfulness and complexity, perhaps inclined to make you puff out your cheeks and exhale emphatically, but from pleasure and surprise, not pain. The bite-sized pieces of thigh are meltingly tender as well, and as convincing an argument as anything for the abolition of dry, bland breast meat (a point I also made in my previous review, and will continue to make at every opportunity). Mumbai Special Pav Bhaji ($14; note these consistently friendly prices!) finds mashed vegetables cooked in an immodest amount of butter with some alchemical blend of spices. It comes with more of those dream-invading pav, presumably to sop up any puddles of sauce that remain behind, although Kley and I weren’t above eating it by the spoonful as if it were our last meal on death row.

There remain 40-plus dishes at Mumbai Local we’ve yet to explore, as well as reputedly excellent cocktails made with the likes of chai, turmeric, and watermelon juice. The thoroughly casual dining space (including a stunning wall-sized mural designed by Shraddha Kumar, who happens to be married to owner Shreyash Kulkarni) will surely have our patronage before long, although everything we brought home seemed none the worse for having travelled, including the fried items. In the meantime, I don’t know to what extent Mumbai Local has been struggling throughout the pandemic, but I’ll be making as much of a contribution as I can as a consumer to help ensure it survives. This is a restaurant Vancouver needs to rally around, because whether you know it yet or not, you want this food in your life — now and for years to come.

Mumbai Local
1148 Davie St.
604-423-3281
mumbailocal.ca / Instagram: @mumbailocal.ca
Delivery platforms: DoorDash, Uber Eats   

(Photo: Kley Klemens)

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Middle Eastern Cuisine

Review: Superbaba

Watch the video review here!

By Michael White

Did you know the exact origin of falafel has proven impossible to determine? I didn’t until I sat down to write this review.

What historians do know (unless they don’t) is that over 130 years ago, one or more clever individuals (likely Egyptian, unless they weren’t) lit upon the idea of mashing together fava beans with herbs and spices, forming the resultant paste into balls, and frying them until they became crisp and golden brown. Word of this culinary innovation — delicious, nutritious, simple and economical — spread throughout the Middle East, and various populations adapted the recipe to suit whatever legume was at hand, most prominently chickpeas.

Flash forward to today, when a minimum-wage Pita Pit employee dispassionately passes to a hungry but perhaps equally dispassionate customer a sandwich containing a handful of angrily hard falafel pucks that arrived in a freezer bag and were reheated in the microwave.

All cuisines are born of environment, ingenuity and love. And all cuisines are destined to eventually become a product of cold-blooded opportunism, their constituent parts debased until we bite into something we implicitly understand is supposed to be delicious yet can no longer recall why. Middle Eastern cuisine is among the most intensely flavourful and aromatic on Earth, and here in Vancouver there are some places — Nuba, Aleph and Jamjar among them — that properly honour it. But there are a great many more who seem to not be disrespecting it so much as seeking revenge upon it: dry, bland shawarma meat; dry, bland falafel balls; pita bread from the supermarket (dry and bland also, of course); vegetables left to wither and fade behind the glass of a warm display case. Kley and I almost broke up in the annoyed, bloated-yet-still-hungry aftermath of a takeout meal from one such establishment near English Bay. (Seriously: fuck that joint.)

But now Vancouver has Superbaba and, save for matters of convenience (as yet, the city has only one location, at Main and Broadway, and delivery isn’t an option), we have no acceptable reason to settle for bad Middle Eastern food here again.

Superbaba is the brainchild of various people whose success is built upon laser-focused attention to detail: Robbie Kane, whose Café Medina forever elevated Vancouver’s expectations of brunch; the principals behind Tacofino, which began as a food truck and is now a city-straddling empire; and chef Abdallah El Chami, who developed a reputation for transcendent West Coast-inspired Lebanese dishes at various pop-up dinners.

Merely glancing over its menu, one wouldn’t necessarily expect there to be anything that sets Superbaba apart from scores of other shawarma-and-falafel takeout spots. (The restaurant space was designed to accommodate dine-in seating as well, but then COVID, etc., etc….) A list of both wraps ($9.95-$12.70) and bowls ($11.25-$13.95) offers identical options between them: chicken, steak, falafel, or sabich (battered and fried eggplant — which, admittedly, is far from common). But El Chami has brought the keen imagination and first-rate ingredients that fired his pop-ups to everything served here. Meats are beautifully seasoned, and imbued with the crunch and smoke that only come from proper grilling (mercifully, the chicken is flavourful thigh only). The interiors of the falafel are stunningly green and herbaceous, thanks to plenty of parsley and cilantro, and they’re never dropped into the fryer until your order is called. Sabich, whether in a bowl or a wrap, is simply gastronomic nirvana: Japanese eggplant encased in a proprietary tempura batter that renders the humble tuber an object of intense craving. Dip it in the accompanying cup of tahini and zhug (a Yemenite cilantro-based hot sauce) and curse yourself for not having ordered an additional four-piece side ($5).

There are grace notes of care, inventiveness and generosity everywhere, from the fries — fries! — tucked into the chicken and steak wraps, to pitas baked in house, to the perfect six-minute egg (its circumference rendered pink from the same brine used to make their pickled radish) and three harmonious sauces that top the sabich bowl. As for the halva-cornflake cookie ($3.15): package and sell these at 7-Eleven, please.

It must be noted that while Superbaba’s prices are, at most, a few dollars higher than their menu counterparts at a typical Middle Eastern spot, the quality here is incomparable and portions are beyond generous — we had leftovers of everything and we’re by no means restrained eaters.

The first Superbaba opened in Victoria in 2017, and I’d like to think its Vancouver debut points toward ongoing expansion. Café Medina is testament to Kane’s ability to amass a crew that can knock out hundreds of plates daily with stunning consistency, while Tacofino is a model for duplicating (and subtly tweaking) a successful formula across multiple locations. Between those forces and El Chami’s creativity, Superbaba could set a new standard for Middle Eastern food at a chain level. It would be no less than what this much-loved but oft-mistreated cuisine has long deserved. In the meantime, I’ll happily go out of my way, again and again, for more of this.

Superbaba
2419 Main St.
604-423-5578
eatsuperbaba.com / Instagram: @eatsuperbaba
Take-out only; order in person, by phone or via the website

(Photo: Kley Klemens)

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