Vancouver Food Guide, a City Tasting Tour
It’s 8 a.m. and I’m crouching in a field of watercress on an organic farm in Southeast Vancouver. I’m wearing purple rubber boots and sitting on my haunches to snip the green, rounded leaves. Sally is in front me, also picking the curly-stemmed plant. It’s not how I planned to start my tasting tour of Vancouver, to spot the best places to eat in Vancouver. I was thinking more of sipping gold at the Vancouver Urban Winery, gorging myself on Okanagan peaches, and eating blueberry scrumpets at the Granville Public Market. Instead, Sally and I are talking about my marriage potential. I’m not good enough for her son, it seems, because I don’t pick watercress fast enough.
Sally works for Paul Healey of Hannah Brook Farms. I met him at the Trout Lake Farmers Market, where my Vancouver Tasting Tour really began. When I complimented his sweet, licorice-flavoured anise hyssop and bought a bag of his pea tendrils, he invited me to come pick whatever I wanted at his latest farm property in Burnaby. His fields were so overrun with cucumbers, giant zucchini, squash, kale and beets, he said, that he couldn't pick and sell them fast enough. So I accepted, and found myself the next morning on the Skytrain, Vancouver’s light rail system, on my way to Healey’s family-sized farm just outside downtown.
Anyone not this ambitious—or as into purple rubber boots—should stick to Healey’s stall at the Trout Lake Market. There, he joins mostly organic vendors selling heirloom tomatoes, Champagne peaches, sustainable local salmon and tuna, purple potatoes, artisanal bread, chipotle hummus (yes, artisanal hummus), baked goods, hot sauces, gelato and grilled cheese sandwiches every Saturday morning. Iced blueberry scones and still-warm peach pies from Small Pleasures Bakery are followed by heaping piles of organic cherries from Golden West Farms and indulgent maple-smoked salmon nuggets from community-supported fishery, Skipper Otto’s as you walk from stall to stall. Did you know Michael Pollan has a tomato named after him? He does. It’s small and yellow, and at the Klipper’s market stall it’s neighbours with more than thirty other kinds of organically grown tomatoes, from Purple Princes to striped Tigerellas to Yellow Brandywines.
Healey sticks mostly to greens: lacinato kale, lemony sorrel, mustard greens, slippery purslane, mizuna, and addictively sweet hyssop—“everything you can put in a salad that isn’t lettuce,” he says. He does, however, sell “kitchen sink” biodynamic peaches and nectarines from a partner farm north of Vancouver. They need to be eaten over a sink to catch the explosively sweet juices that drip down your chin when you bite into them.
Trout Lake Farmers Market
If you can’t make it to Healey’s market stall or his farms, you can still eat his greens at Chambar Restaurant. It’s one of the city’s top fine dining restaurants. There, the Hannah Brook Farms salad comes in a sweet dressing that’s more vinegar than oil to balance the pungent greens. If you did make it to the farm at 6 a.m. as I did, however, you’ll want to take the 20-minute light rail trip back downtown to Gorilla Food for an “Electro-Light-It-Up” juice (apple, celery, cucumber, lemon, and ginger). It’s the perfect recharge post-picking. The raw-vegan restaurant has the best, freshly pressed juices in the city, which might have something to do the fact that it sources its kale and beets from Healey.
Kafka Coffee & Tea
Refuelled, head to Vancouver’s newest hot neighbourhood—the east side. As you walk down Main Street, real estate shifts from upscale boutiques, table clothed restaurants and coffee shops to affordable sushi bars and Indian grocers. Start at Kafka Coffee & Tea for a pour over coffee. There are also cold brew and siphon options, completing the hipster coffee triumvirate.
49th Parallel Coffee and Lucky’s Doughnuts
49th Parallel is a competing coffee shop down the road with a cult following. Their direct-trade beans are available throughout the city, but their shop with an outdoor patio and Lucky’s Doughnuts lures patrons to the Main Street location. French cruellers, vanilla-glazed Bismarks piped with coconut cream and topped with Swiss meringue, and sugar-dusted strawberry doughnuts sit pretty in handmade wooden displays. They’ll sit even prettier next to your perfectly pulled espresso.
Northwest Culinary Academy
Main Street is also home to the Northwest Culinary Academy, a saving grace if you don’t have a kitchen while in Vancouver. Their Saturday morning cooking class takes participants to the Trout Lake Market to meet vendors and buy ingredients. The class then returns to the kitchen for a wine-paired meal of braised pork belly salad and grilled sustainable salmon with potato galette and seasonal vegetable fricassée.
The Fish Counter
Or stop by The Fish Counter, where crispy, golden fish ‘n’ chips platters are the upscale snack bar’s calling card. A display counter sells the restaurant’s home-cured gravlax, Sockeye salmon hot chips, maple-smoked Chinook salmon, hoisin-roasted sablefish (it melts in your mouth like butter) and seared tuna tataki. The shop also sells the Oceanwise cookbook, a locally made sustainable seafood bible. The basket of Pemberton Farm’s new potatoes next to the cash is yet another nod to the Trout Lake Market.
Legacy Liquor Store
Legacy keeps its sake in the fridge, but that’s only really necessary for unpasteurized nama sake. And the only brand of nama the store carries is the Vancouver-made Osake, whose shop is located on Granville Island, next to the city’s largest public market. The café serves tasting flights along with cheese platters and homemade ice cream. A seat on the patio offers prime people-watching, as pedestrians pass by on their way to the tourist-heavy island’s locally-made clothing shops, umbrella boutiques, woodworking shops and art galleries. Osake doesn’t make high-end, highly polished Junmai Daiginjo sake, and the Junmai and Genshu versions are rough around the edges, but the brewer is the only sake producer with its own rice fields in Canada. At the tasting bar you can even see rice growing in containers and all the sake brewing equipment needed to demonstrate the complete sake-making method from grain to alcohol.
Richmond Night Market
Finish the day with a trip to the Richmond Night Market. Take the Skytrain to Bridgeport station and walk a couple minutes to the giant duck sign that stands out like a neon beacon of dim sum and bubble tea in the warm summer air. As the sun sets, join the line of hungry patrons waiting to pay their entry to the maze of hawker stalls selling everything from sweet sesame nori crackers to hand-pulled noodles, to soft serve-stuffed Korean corn fritters and Japanese takoyaki octopus balls. It feels more like a carnival than a real Asian night market, but it’s also more hygienic, Pan-Asian, organized, and festive. On hot evenings there’s no better treat to end the night than a heaping bowl of Taiwanese-style shaved ice topped with fresh mango cubes, sliced strawberries, fruit syrups, mango ice cream and condensed milk. Or go more Malaysian with sweet green lentil, jelly squares, and red kidney bean chendol on a similar mountain of ice.
If you don’t leave Vancouver convinced that it’s a great food city, schedule a return trip immediately. From sweet to savoury, exotic to familiar, and contemporary to comforting, Vancouver’s food scene is on the rise.