Thank goodness for the Grouse Grind. Schlepping up Vancouver’s most notorious, vertiginous hiking trail – aka Mother Nature’s Stairmaster – would, I hoped, mitigate all I’d consumed over the past few days.
Meat sweats? As I climbed Grouse Mountain, I was perspiring a smorgasbord of pork dumplings, grilled bison and bone marrow. But when I got to the top, I realised: once wasn’t going to be enough…
Vancouver is one of the world’s top gourmet cities. The moderate climate delivers a long growing season and an abundant crop; the Pacific supplies superb seafood; the diverse population – 42 per cent minorities, spanning 200-plus ethnic groups – ensures culinary variety.
However, it’s more than that.
“Originally most immigrants were from Hong Kong, so a lot of food was Cantonese,” food blogger Sherman Chan told me.
“Now Vancouver’s like the UN – everyone’s here. There’s more regional cuisine, more variety. And because people are immigrants, or surrounded by immigrants, they’re more adventurous eaters.”
Spirit of adventure
That spirit of culinary adventure was evident everywhere. Following the Streetfood Vancouver app, which gives live locations of the city’s food carts, I started by roaming downtown, toying between butter chicken schnitzel at Vij’s Railway Express or fish burritos at Tacofino.
I was trying to find Mr Bannock, the city’s first indigenous food truck, launched in 2018 by Squamish Nation chef Paul Natrall; I’d heard good things about his smoked meat on honey-waffle bannock bread. Alas, Natrall had gone awol, so I settled for a fusion hotdog from Jappadog instead: kurobuta pork, seaweed, Japanese mayo – delicious.
From the sublime to the virtuous, next I joined Vancouver Food Tour’s new vegan trip, for a walk through one of the city’s emerging culinary trends.
“Most people on this tour aren’t vegan, they’re vegan curious,” guide Joe explained as we met in Gastown, Vancouver’s oldest neighbourhood. “They want help navigating the vegan scene.”
Gastown has strong environmental credentials: it was here, in the Smart Mouth Café in 1971, that a group of campaigners renamed its fledgling organisation Greenpeace. Less appropriately, our first stop was Blood Alley, Gastown’s old meat-packing area – which is now home to vegan comfort-food joint Meet.
I got sticky-fingered with “chicken wings” – beer-battered cauliflower slathered in chilli-ginger sauce – while the table opposite tucked into burgers that looked 100 per cent beef. Meet’s signage doesn’t declare its meat-free status, Joe noted: “In Vancouver, if the food’s good people will come.”
The place was heaving.
The Dumpling Trail
We continued into Chinatown, Vancouver’s second-oldest district, originally populated by immigrants who came to build the railways. We gorged on nut-cheese pizza, bowls of marinated tempeh and scoops of dairy-free organic gelato. It’s a foodie area, though “Chinatown” is almost a misnomer these days. Most of the Chinese population has decamped to Richmond, further south. I followed their lead.
It was only 10am when I entered Empire Seafood the next morning, but already it was teeming.
“This place is a classic but they do inventive dishes,” explained Sophia Cheng, who was guiding me around a few of the stomach-expanding eateries on the new Richmond Dumpling Trail, a route to help visitors graze the suburb.
Sophia ordered a mix of dim sum including har gow (steamed shrimp dumplings) and scallop wantons.
“Har gow is a restaurant’s bellwether,” Sophia explained. “Their skin should be thin but not breaking, with good elasticity – a bounce-back on the teeth.”
I made a mess of manoeuvering the dim sum. There was all too much bouncing back between chopsticks, mouth and bowl. But the flavours were exquisite.
Over the next few hours, we hopped between outlets I would never have found on my own. At an inauspicious stall in Lansdowne Mall, I watched two ladies roll, nip and tuck endless xiaolongbao (soup dumplings) before I attempted to eat them. Top tip: bite a tiny hole and suck out the liquid before scoffing the rest. At Aberdeen Mall food court, I chased slippery Chengdu dumplings around a plate, then mollified their peppery kick with Korean bingsoo (milky shaved ice).
Fit for an emperor
We finished at Yuu. Not because we were remotely hungry but because this Japanese tapas joint has recently invented “beer” ramen. Resembling a pint of worms, it’s actually a tankard of noodle broth topped with a foamy head of whisked egg-white. Food for the Instagram generation. But it also sums up eating in Vancouver: inventive, culture-fusing, playful.
This applies to Richmond Night Market, too. The weekend fair is now North America’s largest night market, comprising more than 100 food stalls. Blogger Chan led me amid the smouldering grills, sizzling pans and hungry crowds juggling buns, bakes and skewers from all corners of Asia and beyond.
We started with Xinjiang-style barbecue and Oktoberfest pork hock before moving on to Taiwanese gua bao burgers, southern fried chicken, Korean fried chicken and giant senbei rice crackers.
The crumbed crab claw was a highlight. We also sampled mouth-clogging mochi rice buns that looked better than they tasted, and black truffle gyoza that tasted better than they looked.
Sherman was keen for me to try dragon’s beard candy: parcels of nuts and sesame wrapped in gossamer-thin spun sugar, once reserved for Chinese emperors. I watched as the skilled confectioner pulled the sugar into a hundred threads and worked it like a weaver at a loom.
While dragon’s beard dates back millennia, the market’s new-for-2018 gimmick is, er, milk tea served in baby bottles. I suspect this won’t have the same longevity. I didn’t try it. Indeed, I was done. We finished at the Thai cold-fried ice cream stand, where a man with spatulas and a chilled plate magicked rolls of gelato. But I couldn’t manage even a wafer-thin curl.
I was fit to burst. And wondering just how many Grinds I’d have to do…
Sherman Chan, Food blogger
“The latest food trend in Vancouver is Korean. The best KFC – Korean fried chicken – is at Ajuker and the best Korean bingsoo is at My Frosty. The next big things? Filipino food is on the rise.”
When to go
July and August are warmest but busiest. Spring and autumn are quieter, often cheaper and still attraction-packed; for instance, whales migrate past from March to October. Winters are wet but mild. It seldom snows in the city, though nearby mountains offer good skiing.
How to get there
Direct flights connect Vancouver to Gatwick, Heathrow, Manchester and Glasgow; flight time is around 9.5 hours. Air Canada flies Heathrow-Vancouver from £554 return, aircanada.com
UK nationals must hold an Electronic Travel Authorisation before travel; eTAs cost C$7 (£4.20) and are valid for up to five years, canada.ca
Where to stay
The Metropolitan Hotel is well located, near the City Centre SkyTrain station. Rooms are neat and generous; there’s also a gym and pool. Doubles from C$209 (£125), metropolitan.com/vanc
Where to eat
Richmond Night Market runs Friday-Sunday until 8 October, richmondnightmarket.com Download a map to explore Richmond’s Dumpling Trail, dumplingtrail.com
Vancouver Food Tour and Off The Eaten Track offer a range of tours, vancouverfoodtour.com, offtheeatentracktours.ca
For modern, mindful farm-to-table food try Wildebeest or Burdock and Co, wildebeest.ca, burdockandco.com
For excellent ice cream, try Bella Gelateria. bellagelateria.com
What to see
Granville Island is a former industrial hub where old factories now house food and craft markets, granvilleisland.com. Stanley Park is an urban oasis, vancouver.ca
Vancouver has 270km of bike paths, cyclecitytours.com,or take on the 2.5km Grouse Grind hike, grousemountain.com