All due respect to Los Angeles’s San Gabriel Valley, Seattle’s White Center, and the Twin Cities’ Frogtown, but Richmond, British Columbia might just have the most diverse collection of Asian food in North America. After a recent visit, we were convinced: it’s one of the world’s most delicious suburbs. This once-sleepy Vancouver suburb has become one of North America’s best places for Asian food and is worthy of some serious exploration.
Richmond's population is 65% Asian — thanks to an immigrant boom in the 1970’s — and half of that is Chinese, making for the largest Chinese population outside of mainland China. While Vancouver’s Chinatown is becoming saturated with trendy bars and restaurants, Richmond is where you come for cuisine that rivals what you’d find in Asia. With over 800 restaurants, many of them on Alexandra Road (also known as Food Street), there’s a lot to navigate in Richmond. Our mentality: why linger at one restaurant when you can do on a DIY food tour?
Here’s how to taste the best of Richmond:
Richmond is conveniently located just 25 minutes south of Vancouver and 25 minutes north of the United States border. The Canada Line provides regular service from Vancouver’s waterfront and city centre to Bridgeport (the first stop in Richmond), followed by Aberdeen, Landsdowne, and Brighouse. And Vancouver International Airport is actually located in Richmond, which means you better hope you have a layover. (Once I even checked in for my return flight early so I could take cab to get dim sum beforehand...true story!)
EAT YOUR WAY THROUGH THE MALLS
While most malls are becoming less frequented with the rise of online shopping, Richmond’s malls are busy as ever thanks to their popular food courts and restaurants. The Aberdeen Centre is a great place to start. The second largest Asian mall in North America — and undoubtedly the sleekest in Richmond — Aberdeen is a great cross-section of the region’s diversity. The food court alone is worthy of its own Instagram account, boasting Taiwanese-style bento boxes and hot pots, Japanese cream puffs and crepes, Vietnamese pho and bánh mì, and Hong Kong-style congee and noodles.
On my first visit, I spotted a long line at the Bubble Waffle Cafe, a counter selling the popular egg-based snack from Hong Kong (think waffles made with dough bubbles in lieu of a square-shaped imprint… and sometimes flavored and covered in toppings). The line was made up all sorts of people — not only of young people you’d expect to see killing time in the mall but also business people and elderly foodies all waiting patiently to wrap their hands around a hot, crispy bubble waffle and a cup of creamy milk tea! (Naturally, I joined the line because I knew this must be the spot for bubble waffles. And, let me tell you, I was not disappointed.)
Make sure to venture outside the food court too. Some must-eat places are Dinesty for Shanghai-style dumplings, Chef Hung’s for award-winning Taiwanese beef noodle soup, and SURA for Korean BBQ. (Sidenote: All three of these restaurants began in Richmond and have since expanded to Vancouver, where they are enormously successful.)
While the older malls might lack the sparkle and sleekness of Aberdeen, their food courts are not to be overlooked. At nearby Parker Place, there is always a line for the crispy roast pork at Parker Place Meats & BBQ. (Oh, and the crunchy fish sandwich at Lai Taste is one of Richmond’s best kept secrets.)
Find some of the freshest xiao long bao (“xlb” for those in the know) in town at R&H Chinese food. The unassuming little counter, which shares food court space with KFC and Subway in the Landsdowne Centre, pinches soup dumplings and rolls out green onion pancakes to order. R&H is also one of the stops on The Dumpling Trail, a self-guided tour created by Tourism Richmond to showcase the best dumplings (boiled, fried, steamed and sweet) the city has to offer.
ENJOY BOAT TO TABLE DIM SUM, SUSHI & MORE
Dim sum is practically a rite of passage in Richmond and can be enjoyed here every day of the week — not just on Sundays. Continental Seafood is one of the few restaurants still offering cart service, as locals much prefer their dim sum to be made to order. Be sure to make reservations at Fisherman’s Terrace or Chef Tony’s, because both upscale hot spots tend to draw a crowd for their artfully prepared dim sum selections and uber-fresh seafood (as evidenced by the live fish tanks visible in the dining rooms).
Though it’s not within walking distance, you’ll want to make time to visit the historic fishing village of Steveston to truly appreciate the bounty of seafood available. Locals buy fresh sea urchin, spot prawn, and sashimi-grade King salmon straight off the boats at Steveston's Fisherman’s Wharf. Enjoy a view of the marina with a Caesar in hand at the patio of Catch Kitchen or dig into an omakase-style feast at Ichiro where, if the stars align, they’ll serve you sashimi and udon made from a freshly caught lobster. For Richmond Canada Day on July 1st, 1200 pounds of wild salmon filets are grilled over fire pits (and this year will honor of Canada’s 150th birthday).
A number of local outfits, like Seabreeze Adventures, provide private and small group fishing charter boats from Steveston. Learn everything you need to know about gear, bait and tackle before heading out to catch salmon, herring, sturgeon, rock cod and more. Area hotels like the Fairmont Vancouver Airport and the Pacific Gateway Hotel, offer fish valet services that will store your fish for the entirety of your stay and pack it for travel back home.
EXPLORE THE NIGHT MARKETS
Marathon eating is a year-round pastime in Richmond, but visit during the warmer months, and you can visit the two bustling night markets (modeled after night markets found throughout Hong Kong, Taiwan and China). Start at the more low-key Panda Market (aka the International Summer Night Market). Now in its 16th year, the market runs from May until September and features an array of food options: Taiwanese stinky tofu, spiralized Korean “hurricane potatoes,” Malaysian roti, Chinese BBQ squid, Slovakian trdelník pastry, Japanese fried unagi and colorful cotton candy-topped ice cream creations.
Though food is undoubtedly the main event, there’s a section of carnival games with prizes, a stage features nightly performances and a retail area features vendors selling everything from handmade soap to fake eyelashes to Obama socks (you better believe I got a pair of those!) It’s hard to understand why this market would be considered more “low-key” until you visit the larger, louder and brighter Richmond Night Market, which features over one hundred food vendors.
The Richmond Night Market runs into October and is located within walking distance of the Canada Line’s Bridgeport station — both factors which are helpful for Vancouverites and visitors who want to work their way through all the delicious options through repeat visits. When he’s not cooking at Vancouver’s Fairmont Waterfront hotel, Chef James is manning the grill at Xin Jiang Man BBQ, where he’s known for serving cumin-perfumed lamb kebabs with a heavy side of showmanship.
The crunchy Cambodian-style chicken wings at the Little Phnom Penh stand are another must-try. Topped with cilantro and green onions and served with a bright lime dipping sauce, the fish sauce-marinated and rice-flour coated wings are the perfect combination of sweet, sour and umami. Balance out snacks like crispy potato korokke and kakiage from Tempura Tantrum with fresh and colorful tuna and salmon poke bowls from Ohana Poke. Be sure to also try Po Wah Dim Sum’s spicy curried fish balls, which come with bamboo sticks for easy eating,
After the sun sets, the crowd thickens noticeably and each stand is illuminated with twinkling lights. The hungry masses eagerly watch, snap photos and film the chefs flip takoyaki and griddle fish-shaped taiyaki. Aisles and aisles of retail stands provide a respite while you digest; here, you’ll find anything from vape accessories and cell phone cases to color contacts and fake eyelashes. And, like the Panda Market, there are live performances throughout the night and plenty of carnival games.
After walking through the labyrinth of gadgets and watching kids in inflatable Bumper Balls topple over, get ready for dessert because the number of options is staggering! Thai freeze-fried ice cream, Taiwanese snow cream topped with fruit and boba, candied fruit on a stick (loved the cherry tomatoes!) and dragon’s beard candy, a wispy pulled sugar wrapped around peanuts, coconut and sesame seeds. It seems like some stands are almost trying to outdo each other with new and playful sweets. Egglet Parfait wraps bubble waffles into cones and fills them with ice cream and toppings, while Icecane specializes in J-shaped corn or rice shells filled with soft serve and layered corn puff sundaes.
INDULGE YOUR SWEET TOOTH
Speaking of, if you’re into unique desserts, there’s plenty more to discover in Richmond outside of the night markets. Lido is a little hole-in-the-wall Hong Kong-style diner known for their pineapple buns, buttery brioche buns that are baked so often they’re almost always warm. For true decadence, ask for a pat of butter with yours (I mean, why skimp now?). Get to Snowy Village Dessert Cafe early or there will inevitably be a wait for a table at this Korean bingsu cafe. Each shaved snow creation is served in a frosty copper cup and topped with things like matcha sponge cake cubes, soybean powder, rice cakes and twirls of condensed milk.
But if you really want to earn some Instagram street cred, a visit to Sugarholic Cafe is in order. While all of their pastries and petit fours look picture-perfect, first-timers need to experience a Japanese honey toast creation— just be sure to bring a few friends. Each toast box is filled with layers of fruit, cream, more bread and options like caramel and chocolate. For a deconstructed version, order one of the honey toast cube plates and the brioche will arrive in a mountain of cubes topped with all the accoutrements of your dreams.
Don’t leave town without paying a visit to Yuan Chen Tea where sisters Candy and Vivian lead tastings in their warm teakwood-paneled shop using teas that are picked fresh and hand rolled in China’s Yunnan province, the birthplace of tea. Taste the difference between sheng pu-erh (which is raw and can be young or aged) and shou pu-erh (which is dried and fermented) before perusing their beautiful selection of ceramic tea pots, bamboo tea trays and adorable clay tea pets, which are said to bring good luck.
There’s no better place to relax, digest and ponder your flavorful visit to Richmond. Or stay long enough and you’ll inevitably emerge, tea-drunk and ready for one last meal before you go.
Photos by Veronica Meewes