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The Best Asian Food in North America? Try British Columbia

by: Ravi Khanal
10 June, 2018

With a robust immigrant population and access to fresh seafood and produce, Richmond, B.C., has become a one-stop paradise for lovers of Asian food.

On a steamy Friday evening, early last summer, I exited a Korean-made metro train with a crowd of teenagers and parents with young children, who filled the elevated platform at Bridgeport Road with a congenial babble of Cantonese, English, Tagalog and Mandarin. Crossing an expansive parking lot, we entered a makeshift village of canopied stalls, set amid a forest of simulated cherry trees whose LED blossoms lent the turquoise twilight a pinkish hue.

Vendors barked out pitches for Pikachu plushies, fidget spinners with strobing lobes, and Cosplay anime onesies for adults. On a small midway, the roar of an animatronic brachiosaurus was briefly overwhelmed by the jets of a Boeing 787 bound for one of the megacities of mainland China. The unmistakable odor of octopus and squid grilling over charcoal permeated the air.

It could have been the Temple Street market in Kowloon, Hong Kong, or one of Singapore’s open-air hawker centers. But I was on the North American side of the Pacific Ocean, in a city the Chinese have dubbed Fu Gwai Moon (Fortune’s Gate). Richmond, as it is more commonly known, is a suburb-city built on flat islands embraced by arms of the Fraser River that lead into the Salish Sea.

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Durian Mochi at Kirin, a Chinese restaurant carved out of a single level of a multistory parking garage.CreditRobert Leon for The New York Times

When I was growing up in neighboring Vancouver, my friends considered it a netherland of cranberry farms and split-level ranch-style homes, and dismissed it as “Ditchmond” after the often-fetid drainage canals that lined its numbered thoroughfares. Back then, Richmond’s chief attraction for me was the international airport on Sea Island, where I’d pedal my 10-speed and imagine I was aboard one of the jetliners rising over the mud flats to the wider world.

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Since I left British Columbia 20 years ago, the world — Asia, in particular — has found its way to Richmond: Over 74 percent of the city’s 200,000 residents are of Asian background, according to the 2016 census. (Its popularity among Asians is sometimes attributed to the auspiciousness of the Cantonese translation of its name.) On No. 5 Road, locally known as the Highway to Heaven, the golden dome of a sprawling Sikh gurdwara and the stupa of the first traditional Tibetan monastery in the Pacific Northwest rise among the blueberry stands. The newcomers are largely Hong Kongers, Taiwanese and mainland Chinese. The mainlanders have brought with them controversy: The free-spending fuerdai, or “wealthy second generation,” have been blamed for the stratospheric rise in the region’s real-estate prices.

 

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But their presence also means Richmond has become a one-stop paradise for lovers of Asian food. These days, when I’m hankering for a plate of Hainan chicken rice, xiao long bao (soup dumplings) from Shanghai, or an oyster omelet sautéed Chiuchow style, I know I can find it in Richmond. I’ve lately found myself planning my layovers at Vancouver International — now North America’s leading hub for flights to Asia — around forays to a string of shopping centers and strip malls, which are a 15-minute ride from the airport via elevated Skytrain from the airport.

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Lido restaurant, serving Hong Kong-style cuisine.CreditRobert Leon for The New York Times ORG XMIT: NPX

Unlike sprawling Los Angeles, where the best Chinese restaurants are strung along freeway exits in the San Gabriel Valley, the scene here is highly concentrated: Half of Richmond’s estimated 400 Asian restaurants are within a three-block radius of a short stretch of No. 3 Road.

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