M and I are on our second year of a tradition I’m liking very much – Since we live within rock throwing distance of the Canadian border, we go up for a few days the week before Christmas. It’s a good time, sort of a ’tween holidays lull. Last year was just a quiet trip to Harrison Hot Springs, which is lovely and quaint and very relaxing indeed. This year, we chose a different route, one that was guided by food as much or more as any other criterion.
Sure, we all eat when we travel, and often enough, it’s a focus, but what came to mind for us was going to Vancouver B.C. specifically for two things – First, to eat some great Asian food (and spark our own creativity thereby), and secondly, to do a recon cruise through Chinatown, maybe pick up some supplies.
We chose a nice hotel, smack in the middle of the West End, a relatively bohemian chunk of the city. Rents and incomes are middle of the road here. Roughly bordered by Stanley Park to the northwest, Chinatown and Gastown to the east, Vancouver harbor to the north, and Granville Island to the south, the West End is home to lots of art, great food, and plenty of sidewalk entertainment, (as in, just soaking up the vibe). There is marvelous, flowing diversity in the people, food, commerce, and art.
Our hotel was the Listel, which was remarkable affordable given the obvious quality therein. They pride themselves on abundant art throughout the place, their environmental concern and awareness, (which is palpable – No plastic anything in the room, recycling containers, solar power generation, to name but a few), and their food, which for us was hot and cold. We ate at the Timber restaurant, where the staff and service were once again excellent, but dishes were hit and miss. The calimari and chicken wings were delightful, while the cheese dip and shore lunch were not so much – The dip itself was great, but the crackers and potato skins provided there with were not done at all well, and the fish, while obviously quality, came to us soggy and a bit tired. That said, room service breakfast was truly excellent – The eggs were obviously top notch, and I’d be excited about the Benedict wherever I was eating, but especially so in bed on a lazy Monday morning!
Our room faced an adjoining high rise apartment building, which initially might seem disappointing, but the fact is, this is how and where people live here, so it should be embraced – Families doing their thing, a hairless kitty in the window checking out the gulls – it was all rather nice. The staff and the people in general were remarkably friendly. The rhythm of the area varied from absolutely hopping when we arrived on a rainy Sunday afternoon, to comfortably relaxed on a weekday. The Listel has valet parking for an additional fee, (about $30 a night), which includes unlimited access when you want your ride. Staff were happy to offer good honest advice on destinations, including where not to park in Chinatown, (avoid parking garages where your vehicle isn’t in plain sight of the street).
Neither M or I had been in Vancouver for literally decades, so some broad exploration was in order. We started with Chinatown, which may have its share of touristy kitsch, but is still vibrant and genuine for the folks who live there. There is plenty of great food and some wonderful shops throughout, (like the original Ming Wo Cookware building, a truly scary place, in a good way). We sought advice from a knowledgeable resident, with an eye toward food that the locals buy and eat – He strongly recommended T & T Supermarket. There are three of these in Vancouver – we chose the one smack in the middle of Chinatown, at 179 Keefer Place, (there was ample street parking nearby on our weekday visit).
First off, yes, this is a grocery store, but it’s certainly not your average one. We’re used to seeking out high quality ingredients when we shop at home, and to do that we visit a litany of smaller specialty shops and markets. This place has it all under one roof, (and our guide had been absolutely correct – we were part of a very small handful of non-Asian shoppers.)
The differences here lie chiefly in variety and quality. From staples like noodles, rice, flour, and oil, to incredible varieties of very fresh seafood, meat, and produce, T & T is stunningly good – If I lived here, this is where I’d shop, and in light of that, we’re already planning for our next stay to have cooking facilities so that we can do just that. On this recon trip, our purchases were kept to Christmas treats for the granddaughters, some wonderful dried noodles, and a bottle of aged black vinegar – You can bring quite a variety of personal use food items back to the States, and there’s a good resource for that here.
On the way out of Chinatown, we decided to cruise Gastown, and thought about stopping for a beer and a bite, but despite the outward charm, we found it all a bit too trite and decided to head back to the West End. Across from our hotel there was a little hole in the wall noodle place, Ramen Danbo, that always had a line in front of it, and often, a really long line. When we arrived, there were only four people out front, so we decided to go for it. There are two in Vancouver, one in Seattle, and one in NYC, augmenting the 20 shops throughout Japan. This one has only 28 seats, which explains some of the constant line, but not all – The lions share of that is due to the fact that this is really good ramen – Fukuoka style Tonkatsu, from the southern end of Kyushu, to be precise.
Naturally, good quality, fresh noodles are critical to ramen, and these guys certainly have those, from thin to thick, and soft to firm, as you please. As with all great soups, though, it’s more about the broth and the base. Tonkatsu is considered by many to be the ne plus ultra of Japanese ramen variants – it’s a complex, involved dance, indeed.
First off, there’s the all important broth, that sublime elixir. It tastes simple as can be, and it may be, in terms of ingredients, but it’s sure not in terms of preparation. Traditionally, this is made from is pork trotters or knuckles, either split lengthwise, or whacked with a hammer to release the marrow, along with a few chicken feet, which add some serious protein, calcium, collagen, and cartilage to the mix, (AKA, some stuff that’s good for you, and some serious unctuousness). Add aromatics, (onion, garlic, ginger, leek, scallion), and finally, some fresh fatback, and then boil the shit out of it – In traditional circles, for as long as 60 hours, and you get this stock – Well, sort of anyway. Fact is, there is some seriously finicky cleaning called for to get broth as pretty as the stuff we ate at Danbo. Everything from those bones that isn’t white or beige has to go, or what you’ll get is a mud colored, albeit tasty broth, so some serious washing and nit-picky cleaning is in order. Unlike French stocks, this stuff is not clarified and filtered extensively before it’s served. With a bone broth cooked for as long as tonkotsu is, not only do you generate a bunch of gelatin, but virtually every other constituent gets into the act as well – fat, marrow, calcium from the bones themselves – All this stuff is why it’s so stunningly good.
Next comes the soup base. There are several primary Japanese variants – Tonkatsu, miso, shoyu, and shio – and Danbo does versions of all of those. Their signature base is ‘ramen-dare’, and they’re tight lipped about what’s in it – They say, and I quote, ‘our ramen-dare soup base is imported from Japan, made from select natural ingredients, and despite having low sodium, is filled with umami extracts.’ This apparent obfuscation is neither nefarious nor unusual, by the way. Like many signature ingredients, soup bases are closely guarded in Japan, so it’s next to impossible to discover exactly what’s in there. I sure don’t know what fuels Danbo’s dare, but I’d take a stab at kombu, plenty of shiitake, a little bonito, and a little shoyu – The Shiitakes would be the likely culprit for adding serious umami without a lot of sodium. As dark as the stuff looks in their menu pic, might be the possibility of deeply caramelized aromatics as well, (heavy on the onion, garlic, and ginger). The base is generally added to the broth in a ratio of around a tablespoon to a bowl, (or less, given how lightly colored theirs is when it hits the table.)
Topping off Ramen Danbo’s offering is a little spoonful of red sauce – They call it tare, and all they’ll tell us is that it’s, ‘Togarashi red pepper powder mixed with Chinese spices and medicinal ingredients, this top-secret mixture brings out the flavour, umami, and full-bodied taste of our ramen,’ which significantly downplays what this stuff likely is – I’d guess that what we have here is a spin on classic Tonkatsu Master Sauce – a complex, heady mix of onion, tomato, garlic, apple, sake, kombu, hot chiles, and most if not all of the warm spices from Chinese five spice – Sort of a Japanese swing at Worcestershire sauce, (and some cooks put that into the mix, too). It is, in other words, seriously concentrated flavors, mouth feel and a decent punch in a very small package – Maybe a teaspoon crowns your bowl.
Put all that together and you’ll be staring, glassy eyed, wowed, and very contently, at a mostly empty bowl if you’re me. Or you might be like the guy who sat next to us taking advantage of the kaedama offering – Additional helpings of noodles, which he did for a grand total of five servings – And He was a skinny little guy, too – Some guys get all the luck.