Even after Conde Nast Traveler declared that "Vancouver is home to the best Chinese food in the world," many Western-born eaters remained leery about wandering into the city's unapologetically authentic dumpling houses and dim sum joints. "If you're a foodie, you understand and get it," says Craig Stowe, founder of the Chinese Restaurant Awards. "For the average American, it would be a bit of a shock."
Chinese Restaurant Awards Sea Harbour Seafood Restaurant's award-winning prawns
Yet Stowe's annual awards competition has helped lure the half of Vancouver's population without Asian roots into the region's 600 Chinese restaurants by providing them with a trusty guide to dishes worth seeking out. Since the awards were created four years ago, many diners have developed the habit of printing out the winners' list and using it as an eight-treasures map.
"For some restaurants, they've had a 20 percent increase in sales, all Westerners," Stowe says.
Awards results are also eagerly awaited by Vancouver's Chinese community, a testament to the program's credibility. Unlike previous local restaurant awards, which were administered by newspapers and magazines with a knack for honoring their best advertisers, Stowe has taken precautions from the start to ensure transparency and fairness.
The awards are funded by a variety of companies without ties to the restaurant industry, including HSBC, Mercedez-Benz and Omega Watches. United by their interest in courting the city's very wealthy Chinese immigrants, many of whom have retired to Canada or established second homes, the backers' support includes honorariums for the judges. The awards are judged by a panel of working food critics - most of them Chinese - who always pay for their meals. After the judges rate the dishes they sample, their scorecards are tallied by PricewaterhouseCoopers.
In addition to the Critics' Choice awards, civilians are invited to vote online for the Diners' Choice awards. (A sophisticated filter weeds out duplicate IP addresses, Stowe is quick to clarify.) Nearly 13,000 people cast votes in categories including "food court stall", "congee restaurant" and "xiao long bao."
"We're doing it very much like the Chinese eat," Stowe explains. "If I asked you about your favorite restaurant, you might say you liked a certain place because you liked the parking, you liked the service, you liked the wine list. If I asked someone in the Chinese community, they might say 'I go here with my family, I go there with my younger cousin, I go there for dim sum.' It's about the dish: It's not about the lighting or the décor."
Winning dishes were honored this month at an opulent ceremony at River Rock Casino Resort. "It's kind of like the Golden Globes," Stowe says. Awards went to Double Boiled Pig's Shank with Honey Melon Soup, Daliang Fried Milk; Pan-fried Dungeness Crab with Salted Egg Yolk and Pan-fried Spike Sea Cucumber with Green Scallion, among other dishes.
"We're lucky and we're blessed," Stowe says. "It's no-holds-barred Chinese food here. We're opening a window and giving Westerners a glimpse."