With the Victoria Clipper's season start delayed by about a week this year, my only choices for reaching the Victoria Whisky Festival earlier this month involved traveling by seaplane or taking the long way around. Since seaplanes aren't designed for cash-strapped claustrophobes, I went with the latter. Fortunately, routing through Vancouver gave me the chance to explore the Crystal Mall food court with Fernando Medrano, the intrepid eater behind the Wise Monkeys blog.
Unlike the food court at nearby Richmond's Aberdeen Centre, where many of the concessionaires are associated with big-name Asian restaurants, the court at Burnaby's Crystal Mall is notably short on glitz. But the diversity of flavors and entrepreneurial exuberance more than make up for the lack of trendiness and cool.
If you ate a dish a day at Crystal Mall, it would likely take years to knock off every menu item - and that schedule doesn't account for the food court's perpetual turnover. Medrano estimates a new concessionaire opens every few months. Since I couldn't possibly determine the court's very best offerings over the course of a single lunch, I focused on foods we can't easily find in Seattle. Here, three dishes worth the train trip:
Huaxi doesn't serve a perfect beef noodle soup: The chewy handmade rice noodles are a tad dull, and the chili-oiled broth is awfully slick. But the tender, slow-cooked beef is terrific, and the soup's sour notes are the source of the bowl's intrigue. Huaxi Noodle specializes in Guizhou cuisine, the provincial style that's rapidly becoming a recurrent theme in Vancouver's Chinese restaurant scene.
Guizhou isn't one of China's eight major cuisines: It sits somewhere near the overlapping edges of Sichuan and Hunan cooking. But unlike its eastern cousins, Guizhou cooking is highly rustic, and borrows sour elements from Shaanxi cuisine, which is saltier.
The clerk at Huaxi Noodle House was very reluctant to serve our soup as spicy as we requested it, but finally relented. I almost wished we'd pushed for more heat: Guizhou is renowned for its peppery cooking.
Known in Malaysia as Ngah Choi Kai Fan, Ipoh chicken is Hainanese chicken served with a heap of boiled bean sprouts and plain white rice. The dish is a reliable argument-starter in Malaysia, where everybody has a favorite version, but Crystal Mall's entry certainly worked for me. The attractively yellowish poached chicken perhaps hung a little too tightly to the bone, but it stood out as flavorful on a table set with spicy food.
But the mainstreaming is also testament to the dish's deliciousness. Roujiamo is frequently made with pork, but Want Want serves a sandwich stuffed with strips of fatty lamb shocked with cumin. The lamb I sampled was tough - I was sure I'd missed out on a crucial condiment - but the "mo," or bread, was fantastic.
Want Want griddles its soft pads of bread, so the seasonings sprinkled on them are warmly woven into their undersides. My guess is you could tuck nearly any food between that bun and have yourself a very decent snack. Shanghai pork chops? Cantonese roast duck? Crystal Mall's food court is the ideal lab for experimentation.