The New Chinatown –
What it could be, reflected
In a Fat Mao meal.
As the light heads out of the area and the Chinese who still frequent the neighborhood retire to their homes, the new Chinatown springs to life. The fresh crop of restaurants peddles meals that would not look at all familiar to those that founded the area (with may be 3 exceptions).
It’s no secret I’ve been an advocate of increasing the number of eateries in Chinatown in order to save the historic area from becoming derelict and forgotten. I even got my wish with Sai Woo opening; another Chinatown spot dishing out modern Chinese fare.
Chinatown will always be associated with Chinese culture in Vancouver, much like when I travel abroad and people assume I’m Chinese not Canadian.
I knew Chinatown would never be the same epicentre of Chinese culture as it was in the past. However, I didn’t want the new places to ignore the fact they were operating in Chinatown, the area’s heritage, and the few remaining Chinese who still take refuge in the area.
It’s disheartening to hear rumors of some eateries refusing to put out a simple Chinese sign advertising what they sell because it didn’t work with their “decor and image”. If the gossip is true, it’s not just the multinational corporations that can be jackasses (seriously, you’re a local coffee shop and I doubt the locals you serve are xenophobes).
What I hoped for was a vibrant neighborhood that still respected its past and was inclusive to all. I had great expectations that Fat Mao, a Chef Angus An project, could do that by serving hearty Chinese fare with a new twist, making it inviting to young and old.
Given the pedigree of Chef An, I was surprised at how Fat Mao stumbled out of the gate. My first visit, a dinner with DennistheFoodie
, was filled with mediocre food. You can read Dennis’ honest opinion here. When the well executed side dish of sweet & tart pickled watermelon radishes was the best item of the meal, the eatery has some issues.
The assortment of daily kimchi, another side, was also good. The standard napa cabbage kimchi had a nice kick and umami flavor, which could explain why it’s not vegetarian. The fermented radish, with its dull crunch, had a very strong flavor – the get your motor going kind of strong. On its own it was too overwhelming but paired with rice it would be fine.
The most interesting preserve was the acorn squash, which didn’t have a lot of flavor but an unexpected texture. The orange hued kimchi had the same slippery firm texture as a green mango instead being soft and fluffy.
Other than the sides, the more substantial dishes were lacking. The tripe salad was overwhelmed with fiery Szechuan peppercorns and yet the actually pieces of offal were bland.
I applaud the Dan Dan Noodle for being savoury, created with the inclusion of beef and pork, and not cloyingly sweet which I find most renditions in the town are. However, as Dennis reported it was quite one note and boring after a few bites.
As for my main, the Taiwanese Beef Noodles (TBN) was missing its heart – the soup was lackluster. The nice chewy wide noodles, coarse chopped pickled mustard greens bursting with flavor, ample slices of tender beef, and perfect gooey marinated egg couldn’t hide the under seasoned soup. A soup noodle without a fantastic broth is not worth anyone’s time.
The soup wasn’t exactly bland though, it had herbal notes similar to a good old stock soy marinade that Chinese BBQ masters horde for years to produce phenomenal soy sauce chickens. Unfortunately, Fat Mao’s soup was missing a savory umami level that Chef Hung’s has in spades, which makes their TBN the best in town in my opinion.
As I digested the average meal and observe the hipster scene that’s becoming the norm for Chinatown at night, I couldn’t help but wonder if Fat Mao could improve with time. Perhaps I misplaced my hope on the potential of this eatery.
Three weeks later, after a few failed attempts to lunch at Fat Mao (noodle shortages is this place’s thing), a different scene unfolded as I waited for my lunch to arrive.
I thought the relative high price of its food would be a barrier for the older Chinese to try Fat Mao but I was wrong as I watched a few elderly Chinese couples slowly shuffle out of the noodle shop.
Drowning out the electro pop music, English and Cantonese filled the space. Ironically, the Chinese voices were reminiscing about the restaurants that used to fill Chinatown.
First to arrive at my table was the Century Egg with Tofu, a complete dish exhibiting great flavour and texture. The chilled silken tofu was perfectly smooth and served as a base for the umami rich bonito flakes and soy sauce. The acquired taste Century Egg only had a mellow ammonia taste, which was offset somewhat with the fragrant shallots and sesame oil, and pungent cilantro.
When all the ingredients were eaten together, it was a great bite of food. My only minor quibble is that I wished the tofu was served at room temperature so instead of just being a textural component, it could also impart its flavor as well. Tofu does have its own distinct faint taste.
The Braised Duck Leg with Rice Rolls served in the same soup as the TBN, had a pulse. The broth was improved – there was actually a layer of earthy savoriness in addition to herbal qualities I detected in the previous visit. The flavor of the soup can still be amped up but at least it had flavor to help out the mild rice rolls.
Instead of eating the rolled carbs as is, I unfurled them. I found slurping the spread out noodle sheet much more enjoyable than just chomping on the presented bundle. Not only did the unrolled sheet soak up flavor from the broth, but with each inhaled bite, bits of Chinese celery, bean sprouts and soup also came up, making for a better taste experience.
The only thing I found wanting was the flavor of the duck, as it was under seasoned. It was tender but really needed the assistance from the server recommended sauce. The orange sauce (the one in front on the right) was tangy but had a strong kick of heat and as a result I only used it sparingly.
Taking the last few sips of my soup noodle I watched man buns and mahogany canes wander past the glassed shop front.
Things seldom stay the static forever. In three weeks time, the eatery was able to make necessary tweaks to improve the broth. I expect things to continue to be influx at Fat Mao, just like the neighborhood it resides in.
Whether it’s for a person, eatery or an area, identities can grow and change, sometimes moving from one extreme to the other and then back again. When I was younger I wrap myself in all things Canadiana only to realize as I matured that I’m more Chinese than I thought.
On this warm sunny afternoon with an improved lunch and the people watching, I remain hopeful that Fat Mao may still be the new exemplar of the modern Vancouver Chinatown – an eatery that can meld Chinatown’s homogeneous past with its new more diverse future.
Fat Mao Noodles
217 E Georgia Street
604 569 8192