Name: Daisy Garden Kitchen
Location: 142 E. Pender St., Vancouver
Cuisine: Cantonese Wonton Noodle and BBQ
Prices: Barbecued meats, $15.50 to $40; noodle soups, congee and rice dishes, $10.50 to $22.50; dim sum, $8.25 to $10.75
Additional Info: Open Wed. to Sun., 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.; reservations, takeout and delivery available; no patio.
The phoenix flies again. After being destroyed by fire in 2015, Daisy Garden Kitchen quietly reopened three months ago.
There was no official fanfare or press release. And yet, the return of this humble Cantonese barbecue restaurant, a fixture in Vancouver’s Chinatown since 1979, made headlines and was trumpeted all over social media by its diehard fans.
Having been to the new incarnation twice, I do recommend that you go for the crackly skinned roast pork, rich wonton-noodle soups, skillfully executed stir fries and legendary curry beef brisket – all of which are affordably priced and now served in a sleek, modern room.
But to understand why this restaurant is so significant to the community, you might want to swing by the splendid new Chinatown Storytelling Centre, only a few doors down, before or after your meal.
This small yet mighty museum, which tells the story of how Vancouver’s Chinatown was developed by starry-eyed settlers who came to Canada seeking riches but were exploited and left stranded with no means of getting home, evokes a whirlwind of emotions.
It’s heartwarming to see the old footage of Chinatown in its boom years, all lit up in neon, when the Marco Polo was the hottest dance club in town, Foo’s Ho Ho made the best deep-fried sticky chicken and parking was impossible to find. It’s also crushing to step outside and juxtapose those vibrant images against the crumbling, crime-ridden, graffiti-strewn shell of what Chinatown has become.
The museum does a good job explaining how, through all the ups and downs, the Chinese experience in Canada has been built upon and fortified by the resiliency of restaurants.
And in the struggle to revitalize Chinatown, the return of Daisy Garden is a symbol of hope.
Owner Susanna Ng believes it’s a struggle worth fighting for. She’s been working in Chinatown since 1972, when she came to Vancouver from Hong Kong at 17, and got her first job in a bakery at the corner of Gore Avenue and Pender Street.
In 1980, she and her husband opened New Town Bakery, another icon of the community where tourists still flock for fluffy steamed pork buns and flaky apple tarts. They bought the neighbouring Daisy Garden in 2014, when the owner retired.
She and her husband were already working seven days a week, 12 hours a day, at New Town. But they had a friend, David Gan, who was interested in running the restaurant.
A contractor by trade, Mr. Gan renovated the restaurant and got it back into shape. A few months later, in a fire that investigators determined was sparked accidentally during reroofing work, the entire building burned to the ground.
Ms. Ng vowed the next day that she would bring Daisy Garden back to life. But, tragically, Mr. Gun got sick and died of cancer two years later. Building and permit delays slowed construction. And then the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
That Daisy Garden eventually reopened is almost a miracle. Ms. Ng received many offers from high-rise developers, but resisted.
“I’m 67, my husband is 72. We would like to retire,” she said when we met at the restaurant. “But it has to be someone with a passion for Cantonese food. Someone who loves Chinatown and wants to serve the community.”
When it closed, Daisy Garden was one of the last barbecue meat shops in the neighbourhood and it’s still slinging out nice darkly lacquered ducks; extra fatty, honey-glazed char sui; succulent chickens and thickly layered roast pork belly with extremely crispy skin.
In a nod to fine dining, the restaurant atypically offers a barbecue sampler, which is a great way to try a little bit of everything. Unfortunately, a new carver had just started the last time I visited and the pieces weren’t as well selected as they could have been. The roast pork was a bit dry and the duck was a back piece with too much bone. If there are only few pieces on a platter, they should be the best.
Daisy Garden is also famous for its wonton noodle soup, a classic comfort dish that is becoming harder to find. The broth is clean and deeply flavoured with dried flounder and shrimp shells, as it should be. The regular wontons are a bit too loosely packed and lacking in the desired snappy texture. But Daisy also offers the increasingly rare sui kau dumplings, which are longer, larger and stuffed with wood-ear mushrooms, in addition to pork and shrimp.
The pan-fried rice noodles with sliced beef, a litmus test for any Cantonese kitchen, is very well done. It takes tremendous wok skills to cook these thick noodles properly with sufficient heat, tossing in just enough oil so they don’t stick together. These ones were beautifully slippery, saturated in dark soy sauce and smoky with wok hei char.
Best of all is the curry beef brisket, a dish with an interesting backstory. The secret recipe almost disappeared in the fire, when the chef retired. The owners of Chinatown BBQ – one of Daisy Garden’s competitors – tracked her down and have faithfully recreated her version, which is dark, boldly spiced and loose, thickened mainly by broken down bits of potato.
The curry beef brisket that Daisy Garden now offers is more like a Malaysian or Macanese curry, creamy with coconut milk, bright yellow but subtly spiced and thick with red peppers, tender beef and pre-fried potatoes that don’t lose their integrity.
Both are great, but each will have its fans, who will likely get into heated debates as to which one is closer to the original. And that’s exactly what a thriving restaurant community does.
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