Posted: Oct 04, 2018
Too often, the masters take the secrets of siu mei with them, when they go—at one family-owned restaurant in Vancouver, that won’t be happening
One of the very first things the inquisitive traveler will learn about Vancouver is that some of the best, some of the most memorable food in the city, will not be found in the city at all. For this, you will need to climb aboard the Canada Line, a futuristic, automated rail service with a handful of stops downtown, or as they call it around here, the city centre, and make your way out to Richmond.
When people talk about Richmond, which they never used to do, they mostly talk about the food, the groaning board of often very good cooking from all over Asia, and when they talk about the food, if they do not talk about the cramped little Chinese barbecue joint, Hong Kong BBQ Master, tucked into the parking garage underneath the local branch of a heavily-trafficked superstore, then you should politely excuse yourself from the conversation and go speak to somebody who knows better, someone who knows what exactly is going on.
Eric Leung is the barbecue master in residence here, or at least for the time being. When he opened the restaurant, back around the turn of the century, which in Vancouver years is a really long time ago, Anson Leung, his 26 year-old son, was just a kid, but he remembers everything like it was yesterday.
With its thriving downtown, increasingly packed with upscale residential towers, not to mention more shopping and dining than most North American cities of this size would know what to do with, it is difficult to imagine Richmond as being anything like affordable, but Leung recalls Richmond as a nothing, a nowhere, the end of the world, a below-sea level backwater. Where there is now luxury living, where you now find mini-malls packed so tightly with restaurants, you marvel at how they all stay in business, Leung sees the ghosts of vacant lots, of open farmland. He remembers the quiet suburban neighborhoods of modest homes, occupied by people leading modest, relatively affordable lives.
The Leung family’s story in Canada began more than a decade before the story of the barbecue restaurant. Like so many other people leaving Hong Kong in the 1990’s, they came to Canada because they did not want to live in a Hong Kong that answered to Mainland China, and they came with practically nothing, settling in Burnaby, another suburb of Vancouver that has changed so much as to be all but unrecognizable. It was there that Anson Leung was born.
“My dad was working fourteen hours a day, my mother wasn’t working at the time, she was taking care of me,” Leung recalls, leaning on the wall outside of the restaurant, in a rare quiet moment, before the day’s lunch rush. “We were almost bankrupt, at that point—it was such a depressing time in our family, always worrying about money. We were spending a couple of dollars a day, maybe three, which would be more like ten today; I grew up eating steamed salmon heads, and chicken wings—the stuff that nobody else wanted.”
Slowly but surely, things began to improve—Leung, who brought his barbecue know-how with him from Hong Kong, was able to eventually find work in a barbecue restaurant; in time, he began thinking about opening his own place. First, he had to find something he could afford, and he ended up looking in the middle of nowhere.
“Nobody would come down here—there was no reason to,” Leung recalls. But the family had already taken the risk of spending very nearly every penny they had, to get to Canada--why not one risk more? The space belonging to a mediocre barbecue restaurant came available, nobody else seemed to want it, and Eric Leung by that time had enough money to pay rent for a year. The deal was done.
“My mom was the cashier, the accountant, and my dad did all the cooking,” says Leung, who spent the remainder of his childhood pretty much tethered to the restaurant, hanging out in the shadows, roaming the aisles of the superstore, and stopping in the Subway next door for free cookies.
Back then, the notion of a top-class Chinese barbecue restaurant in Richmond made a great deal less sense than it does now, but they were there for the affordability. Not everybody understood the place, and many of the superstore’s patrons wanted nothing to do with something so exotic.
"I'd be standing outside as a kid, listening to people talk about us, as they walked by,” Leung remembers. Look at that meat hanging in the window—it’s disgusting. I don’t know how those people eat that stuff, they’d say.
Whether or not the old timers have come around isn't something Leung worries about—most days, you will wait around a good while to eat at Hong Kong Barbecue Master; it is one of the most celebrated businesses in Richmond for a reason, beginning with the fact that the meat is some of the highest quality meat to ever get the Chinese barbecue treatment, at least around here.
Everything is from scratch, all natural, chemical free. There is char siu pork in brilliant red, there is roast pork with crackling skin, juicy, near-perfect duck like it’s no big deal, sautéed free-range chicken, served wan and pale but tasting like a million bucks, and one of the stars of the show, soya chicken, emerging from its luxurious bath of soy and herbs and rock sugar and white wine and other delicious things. There is direct heat, indirect heat, lots of tossing and turning, and the end result is surely worth more than roughly $7 in American dollars, for a Styrofoam plate with perfectly-cooked white rice and a bit of bright green broccoli.
Typically, you don’t walk into Chinese barbecue joints, and certainly not deceptively humble little places like Hong Kong Barbecue Master, asking questions about technique, and process, but this place is different. The elder Leung is firmly of the old school, and you will see less and less of him as time goes on, by design—these days, Anson is practically running the place, and with an almost missionary zeal for the craft, which his dad began teaching him at a young age.
“Normally, they don’t take you by the hand and teach you,” says Leung, of the old guard. “You just get told what to do. Nobody’s teaching, people are taking their recipies to their grave,” he laments, noting that because of this, Chinese barbecue risks becoming a dying art.
Not here, although it could have ended up that way. They had already lived plenty of lives before opening the restaurant in Richmond, which is staring down the barrel of twenty years in business. The Leungs would like to retire soon. When they asked Anson to consider stepping in, he had already finished studying structural drafting, and had been working at an engineering firm for a few years now. It’s fine if you don’t, his dad told him. We’ll sell the place and retire.
“Obviously, I knew what he wanted,” Leung recalls. “His body is in this place.” Besides, the restaurant has been such a success, he says, why wouldn’t he want to take it over? He has been learning forever, but now he is learning more, and there are very few days when you will not see him racing around here, either inside or in the vicinity of the restaurant, which is really just a few highly-prized tables and an often-mobbed counter, keeping everything running like clockwork.
His father is teaching him, and Leung in turn is eagerly passing everything he can along to everyone else; get him started about technique, about style, about the tradition, and get comfortable, because this could take awhile. The meats are some of the finest you will find this side of the Pacific Ocean, but it’s the passion—his father’s quiet passion, and his own, almost missionary zeal, that really makes the restaurant such a treasure.
“Hong Kong-style barbecue is deep in our blood—we don’t just eat it, it’s not just food to us, it’s a part of who we are,” he says. “This food doesn’t need to evolve, I’ve been eating this food my entire life, almost every night of my life, it’s a part of who our family is. People say don’t you get sick of it? No - it’s a part of you. It became a part of me.”
The future is promising, as far as the restaurant is concerned. The family has recently taken over the mobile phone shop that hemmed them in on one side, all these years; they’re working on a modest expansion. Nobody walks by complaining—not now.
Leung laughs, thinking about the early days, when locals used to walk by, noses in the air. He nods back toward the restaurant, by this time busy with the lunch rush. "Now people are going crazy for it."
By David Landsel
October 03, 2018
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