Name: Daisy Garden Kitchen
Place: 142 E. Pender St., Vancouver
Kitchen: 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
Extra information: Open Wed. to Sun., 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.; reservations, collection and delivery possible; no terrace.
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 staple in Vancouver’s Chinatown since 1979, made headlines and was hailed all over social media by its diehard fans.
Having been to the new incarnation twice, I recommend going for the roast pork with the crispy skin, the rich wonton noodle soups, expertly executed stir-fries and the legendary beef brisket with curry – all affordable and now served in a sleek , modern room.
But to understand why this restaurant is so important to the community, you may want to stop by the beautiful new Chinatown Storytelling Center just a few doors down before or after your meal.
Telling the story of how Vancouver’s Chinatown was developed by star-eyed settlers who came to Canada in search of wealth but were exploited and stranded with no way to go home, this small but mighty museum evokes a whirlwind of emotions.
It’s heartwarming to see the old statues of Chinatown in its heyday, all lit up in neon, when the Marco Polo was the hottest dance club in town, Foo’s Ho Ho made the best fried sticky chicken and parking was impossible. It’s also crushing to go outside and contrast those vivid images against the crumbling, crime-ridden, graffiti-strewn shell of what has become Chinatown.
The museum explains well how, through all the ups and downs, the Chinese experience in Canada has been built on and enhanced by the resilience of restaurants.
And in the battle to revive Chinatown, the return of Daisy Garden is a symbol of hope.
Owner Susanna Ng believes it is a battle worth fighting for. She has worked in Chinatown since 1972, when she came to Vancouver from Hong Kong at the age of 17 and got her first job in a bakery on the corner of Gore Avenue and Pender Street.
In 1980, she and her husband opened New Town Bakery, another community icon where tourists still flock for fluffy steamed pork buns and flaky apple tarts. They bought the adjacent Daisy Garden in 2014, when the owner retired.
She and her husband were already working in New Town seven days a week, twelve hours a day. But they had a friend, David Gan, who was interested in running the restaurant.
Mr. Gan, a contractor by trade, renovated the restaurant and got it back in shape. A few months later, in a fire that researchers say was accidentally started during renovations, the entire building burned to the ground.
Mrs. Ng swore the next day that she would bring Daisy Garden back to life. But tragically, two years later, Mr. Gun became ill and died of cancer. Construction delays and permits delayed construction. And then the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
That Daisy Garden has finally reopened is almost a miracle. Ms. Ng received many offers from high-rise developers, but resisted.
“I’m 67, my husband is 72. We’d 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 around and it still swings lovely dark-lacquered ducks; extra-fat honey-glazed char sui; juicy chickens and thickly layered roast pork belly with extremely crispy skin.
As 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 sculptor had just started the last time I was there and the pieces were not as well selected as they could have been. The roast pork was a bit dry and the duck was a rump with too much bone. If there are only a 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’s getting harder and harder to find. The broth is clean and deeply flavored with dried flounder and shrimp shells, as it should be. The regular wontons are a bit too loosely packed and lack the desired spicy texture. But Daisy also offers the increasingly rare sui kau dumplings, which are longer, larger and filled with forest ear mushrooms, in addition to pork and shrimp.
The fried rice noodles with sliced beef, a litmus test for any Cantonese cuisine, is very well done. It takes great wok skills to cook these thick noodles well with enough heat, and toss in just enough oil so they don’t stick together. These were nicely smooth, saturated with 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 faithfully recreated her version, which is dark, boldly spiced and loose, thickened mainly by chipped potato chunks.
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 engage in heated debates over which one is closer to the original. And that’s exactly what a thriving restaurant community does.
Plan your weekend with our Good Taste newsletter, featuring wine advice and reviews, recipes, restaurant news and more. Sign Up Today.