Xiao long bao from R&H Chinese Food.

The utensils: disposable. The plate: a compostable takeout clamshell. The ambience: the warm glow of signs for A&W and KFC. The food, however, might be the best soup dumplings in Richmond, BC—and that’s saying something.

R&H Chinese Food holds a prime corner spot in the Lansdowne mall food court, a blackboard listing combo specials in both English and Chinese. Behind a plastic curtain—a Covid addition—one worker diligently presses lumps of dough beneath the heel of her hand, then rolls them flat enough for the xiao long bao filling. The fresh-made dumplings will travel through steamer baskets before landing, ever so briefly, in the takeout containers, carried a few feet to the sea of tables that make up the middle of the food court.

A southern suburb of Vancouver, Richmond is known for two things: the Vancouver International Airport, and a majority Chinese population that has built a unique pocket of Asian culture here in the marshy coast of British Columbia. More than 60 percent of residents immigrated to Canada, most from China, and nearly half of all Richmond dwellers cite Cantonese or Mandarin as a mother tongue. In a series of shopping malls, strung along in more of a suburban squeeze than suburban sprawl, food courts dish some of North America’s best Chinese fare.

The xiao long bao from R&H are perfect pockets of hot soup, the crimped dumpling wrapper so thin it gives way at first bite. The window has the longest line in the food court, deservedly so, and despite a lengthy menu most comers go straight for the soup dumplings.

Dress down for the fine eats at Lansdowne Centre.

Lansdowne’s classic food court captures the feel of a 1980s music video, but not every mall gem in Richmond abuts kiosks hawking cell phone cases. At the Continental outdoor shopping center about a mile away, eateries are proper restaurants with their own seating, wedged between dental clinics and Chinese grocers selling ginseng and other dried delicacies from large glass jars.

Here Old Xian’s Food dishes hand-pulled and biang biang noodles in generous bowls, the thick, slightly chewy ribbons—more like folded sheets, really—coated in a spicy oil. What’s called a beef burger resembles a filled pita, a cumin-rich sauce coating strips of meat, tucked between a floury bun.

Little Fox Bakehouse treats.

Continental may be steeped in tradition, but next door the President Plaza bends toward fusion with Little Fox Bakehouse. Owner Eric Ho worked as an engineer before retraining as a pastry chef, bringing the precision of his old gig to the world of dessert. Flavors inside his croissants range from bubble tea to red bean chestnut, and dollops of matcha cream fill the middle of cream puffs. The glass cases glow with the kind of greens and oranges little seen in French patisseries.

Even in Covid times, Richmond is full of not only authentic and creative Chinese fare, but places to sit and enjoy it. Malls tuck tables next to pillars and above escalators, and food stalls share napkin dispensers and trash cans. Dishes shine when eaten immediately and with company. The cutlery may be disposable, but the Richmond mall experience manages to bridge the instant with the indelible.

Critical Mass

One of Canada's best-known food critics takes eaters for a tour. 

Alexandra Gill shares the table.

Richmond’s buffet of international cuisine can overwhelm even the most ambitious of diners, thanks to its sheer number of shopping malls and food stalls. You don’t have to be a professional food critic to fully experience the scene, but it certainly helps—just ask Globe and Mail food critic Alexandra Gill. And yes, you literally can ask her, on one of her newly launched Dine Like a Critic Richmond food tours.

As the local food expert for the country’s largest paper, Gill’s surveyed the greater Vancouver dining landscape since 2005. But even she turned to friends and local experts when she delved into the Richmond scene; now she leads tourists and even Vancouver residents on four-hour explorations.

“We have this amazing culinary scene in our backyard but we don’t even know how to navigate it,” she says, so she hops from dim sum to hot pot to baked dessert, spearheading a mobile tasting menu of Richmond’s best. A helping of adventurous spirit helps; she likes to share how texture can be the focus of a dish, sometimes even trumping flavor—and offers a taste of jellyfish as example.

Newcomers may only know a narrow range of what Gill calls “old-school American Chinese.” Richmond, she says, is rich with so much more diversity: “You can really eat your way around China.”

Versante Hotel

A sparkling new hotel anchors the Vancouver suburb of Richmond. 

The wallpaper says it all at the artsy Versante Hotel.

The greater Vancouver area is no less rainy than Seattle, but Canadians must be made of hardier stuff—because the rooftop pool at Richmond’s Versante Hotel is open year-round. Good thing, since the deck offers killer views (all the way to the mountains on a clear day) and a sizable hot tub suited to any weather.

Nearly every aspect of the new boutique hotel is a little better than it needs to be; not only does art decorate the modern lobby, but each piece is fascinating and site specific, like a floor-to-ceiling charcoal sculpture that recreates the Richmond topography. Guest rooms feature lamps with a cheeky poodle figure painted gold, and the wallpaper pops with a bright koi pattern.

Versante's roof deck surprisingly survives all seasons.

Few boutique hotels this artsy exist beyond any downtown core, but out here Versante’s only real competition for upscale overnights is the Fairmont inside the airport. Perched just above where Richmond’s famed night market blossoms in the summer, views from the brand-new glassy tower—and the window-front tubs in most rooms—include an industrial-chic mix of railways, warehouses, and shopping malls.

Chef Will Lew adopts the “but wait, there’s more” spirit in the dining room of Bruno, Versante’s street-level eatery (he’ll open another restaurant on one of the top floors soon). A starter of cured meats and small snacks may come draped over a woody tree figurine; the elaborate duck, featuring confit croquettes and lavender sourced from a local farm, is presented in a wicker basket ready for a picnic.

For a hotel built in the age of Instagram, Versante’s stage-ready attitude may not be surprising. But beneath the giddy swagger lies a well-crafted hotel that manages to serve as a destination unto itself—even on the roof, in winter.

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