Friday, January 15, 2010

Koho's Restaurant and Bar - relaxed airport dining

With so many visitors coming to Vancouver for the 2010 Olympics, traffic at Vancouver International Airport is going to go up in leaps and bounds. This means plenty of people will be looking for a place to eat while waiting for their planes, or perhaps even if they’re really puckish after arriving. While the food court in the International Departure area is perfectly serviceable, if you have more time or want a more relaxed atmosphere, Koho Restaurant and Bar is a great place to go.

About the restaurant:  Koho is situated between the international departure desks and the food court; it’s open to the rest of the airport, with low fences instead of walls enclosing it. The downside of this is that, despite its slightly upscale nature, you still get a lot of the noise and bustle of a busy airport and the nearby food court. On the other hand, this can be quite entertaining if you enjoy people watching or a more lively atmosphere. The restaurant itself is sleek and modern, with plenty of comfortable seats. Around the bar, there are several TVs broadcasting sports, news, and other programs,  making it a nice place to relax and catch up with the world.

The waiters and waitresses are, for the most part, very friendly and helpful. As the restaurant is based in an airport, the staff are used to the requirements of travellers and are eager to accommodate you. There is a back room for storing luggage, but you are also allowed to leave it beside your table if you are concerned about it. You can also access power outlets and the airport’s free wi-fi.

The food:  The menu is typical for your average bar-and-restaurant, with an emphasis on Asian and Pacific fusion cuisine such as ginger beef (which is crispy and satisfying while not too spicy) as well as steaks, salads and sandwiches. The meat dishes are tender and savory, and the various battered items are light and non-greasy. I particularly enjoy their fries, as they’re not too filling and have just the right amount of salt. All in all, there’s very little in terms of original or unusual dishes, but what they have is of high enough quality to make this my restaurant of choice when at the airport.

My favourites:  Beef dip, ginger beef, fries.

Cost: Unfortunately, due to the prime location of Koho’s, the meals are more expensive here than you would find elsewhere; tack on an extra dollar or two to your regular bar-restaurant prices.

Take-out?: No.

Delivery?: No.

Licensed?:  Yes. Koho’s has a fully stocked bar with a wide variety of beer, cocktails, mixers and Canadian wine.

Location(s):  In Vancouver International Airport. Link to Google Maps.

Website and menus: None.

Summary: While Koho’s Restaurant and Bar is a bit more on the pricey side compared to other restaurants I’ve written about, it gets bonus points for its convenient location, nice atmosphere and high-quality food. While those in a hurry may prefer the food court or other fast food options, those with a bit of time to spend should give Koho’s a try.

Koho Bar And Grill on Urbanspoon

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Lin Chinese Cuisine and Tea House - World-class Chinese food at good prices

I’ve always had a soft spot for Chinese food; it’s tasty to the point of being addictive, satisfying without being too filling, and varied enough that everyone can find something they like. I imagine that more than a few people share this opinion and will be looking for some nice, reasonably priced Chinese to sample during their Olympic visit, possibly even for some good delivery. Lin Chinese Cuisine and Tea House is a well kept secret that more than meets any expectations you and your stomach may have!

About the restaurant: Lin’s (as it’s known for short) is situated near Broadway and Granville, a major transit hub for the majority of Vancouver; as such, it’s very easy to get to, and several buses stop right outside. The décor is… well, it’s nothing to write home about, really, just simple and rose-colored walls. The plates are really pretty though!

The service is very friendly, with plenty of smiles and an almost maternal fussing, but it does have its problems. One is that they often forget things like drinks. I usually order water only to see it appear fifteen minutes later, with a sheepish, “Sorry, I forgot about your water.” We even had a forgotten dish once or twice. To be fair, they usually do remember and are very apologetic, but be prepared to offer a few gentle reminders. The other thing I’ve noticed is that a few of the waiters and waitresses do not speak English very well, and have a rather thick accent that can be difficult to understand. I’ve never found it to be a problem when eating in at the restaurant, but have experienced difficulty over the phone when ordering delivery. In the end, though, a bit of patience and careful listening is all that’s needed.

The food: Lin’s has all the things you would expect to see in a Chinese restaurant, such as sweet and sour pork, lemon chicken, chow mein, and ginger beef; what sets it apart is the sauces and texture. Deep-fried items like the sweet and sour pork is very crispy, and both the meat and vegetables are tender. The sauces linger on the tongue and offer a subtle sweetness that perfectly balances the dish. Steamed items like dim sum are also very popular. Besides the regular items,  there are also some meals that seem less mainstream but more authentic; for example, there are plenty of stews and hot pots that seem like they could come from the family table. I particularly like the spicy tofu hot pot and the Happy Family Hot Pot, a warm and subtle broth containing seasoned meatballs, wonton, tender cabbage and bacon. The first time we ordered it, the waitress looked surprised and said, “Are you sure? It’s a very Chinese dish.” We persevered and found it absolutely delicious; we think you will too!

Also worth a mention is another major offering of Lin’s: bubble tea. For those who aren’t aware, bubble tea is a sweet, milky drink in a variety of flavors that comes with or without “pearl”… small tapioca balls that usually sink to the bottom, ready to be sucked up via straw. The tapioca balls are tasteless, but the texture is an acquired taste with as many detractors as fans; if you’re unsure, try the tea without pearl.

My favourites:  Hot and sour soup, sweet and sour pork, lemon chicken, green onion pancakes, Happy Family Hot Pot.

Cost: Obviously, the cost varies wildly based on what you order, but the average price for most non-rice or noodle dishes seems to work out at about $13. If you order take-out or delivery, you can get combination dinners; dinner for 2 is $27 while dinner for 3 is $39, and it goes up from there.

Take-out?: Yes. Not only that, but you receive 10% off take out orders if you phone ahead!

Delivery?:  Yes! Not only that, but the delivery is free with any order over $20. However, as of writing, Lin’s cannot confirm delivery during the Olympics due to road closures in Vancouver. I will update as I find more information, but in the meantime, be sure to call ahead and confirm.

Licensed?:  No.

Location(s):  Lin’s is on Broadway between Fir and Granville. Link to Google Maps.

Website and menus: Here (menu is for takeout and thus not complete; the sitdown menu has more dishes available).

Summary: I’m not the only one singing the praises of Lin Chinese Cuisine and Tea House; it’s even getting some national and international attention, as is the general high quality of Chinese food in Vancouver. During the Olympics, make the time to try some. You won’t be disappointed!

Lin Chinese Cuisine on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

White Spot (and Triple O's) - BC family favorite since 1928

It’s time for another Canadian institution… or in this case, a British Columbia institution. White Spot has been a popular destination for almost 75 years, but things have come a long way from the simple Vancouver fast-food and family restaurant it once was. Now you can enjoy high quality steak, pasta and rice dishes or take a bite of the classic burgers that started it all.

About the restaurant: The history of White Spot is a quirky and amusing one.  It was founded by a man named Nat Bailey, who originally transformed his 1918 Model T into a travelling lunch counter to serve tourists at Lookout Point. At some point, one impatient driver leaned out his car window and yelled, “Why not bring the food to us?” This inspired Bailey to hire his first “carhops” to take orders from cars and deliver them straight to the drivers. The model caught on, and in 1928, Bailey opened the first drive-in White Spot. Since then, it has remained a popular family restaurant for British Columbians. Recently, however, the restaurant has shifted slightly away from this model in favor of a more social, trendy approach, with more elaborate dishes and alcoholic beverages.

Not to say that the burgers and chicken strips have disappeared! Not only are they still available at the main restaurants, they are also served at White Spot Triple Os, the chain’s “fast food” branch usually found in food courts etc. Triple Os is much more focused on the classic fried family fare that once made up the original branch’s menu, and offers it at a fast pace and affordable price.

Both White Spot and Triple O’s have clean and comfortable restaurants, with the former boasting a bar area with big screen TVs (perfect for Olympic viewing!). The atmosphere is very welcoming and casual, with no pretentiousness. The servers are always friendly and quick, and often quite willing to gush over their favorite dishes or particular recommendations.

The food: White Spot once focused almost exclusively on burgers and other fried entrees such as chicken strips and fish’n’chips. In recent years, however, they’ve revised their menu significantly and now focus on a healthier, more “high class” selection of food, likely to compete with restaurants like Milestones and Cactus Club. While some veteran fans are not happy with the change – finding the extra sophistication and higher prices off-putting – the upside is a very wide variety of things to choose from. This is a perfect restaurant to go to when everyone in your family likes different things. There are entrée-sized salads for vegetarians, grilled chicken and seafood dishes for the health-conscious, Asian-inspired dishes like teriyaki rice bowl and ginger beef for ethnic cuisine fans, standard fare like steaks and chicken pot pies… and of course, tons of burgers for the burger fans! These deserve particular mention as they are A) a White Spot tradition, and B) always well cooked, juicy, and packed with plenty of toppings; the special Triple O sauce is heavenly. The other dishes are perfectly respectable as well, with fresh salad and good chicken especially standing out. White Spot’s desserts are also excellent, especially their milkshakes.

Special note to families: White Spot offers a very popular children’s dish called the Pirate Pack, a smaller portioned meal served in an adorable cardboard pirate ship. I spent many happy dinners as a child playing with mine, and it certainly is a hit with kids.

My favourites:  Dippin’ Dinner (chicken strips and fries; not on the menu, ask for it), The Legendary burger, butterscotch milkshake.

Cost: Unfortunately, with the shift to higher-end food came a higher-end price, but White Spot is still quite reasonable. Most entrees go from $10-15, with some of the grill items going for $25. If price is a concern, there are plenty of low cost options.

Take-out?:  Yes. Not only that, but you can now place an order ahead of time online; just choose the nearest restaurant then go to pick up the food.

Delivery?:  No.

Licensed?:  Yes, at the main restaurants. An exclusive local beer, Nat Bailey’s, is available, as well as several other brands and a selection of cocktails. Note that Triple O’s is NOT licensed.

Location(s):  Multiple locations all over Vancouver and the Lower Mainland. Link to Google Maps.

Website and menus: Here.

Summary: White Spot is worth a visit, not only for its good food but for its uniquely British Columbian history. And in my estimation, every tourist should get to experience at least one Legendary burger! Drop in, or at least try out a Triple O’s if you see one.

White Spot on Urbanspoon
White Spot on Urbanspoon

Special link - Zagat's Vancouver guide for 2010

Zagat 2010 Vancouver Guide in Time for the Olympics -- NEW YORK, Dec. 16 /PRNewswire/ --

So far, I've been refraining from reviewing high class restaurants and even higher-end casual dining in Vancouver. Mostly this is because there are plenty of guides out there that cover these restaurants, while not as many cover options like fast-food, family restaurants and delivery/take-out. Also, I figure that many Olympic visitors will specifically be looking for good deals and low prices, and as such I have tried to limit myself to cheap restaurants.

However, that said, there are some truly exemplary restaurants in Vancouver that are well worth an evening of splurging, and Zagat's 2010 Vancouver guide has collected some of the trendiest and highest-quality dining establishments in Vancouver and Whistler. If you are looking for recommendations from professional food critics, as well as advice on how best to plan your outings during such a busy time, make sure to read the survey.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Las Margaritas - Mexican so good, even the haters love it.

I have a confession to make: I hate Mexican food. It seems like all the fundamental ingredients are on my “can’t stand” list: sour cream, guacamole, refried beans and so on. I say this because if a Mexican restaurant can impress me and make me want to come back, it really must be something! Las Margaritas is just such a place; its warm and quirky atmosphere is very inviting, and their high quality dishes are enough to tempt even my picky palate.

About the restaurant: Las Margaritas is situated on 4th Avenue in Kitsilano, a young and trendy area lined with boutiques, tapas bars, and other hidden gems.  The exterior is quite distinctive, an echo of the adobe walls of traditional Mexican buildings. The interior is a similar attempt at capturing a Mexican ambience, with low ceiling fans, colourful walls and wall hangings and Mexican posters. While many might find it totally unauthentic, it has at least a certain kitschy charm to it. The servers are helpful and very willing to explain the menu to new customers and those who have not tried Mexican food before. Overall, the mood is lively and cheerful, no doubt helped by the large and well stocked bar.

The food: The standout quality of Las Margaritas is its freshness and high quality ingredients. Nothing tastes processed or frozen; the meat is juicy, the veggies crisp, and the tortillas only just prepared. I particularly like the baskets of tortilla chips they offer free with every meal. They’re still warm from the fryer, and the salsa has just the right amount of cilantro for a nice eye-opening kick. The menu is the usual selection of tacos, burritos, enchiladas and fajitas, all of which my friends swear by; according to them, the beef and chicken is particularly moist and savory, and the blended cheese is strong. For myself, I like their chicken flautas (and the appetizer-sized version of them, taquitos), seasoned chicken rolled in a corn tortilla shell then deep fried; the chicken is flaky and tender with a slight spicy edge, and the usual toppings (sour cream etc) aren’t loaded on like on other dishes. I also enjoy Tacos de Carnitas, a seasoned pork taco with fresh tomatoes.

Las Margaritas also features some great desserts, my favorite being churros (deep fried, donut-like sticks with a crispy outside coated in cinnamon sugar). And of course, there are plenty of margaritas and cocktails to sample with your meal.

My favourites:  Taquitos, Chicken Flautas, Tacos de Carnitas, tortilla chips, churros.

Cost:  Quite reasonable for the most part, if more expensive than lower end Mexican options; appetizers are $7-9 each, while a beef burrito is $14. For those that want to sample a wider range of dishes, combination platters are available for $15-19. Margaritas are $7 for a regular glass, and bottled beers go for $6.

Take-out?:  No, but you are welcome to take leftovers with you.

Delivery?:  No.

Licensed?:  Yes. As the name suggests, margaritas are the drink of choice, in a variety of flavors, but tequila and beer are also available.

Location(s): The restaurant is at 4th and Maple. Link to Google Maps.

Website and menus: Here.

Summary: It’s a rare Mexican restaurant indeed that can get my vote of appreciation, an even rarer one that brings me back a second time. If you’re looking for excellent and memorable Mexican food in the heart of Vancouver, Las Margaritas is the place to go.

Las Margaritas Mexican on Urbanspoon

Monday, January 11, 2010

Wings - The perfect sports bar

Do you like chicken wings? Are you a fan of “pub” fare?  Are you looking for a bar that serves great food along with the drinks, all at a good price? If the answer to any of these is “yes,” then Wings is right up your alley.  A love letter to wings, it makes for a great night out and a good place to catch the Olympics with a big crowd.

About the restaurant: Wings functions less as a “restaurant” and more as a “bar that serves as a restaurant.” There are plenty of tables, but quite a lot of them have lounge seating vs. booths or tables, so be prepared to perch on a few high stools during busy periods. The main area is dominated by a large bar with a well stocked selection of alcohol, and large flatscreen TVs hang at strategic places all over the interior to ensure all patrons can get a good view of the sports broadcast. Indeed, Wings markets itself as a sports bar that meets “casual family dining,” so expect the place to be crowded with sports fans come the Olympics. One downside to this is that the restaurant is often quite noisy; don’t expect to have quiet or intimate conversations with your companions in this atmosphere.

A note for out-of-towners: Wings is attached to the Howard Johnson hotel on Granville Street, making it a perfect place for guests to grab their meals. It’s also near several other hotels, so if you’re staying in the area near Granville and Davies, check it out.

Taken from user Sherman on Urbanspoon

The food: As the name would suggest, the main focus of Wings is on, well, wings. A whole page of their menu is taken up with a long list of the available flavors, some of which are very esoteric. While classics like honey garlic and Texas dry rub are present, there are also unusual things like Maui Lime, Sicilian Butter, English Salt and Vinegar, and the Original Westcoaster (lemon peel and cracked pepper). There are also some very spicy wings that are clearly marked in the menu; the Bobby Wing and Wings of Fire are so hot that the restaurant actually dissuades people from ordering them unless they’re absolutely sure, and requires you to sign a release form if you do insist! Obviously, these should be approached with extreme caution. As for the rest of the wings, some flavors are better than others (my friends and I aren’t great fans of the Westcoaster), but all of them feature juicy, well done chicken meat and a distinct taste to each kind of wing. Some are sweet and sticky, others are dry and salty, and all of them are of excellent quality; it just remains to be seen which type you prefer and which you dislike.

There are non-wing dishes on the menu as well, albeit not very many of them. Most of the other entrees are basic, common things like soup, sandwiches, pasta and steaks. There’s an acceptable selection of each – there are quite a few different and unusual sandwiches to choose from, like lamb burger – but not as varied as the wings. To be honest, I’ve had very little opportunity to sample it since I usually gravitate to the chicken. However, the appetizer section is very robust and offers lots of finger food that easily matches the wings in quality; my friends and I particularly enjoy the veggie spring rolls as well as yam fries and the veggie platter.

My favourites:  English Salt and Vinegar wings, Heavenly Honey Garlic wings, Very Veggie Spring Rolls, Texas Dry Rub wings, Tora Tora Tokyo wings.

Cost:  Reasonable at peak hours but potentially very cheap on off hours. At lunch and dinner time, a pound of wings costs just over $7; usually a group will order a pound per person. However, between 2 and 5 PM on Sundays, wings cost only $3.99 per pound, making it a great place to head if you want to get an early dinner and catch an Olympic event (note; no take out for this deal). The rest of the entrees are quite cheap and perfect for a budget; the most expensive meal, a rib dinner, is about $16. On the other hand, as a bar, Wings makes a lot of money from its drink menu; expect $8 for a martini, $5 for a bottled beer, and so on.

Take-out?:  Yes. Menu available here.

Delivery?:  No.

Licensed?:  Yes. Wings is a full bar with plenty of beer, wine, and cocktails for everyone.

Location(s): The Vancouver branch is Granville Street, just north of the bridge and attached to the Howard Johnson. Link to Google Maps.

Website and menus: Here.

Summary: With the Olympics in full swing, a sports bar is perfect for many guests and locals to take in the excitement. Wings stands out not only for its drinks but for its great-tasting and unusual wings. 

Wings on Granville on Urbanspoon