The Next Generation of Chinese Barbecue
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, climb aboard the futuristic Canada Line, an automated rail service with a handful of stops downtown, and allow yourself to be whisked away 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 roast pork and duck and soy sauce chicken at the cramped little Chinese barbecue joint, Hong Kong BBQ Master, tucked into the parking garage underneath the heavily-trafficked local branch of a Canadian superstore chain, then you should politely excuse yourself from the conversation, and go speak to somebody who knows better, someone who knows what is going on.
Eric Leung is the barbecue master in residence here, at least for the time being. These days, the family member you are most likely to bump into will be Anson Leung, his 26 year-old son, who is everywhere—behind the scenes getting things done, behind the counter, mixing and mingling in the tiny dining room, making phone calls in the garage, next to where he parks his metallic blue Honda Civic, pushing a shopping cart up the ramp into the superstore, to pick up emergency supplies. Leung grew up around the restaurant, which grew up along with Richmond, and it has all happened so quickly.
With a thriving downtown, packed ever-tighter with upscale residential development, not to mention more shopping and dining than many North American cities of this size would know what to do with, it is difficult to imagine today's glittering Richmond being anything like affordable. When Hong Kong BBQ Master came onto the scene, back closer to the turn of the century, Leung recalls a Richmond that was almost a nothing, a nowhere, the end of the world, a below-sea level backwater. Where there is now luxury living, where you now find rambling, multi-story mini-malls packed so tightly with restaurants, you marvel at how they all stay in business, Leung sees the ghosts of undevelopment, of open farmland. He remembers the quiet suburban neighborhoods of modest homes, occupied by people leading modest, relatively affordable lives, and how his family ended up here.
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, things would get better—the elder Leung, who brought his barbecue know-how with him from Hong Kong, was able to eventually find work in an actual barbecue restaurant; soon, he began thinking about opening his own place. First he would have to find something he could afford, and that's how he ended up looking in Richmond.
“Nobody would come down here, back then—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, already built out as a barbecue restaurant, came available. Nobody else seemed to want it, and by then, 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 very good Chinese barbecue restaurant in Richmond made less sense than it does now, to say the least, but they were there for the affordability, and the Leungs believed in what they were doing, and they hoped people would come. The beginning wasn't always easy—plenty of the superstore shoppers 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, not now—these days, there are times when you will have to wait a good while for the chance to eat at Hong Kong Barbecue Master; this has become one of the most celebrated businesses in Richmond for a reason, beginning with the fact that the meat is some of the best 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, deep red and bursting with flavor, there is roast pork with crisp, crackling-studded skin, juicy, near-perfect duck like it’s no big deal, sautéed free-range chicken, served wan and pale but off the charts delicious, 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 seven, eight dollars American, 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. Eric 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, with a palpable excitement for the craft, which his dad began teaching him a long time ago now.
“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 recipes to their grave,” he laments, noting that because of this, Chinese barbecue risks becoming a dying art.
Not here, though it could have ended up that way. They had already lived plenty of lives before opening the restaurant in Richmond, now 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. 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 hit, he says—wouldn't it be ridiculous to not 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 at the restaurant, which isn't really a restaurant, but rather 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 you'll need to get comfortable, because it's going to take a while. The barbecue is 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 visiting the restaurant such a pleasure.
“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, I don't. It became a part of me.”
The future is promising, as far as the restaurant is concerned. The Leungs have recently taken over the mobile phone shop that kept them hemmed in on one side, all these years; they’re working on a modest expansion. Nobody complains about the smell—not now. Leung laughs, thinking about the early days, when those 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."