It’s been a couple of years since I started writing this column. And after having dined at many Vancouver restaurants, I’ve learned that it’s often not the dishes one ends up discussing during a meal. Sometimes it’s the service and the attitude, particularly when neither is proving to be stellar. Other times, it’s the atmosphere—a conversation whose likelihood tends to correspond with how much money has been spent on the place. On quite a few occasions, I’ve found the table talk focusing on whatever concept seems to be driving the kitchen. These are the “big idea” restaurants: Cinara’s bid for Italian simplicity, the high-continental ideals evident at Bauhaus, Royal Dinette’s commitment to out-there experimentation.
What is surprisingly rare, I’ve found, is a meal where the food really dominates conversation: the specific flavours, techniques, and plating. But that was exactly the case recently at Torafuku, which opened in July on the gradually evolving 900 block of Main Street (the long-time home to Campagnolo and, most recently, the site of the anticipated reincarnation of La Bodega, under the name Bodega on Main). The service was great: friendly and fast. The room is sleekly minimal—comfortable without drawing attention to itself. The concept is dead simple: pan-Asian small plates, essentially. But from the first bite onward, all those things faded to a comfortable background hum behind the experience of taking one bite after another.
Maybe this should come as no surprise. Torafuku is the first bricks-and-mortar project of Le Tigre food-truck partners Clement Chan and Steve Kuan. And like a lot of food-truck fare, dishes at Torafuku tend to go big or go home. Take, for instance, “Rye So Messy” chicken wings, marinated in gochujang (a Korean fermented condiment) and, yes, rye, then fried and topped with ramen crumble. Dip one of them into the mango glaze and feel welcomed into a world of crunch, earthy heat, and sweetness. I predict you’ll take about two minutes to clear a plate.
Other dishes evoked the partners’ food-truck origins. “Brown Cow” is oxtail braised to exceptional tenderness in Chinese Shaoxing wine, and served with cabbage, basil, and a fried egg on top of sticky rice cakes. “Me Like Papaya” salad was just as homey. These are comfort dishes that will just make more and more sense around here as winter sets in.
There’s some decidedly non-food-truck refinement on other plates. Pork gyoza come with carrot-ginger purée and shiso, plus tiny translucent beets that deliver an unexpected flare of heat. “Kickass Rice 2.0” is on another planet from the hearty version first served out of Le Tigre’s window: the pork is torched Aburi-style and served over rice, cut into perfect rectangles, and garnished with microgreens and dabs of mayo and Sriracha-like “Angry Tiger Sauce.” Each bite is completely enveloping. A similar effect is achieved with “Dr. Octopus vs. Mr. Tuna.” Here you have a creamy octopus salad served with the refreshing lightness of tomato, jalepeno, and scallion, with crisp nori and tuna crudo, and a binding base note of acid from Romesco sauce. Impressively complete, it makes you want to take another bite immediately.
We were entertaining a Greek friend when we came here, which is what made our final dish of the evening so notable. She perused the squid, confidently listed on the menu as “‘Calamari’ Done the Right Way,” with a dubious frown. She had eaten her mother’s seafood for enough years to know her way around a cephalopod. Here, Humboldt squid—coated in a cornstarch and yam batter and given a precise number of minutes (seconds?) in the fryer—comes in slices on an arugula salad brightly seasoned with lychee and sweet chili. We didn’t talk about the dish while eating it. We didn’t talk about anything. We just ate in silence until it was gone. With respect to my friend’s mother, a new “Best Calamari Ever” has arrived.
Torafuku is the kind of place I’d take any visitor to Vancouver. It’s the right blend of explosive and calm, homey and refined, local and boldly everywhere. And if all that isn’t enough, consider that four of us polished off eight dishes and left completely satisfied for $90, not including drinks. We’ll be back.