What does springtime mean to you? Rain? A burst of sunshine through the heavy clouds? Fresh sprouts coming through the ground? To me, my friends, and thousands of Chinese food enthusiasts - it means Alaskan king crab season!
The season lasts a few weeks (and sometimes not even if you've ever watched Deadliest Catch) - and during those brief weeks, prices plummet from a peak of $30 per pound, down to an average of $10 per pound! These are market prices of course, each restaurant will top it up a few points. It's not unheard of for people to go for a king crab meal 2~3 times a week! It's mostly the older generation - who don't really care about cholesterol build-up at this point in their lives - and more power to them for it!
My friends and I, by tradition, go to the grand-dame of Vancouver Chinese restaurants, Sun Sui Wah on Main Street. SSW was one of the first big Chinese restaurants to open during the mid-90s and one of the few from that time that are still around. And like any ol' grand-dame - they're caked on layers of make-up in a futile attempt to hold onto whatever fading glory they used to have.
The original location was a small place in a decidedly sketchy neighbourhood (where our car was broken into quite a few times during dinner). They easily out-grew it and moved a few blocks up to a beautiful new 2-storey building in the same now-gentrified-by-hipsters neighbourhood, with secured underground parking. Funny story about the parking lot - the spots are "Asian-sized" - if you have a SUV, van or even a Benz (essentially covering the gamut of Chinese-family vehicle choices) - there's no way you can actually park and exit the car. Bodes well as we all know how talented Chinese drivers are. Personal note - it was this parking lot where I got my first vehicle scrape at the tender age of 16, and it was a good one. A 2' by 2' down-to-the-metal scrape on our old Toyota Previa.
SSW was one of the first to do the full Alaskan king crab menu, and that tradition has stayed with my friends and I, hence we visit. There are certainly much better places to go (Kirin), but it also helps that we know a few of the waiters. Besides the usual perks, the importance of knowing people on the inside is when they weigh the crab, you can trust they won't over-inflate it, as is believed some places do. You'll never know - but it just brings some peace of mind. The crab we got measured in at 9 1/4 pounds, and that seemed to match what we got. Otherwise, I avoid SSW like the plague.
First course was a traditional fish-maw and crab meat soup. Fish maw is the bladder-sac of the fish that allows it to stay buoyant. It's flavourless, and adds texture. I'm sure there's probably some unproven health-benefit to eating it. Good sized chunks of crab meat (dungeness) in the smooth perfectly-seasoned broth made it a good warm-up for the feast to come.
Tommy was with us, and he's got a mild shellfish allergy, so we decided to go all the way and ordered the 2-course Peking duck. There's something inherently carnal about the promise of perfectly roasted, crispy and shaved duck skin that makes the inner-child in us twitter in delight.
Everyone has their own way of making the wrap. I prefer to use the green onion brush to wipe a light layer of hoisin on the crepe, then fold it up like a spring roll, except with an open front. I have also been known to jam the sucker full of duck (because there's always more duck than crepes... and that's not a complaint!) and just go caveman on it.
The next course was the minced duck meat lettuce wrap. I didn't take pictures because my hands were absolutely covered in sweet sweet duck grease. It was pedestrian - a bit bland, and had more fried noodles than it needed to. A bit disappointing, but not unexpectedly so.
I always insist on ordering some greens. I love Chinese greens, whether it's kai lan (Chinese kale), broccoli, or any other "choy" (vegetable) - it's so simple, and I can eat a whole plate of it. These were pea tips blanched and sauteed in garlic. About as simple as it gets. Except they were salty beyond all comprehension. If this plate had arrived during a regular dinner, I would've sent it back - they would've been inedible. As it were, all the other dishes were flavour-bombs in of themselves, so the salt got diluted a little bit. The biggest insult? They charged us a shocking $19 for this dish! That's just highway robbery! There's no way this should have cost more than $12!
Moving right along - the main event parade started. Served with the shell as decoration, the crab limbs were removed, then cracked lengthwise to reveal the sweet meat. Topped with a ridiculous amount of salt and garlic (this is a GOOD thing!) - it's steamed just enough to let all the flavours meld together.
This is always my favourite course - I love the garlic overdose, and I love that it takes very little effort to get to the meat since the kitchen has done most of the work. The crab juices mix perfectly with the garlic to create a simple yet effective flavour combination that complements the sweetness of the meat.
If you request it, after you finish this course, the kitchen will then take all the leftover garlic/crab jus, and toss it with either white rice or with white udon noodles to create a final crab course. We decided against it since we only had 5 people and the Peking duck had taken us over the top. Last year, there were only 3 of us and we plowed ahead with it. Any vampires within a 15 foot radius of us that eve would not have survived.
Next course, they take the joints of the crab, deep fry it, and toss it with a salt, dried pepper and fried garlic ("ju yim") seasoning. This is late-night Chinese stoner food taken to the next level. On a Cantonese menu, you'll see every possible food-stuff done ju yim style - most of note are pork ribs and tofu. It's a staple of late-night after-drink dinners, and usually found on any bar's finger-food menu. This is taking the concept to a fine dining level. You get a burst of crab juices with every bite, and the acidity and bite of the spices balance out the richness. You don't get a lot of meat, but it more than makes up for it.
The third course is optional - but we were here for the show. They take the crab shell, fill it with fried rice, topped with "Portugese sauce" (thick coconut milk curry sauce) and bake it. This is another late-night comfort food upscaled. Cafes serve boneless chicken or a seafood mix in this method.
Everyone was feeling a little groggy and glassy-eyed at this point, so I assumed my "cleaner" duties and with everyone's permission/encouragement, took the plate for myself. What can I say? I love rice. Portugese sauce moreso.
Insert "clean head" joke here.
With these kind of dinners, Chinese restaurants usually provide a complimentary dessert - a red or green mung bean soup traditionally. We requested a bowl of mango pudding, since I was craving it something fierce. Bao had gone with 604Munchies a few weeks before and got their trademark "chunky" mango pudding - and ever since I saw the pictures, I wanted me some! And want me some it shall stay. We got a bowl of regular mango pudding, without the fruit. Plain, bordering on bland - not how I wanted to end my meal. We could've gotten the far more elaborate baked lotus seed pudding instead. Sigh.
For 5 people, the bill came out to a fairly exuberant $301 before tip, about $75 per person. A bit more than I expected to pay thanks to the veg and Peking duck, but that's why it's an once a year tradition. We also tip higher than normal (10% is the Vancouver-norm for Chinese restaurants) since we know the boys.
On a parting shot, I got a giggle at how the geoduck clams had situated themselves in their tank. If you've never had a geoduck (pronounced "gooey duck") - it's a huge member (tee hee) of the clam family found in the Pacific mudbanks of BC, Washington and Oregon. It's eaten sashimi style by the Japanese, and in every which way, shape and form by Chinese with the belief it strengthens a man's... well use your imagination.
Sun Sui Wah is located on 3888 Main St, at the corner of East 23rd Avenue. They're open 7 days a week, and there's limited parking in the area. If you plan on coming during the weekend, make reservations... at Kirin instead. Seriously. You'll have a better meal and experience. Only tourists, diehard fans, and people who don't know any better eat at Sun Sui Wah (sorry Ray and Maggs).