Seemingly overnight, Vancouver has seen a rise in food tour offerings. While this is amazing as the food in the city certainly needs to be shared, none of them compares to Robert Sung’s tours. Here is my take on why A Wok Around Chinatown is the best food tour in Vancouver.
Standing out in a Foodie City
Vancouver, Canada is said to be home to some of the best Asian food in the world. Everyone from the New York Times to the late/great Anthony Bourdain has agreed on this. On top of having a huge Asian population, Vancouver chefs have access to fresh ingredients to meet the hungry demands. Still, I have never really appreciated this or understood how we became so lucky. If only there was a way to better understand the culture and culinary diversity of this great city…?
Enter Robert Sung and his Wok Around Chinatown tour, my vote as the best food tour in Vancouver. Here’s why:
One doesn’t have to get too deep into A Wok Around Chinatown to see what separates it from other food tours in the city. The four-hour outing doesn’t start at a locally loved eatery or hidden kitchen. It starts with a guided tour of the world-famous Dr Sun Yat-Sen Classical Gardens. Why? A Wok Around Chinatown is a culinary AND culture walking tour. Chef turned tour guide Robert Sung is the best person to walk you through it all.
Once rated as the top urban garden in the world by National Geographic, walking the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Gardens was nothing new to me. I have wandered its halls. I have admired its meticulously manicured miniature trees. That said, I did this without really understanding what I was looking at.
This is where Robert’s experience comes in.
As a third-generation Chinese Canadian, one that is very well connected to Chinatown, Robert’s knowledge goes far beyond the kitchen. For years he has sat on the Chinese Canadian Historical Society of BC and is now a part of the Chinatown Revitalization Committee. This type of inside knowledge really sets A Walk Around Chinatown apart from other food tours in the city. It truly is a cultural and culinary experience hosted by someone with in-depth knowledge of not only the area but the role Chinese immigrants played Vancouver‘s development as well.
Robert filled us in with the significance of the design and pointed out the smallest details that there’s no way you would pick up on your own. The value of a Wok Around Chinatown was well justified in this guided tour alone, and I hadn’t even popped a dumpling in my mouth yet.
Walking up an Appetite
From the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Gardens, our Wok Around Chinatown tour continued past several significant highlights. Like my misunderstanding of the Gardens, some of these sites I have passed hundreds of times without appreciating what was in front of me. One of which was the iconic Sam Kee Building.
Sam Kee Building
Recognized as the “shallowest commercial building in the world” by the Guinness Book of Records, The Sam Kee Building is an odd Chinatown sight, to say the least. At just 4 feet, 11 inches wide at the base, the “Slender on Pender” has housed everything from a bathhouse to offices. Currently, it is a fully functioning insurance office. But why so skinny? In short, racism.
At the beginning of the 20th century, many Chinese immigrants began settling in what is now Vancouver’s Chinatown. Concerned by the spike in the Chinese population, legislation was passed to impose a “head tax” on Chinese immigrants. The “Oriental Menace,” as dubbed by the media at the time, resulted in wealthy business owners such as Chang Toy, a.k.a. Sam Kee, getting screwed over. His large parcel of land was significantly reduced (without compensation) to make room for the widening of Pender Street. Not to be pushed around, Chang decided to build on the scrap of a plot he was left with.
Armed with the insight Robert provided, I now know that this building is so much more than a tourist attraction or novelty. It provides a reminder of the injustice many Chinese faced during Vancouver’s most formative years. In the shadow of the Chinatown Gate, this slim building stands as a proud reminder of determination over discrimination.
About that Wok
As if to ease us between culture and culinary, our Wok Around Chinatown tour’s next stop was a Chinese cooking supply shop.
There Robert went through the various cooking essentials any good Chinese chef should have. This included what a good wok should be and the realization that I have been woking wrong all these years. But why should you take Robert’s advice? Not only is he a trained chef but his family has 70+ years experience in the Vancouver food industry.
As I said, you are in good hands on this tour.
Although the value in the culture side of this Wok Around Chinatown tour has been well-established by this point and sets it as the best food tour in Vancouver for me, the real draw is it’s Chinatown eats. From BBQ pork to a dim sum feast, be sure to come hungry!
Apple Tart – New Town Bakery
The best part of A Wok Around Chinatown culinary food tour was discovering new things in my own backyard. Again, many of which were in front of my eyes all these years. Even more shocking is Erin, my travel and tour partner worked in Chinatown for five years!
Our first food stop was at the iconic New Town Bakery. Although I had been to this popular late-night eatery several times before, I had no idea it was known for, of all things, apple tarts! Turns out the likes of Lonely Planet and CNN Travel knew this. Either way, I am thankful for A Wok Around Chinatown for pointing this out. So much so that Erin and I returned after the tour for takeaway tarts!
Touring a small Chinatown grocery store and medicine shop followed before tucking into our next dish. Most of the tiny Chinatown barbeque shops you will see BBQ pork and duck proudly on display. Oddly, it is something I have never ordered on my own. Tasting it on this day made me sad for all of those missed BBQ pork opportunities.
Although the Apple Tart at New Town Bakery is now a favourite and the BBQ Pork was delicious, the real highlight of A Walk Around Chinatown food tour is the dim sum feast. And what a feast it was.
I have had great dim sum in Vancouver before, however, it always consisted of comically ordering unknown items on my own. Having Robert order and explain each dish was amazing. As was sitting family style with the tour group.
I also tried chicken feet for the first time! It was by no means a highlight for me, but I definitely get the appeal and they are better than I expected.
Last up on the food portion of A Walk Around Chinatown tour was some much-needed tea. After our feast, we wobbled our way to the appropriately named Chinese Tea Shop. This locally loved shop focuses on bringing only the finest teas to the Vancouver market, ones specially curated by owner and tea master Daniel Lui.
Daniel and company gave us a great demonstration on how to properly serve, slurp, and enjoy a cup of tea. Daniel also shared how tea is tied to Chinese culture which fittingly put a nightcap on this great day out.
The Best Food Tour in Vancouver, Visitor or Local
For its cultural aspects, inside knowledge, and dim sum feast, A Wok Around Chinatown is by far the best food tour in Vancouver. I say this as someone who lives in the city yet knew very little of the back story behind Chinatown and the famous foods found in it. Understanding the cultural aspects before, during, and after eating made me appreciate Chinatown as a whole. Robert ties this all together in an afternoon outing I would recommend to anyone visiting or living in this great city.
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Although I was provided a complimentary day out with Robert and A Wok Around Chinatown,
the opinions, belly full of dim sum, and vote as best food tour in Vancouver are my own.