Sherman's Food Adventures

El Santo

To me, it seems like the 'burbs are seriously benefiting from the mass exodus of families from Vancouver proper.  Well, the rise in real estate prices across the board isn't what I'm referring to either.  I'm not even sure that is a "benefit" per se, maybe a curse perhaps?  Okay, other than that, increased traffic and housing density, the actual "good" change is the opening of interesting and "better" restaurants in their neighbourhoods.  As the demand increases for anything other than chain restaurants and mom n' pop shops, we find places like El Santo setting up in the former restaurant wasteland of New Westminster.

Located near the swank Piva in the Anvil Centre, El Santo offers up Mexican eats in a modern and hipsterish restaurant.  We started the festivities (they do have live music on the weekends) with the made-to-order Guacamole Trio featuring tomatillo & citrus, mango and chicharron.  Of the three, I thought enjoyed the mango the most due to the tropical-taste as well as the sweetness.  There was some spice with the chicharron while the citrus guacamole could've used a bit more impact..  Neatly presented, the Ceviche de Atun consisted of BC albacore tuna charred citrus, red onion, avocado brûlée, radish, cilantro and chips.  This wasn't complicated in terms of flavour, but it was good nonetheless.  The natural and subtle tuna flavour was at the forefront accented by a touch of acidity and sharpness from the red onion.  Personally, I could've used a bit more punch, but that might've overwhelmed the delicate tuna.

The most stunning item of the meal had to be the El Santo Huevo sporting a masa battered soft-boiled egg, house-made chorizo and habanero apple jam.  Essentially their version of a Scotch egg, this was perfectly prepared.  As you can see, the egg yolk was deliciously runny while the egg white was delicate.  The thin layer of chorizo was meaty and slightly spicy (could've used a thicker layer of it though).  It was encased in a crispy masa crust.  I didn't even use much of the jam since it tasted good on its own.  For our choice of Tacos, we chose the Pescado sporting beer battered BC ling cod, avocado lime crema, shredded cabbage, tomato, scallion and salsa verde.  Yes, this was essentially a fish taco, but it was a good fish taco.  The tortilla was tender with a chew while the fish was crispy and flaky.  With a squirt of lime, there was a nice acidity to go with the rest of the fresh ingredients.

Ending off things, we shared the Torta de Cachete with a side of Papas Mexicanas.  This was my favourite item other than the egg.  Normally, I'm disappointed with the bread in most tortas because they tend to be overly dense.  This one was completely different being almost banh mi like.  It was nicely toasted, airy and super crunchy.  Inside, the tender and moist beef cheek was accompanied by crunchy cabbage, tomato, avocado and peppers.  On the side, the potatoes were beautifully fried and tossed with poblanos, caramelized onions and confit garlic.  This was an aromatic accompaniment to an awesome sandwich.  I would've liked to see a touch more salt to amp the flavours up even more so.  However, in general, the food was good at El Santo and the vibe just as nice.  A great addition to the New West food scene.

The Good:
- Proteins were on point
- Carefully prepared eats
- Nice spot to hang out for an evening out

The Bad:
- Food needed just a touch more salt

Sapporo Kitchen

From my time working in Ladner, I was able to try most of the restaurants in the area.  Although it will never be a culinary destination, some of the spots did the job and really, what else would one expect?  Yes, it was home to a hidden gem in La Belle Auberge, but that sadly shuttered its doors over 5 years ago.  Recently, we have seen the restaurant scene change a bit with the addition of Il Posto in the old Dancing Pig location.  However, there is another spot that has quietly operated under the radar in Sapporo Kitchen.  I know, I know, Ladner needs another Japanese restaurant like Richmond needs more new drivers.  However, it is nice to see a trendier Japanese spot in the village with a modern menu.

With anything modern and Japanese these days, it is all about the aburi.  As such, I went for their Taste of Aburi consisting of salmon, hamachi, toro, tuna, hotate and amaebi.  Okay, if you look at the presentation and execution, this would look more at home in a Downtown Vancouver Japanese restaurant, but really, this was Ladner.  Although it would never be confused for Miku or Minami, this was quite good.  Fish quality was fairly impressive with noted natural flavours without being fishy.  The sushi rice was nicely textured with a pleasant chewiness.  For those who are wondering, yes, I did get the spot prawn head deep fried.

Of course that wouldn't be enough for my lunch, so I decided on the Leo Set for good measure.  Oh man, this was quite a bit of food sporting 10pcs sashimi, chicken teriyaki, 4pcs california roll, ebi sunomono, tempura and miso soup.  Once again, I was treated to carefully prepared sashimi which included albacore tuna, sockeye salmon, tai, hokkigai and tako.  I found the tempura to be also executed on point with a light crispiness while easy on the grease.  Well-charred and tender, the chicken teriyaki was non-offensive with just the right amount of sauce.  Not much to say about the sunomono and Cali roll because they were textbook, but ultimately good as well.

Also on the table, Halfie had the Saba Set consisting of a generous piece of mackerel which was surprisingly moist considering the usual texture of the fish.  It was simply prepared and went well with the usual bowl of rice.  On the side, she chose the Takoyaki which was too doughy and dense for her liking.  However, that was the only blemish to a surprisingly solid Japanese meal out in Ladner.  Glad to see that the restaurants are finally catching up to the rest of the Lower Mainland in terms of quality, presentation and overall modern concept.

The Good:
- Well-prepared eats
- Great service
- Good modern-traditional hybrid decor

The Bad:
- A little pricey

La Villetta

Alas, I finally made it out to La Villetta on Hastings in North Burnaby.  Having lived in the neighbourhood for the last 13 years, I've been meaning to give it a try.  However, I get distracted by shinier and sexier new restaurants (generally located away from North Burnaby).  But with my daughter asking for Italian cuisine for her birthday dinner, I thought it was a good opportunity.  In actuality, she wanted Korean BBQ, but we had that scheduled for the following night (for my brother-in-laws birthday dinner).  I digress.  We ended up going early on a Friday night where we were greeted to classic decor and warm service.

We shared 2 salads to start with a Caesar and a Caprese.  Although the Caesar was aggressively dressed, it rode the fine line and didn't go over it.  Therefore, the salad was creamy, cheesy and salty, but just enough.  Featuring the inner most part of the romaine heart, the salad ate extra crunchy and crisp.  I rather enjoyed that since I'm not a fan of the more leafier greens.  As for the Caprese, it was pretty straightforward with slices of fresh mozzarella atop slices of ripe sweet tomatoes.  It was finished with a drizzle of balsamic reduction.  My only complaint was the minuscule amount of chopped up basil.

We also decided on a pizza to share as well being the Capicciosa featuring artichoke hearts, mushrooms and capocollo.  Although not particularly charred, the crust was still nutty and crispy.  It was thin enough that the crust didn't feel heavy, but robust enough that it didn't wilt under the ample toppings.  There was so much capocollo that it was at the forefront with a lightly spicy saltiness.  For our first pasta of the meal, we tried the daily feature being the Spaghetti with mussels and prawns.  This featured firmly al dente pasta coated with an arrabiata-like sauce that was tomatoey and slightly spicy.  There was ample brininess from the buttery mussels.

The kiddies wanted the Baked Lasagna and it turned out to be pretty tasty.  It was plenty cheesey with a thick layer of melted mozzarella on top.  It was well seared from the baking and created a nutty crust.  The sheets of pasta were tender while still retaining some texture (as in not being too soft) while the tomato sauce was rich and flavourful.  I would've liked to see a bit more meat in between the layers though.  Our last pasta was the Fettucine Creola featuring Italian sausage, chicken and shrimp in a rose sauce.  The pasta here was a little softer, but still al dente.  I found the sauce to be more on the creamier side, where there was just enough of it.  The chicken was a little dry while the sausage was meaty.

For our 2 meat dishes, we had the Lamb Osso Buco and the Scallopine al Marsala.  The fairly large lamb shank was beautifully tender and gelatinous.  However, I found it rather bland by itself.  I'm thinking that the braising liquid should've been more aggressively seasoned.  Although it was coated in a tomato sauce, it wasn't that impactful and rather one note.  On the other hand, the veal was super-impactful from the buttery sauce that was a touch on the saltier side.  The veal was tender and meaty while the mushrooms were buttery, yet soaked up all the salt from the sauce.  The various veggies on the plate were perfect though being vibrant and cooked just enough.

As if this wasn't enough food already, we also got the Seafood Risotto with prawns and scallops.  Normally, I complain there isn't enough cheese in my risotto, but this was actually bordering on too much cheese.  My mom disagreed because she loves cheese, but in terms of execution, the risotto as a touch thick.  But really, it was still good with al dente arborio rice and the aforementioned cheesiness.  They were pretty generous with the large buttery scallops and meaty prawns, not that we were complaining.  In general, the only dish we didn't like was the lamb.  Other than that, the food was pretty solid, carefully made and reasonably-priced.  Not sure why it took me this long to try it...

The Good:
- Reasonably-priced
- Fair portions
- Attentive service

The Bad:
- Lamb was a miss
- Compared to the newer Italian restaurants, the food is not as modern (but for us, it suited us fine)

Kokoro Ramen

With social media these days, it isn't very hard for news to travel fast.  When it comes to restaurant reviews, it can easily make or break a restaurant within days of opening.  However, is it really all that fair?  Think of it, when a place first opens, things are generally not running smoothly and/or preparation of the food will need refinement.  So to either gush about a place or write it off completely would be a pretty quick assumption.  A good example is Kokoro Ramen where it was skewered online when it first opened its doors.  Granted, some of the criticism was fair, but apparently they have improved upon their recipe.  Pebbles tipped me off to this fact as she has been there many times.  So with that in mind, I finally made it out there to see for myself.

Kaiser Soze decided to go basic with the Miso Ramen with no additions.  As such, it looked rather bare where the portion size was definitely on the smaller side.  We weren't sure if this would be enough for someone who was truly hungry.  This was further exacerbated by the modest amount of noodles, albeit they were al dente and appealing.  As for the broth, it was impactful with the distinct fermented aroma of miso.  This was actually rather pronounced which was a very good thing.  For myself, I went for the Shio Tonkotsu with black garlic oil.  One taste of the broth and the creaminess of the bone marrow really came through.  It was silky, meaty and full of umaminess.  I found the thin noodles to be a bit on the softer side, but still good.  The fatty slices of chashu were tender while still retaining a meatiness.

Dre was smart about things and asked for the thicker yellow noodles prepared firm for his Kokuton.  Hence, his noodles were extra chewy and remained so until the end. We could really taste the pork in this as it was full-of-depth.  There was a umami mushroom finish to the broth that was very appealing and impactful.  Of course, the black garlic oil had a lot to do with this.  His soft-yolk egg was like everyone else's where it was soft and silky. Milhouse went in a completely different direction with the Spicy Tan Tan Ramen in a pork & chicken broth with ground pork, Tokyo negi and togarashi.  This wasn't as spicy as it appeared, but hardly bland either.  The broth was midly creamy while the noodles were al dente.  Egg was exactly as good as the rest of our orders as well as the chashu.

Ro had the Akaton Ramen consisting of pork broth, black garlic oil, wood ear mushrooms, bamboo shoots, chashu and a dollop of spicy sauce.  Although this featured thin noodles, they were still chewy and perfectly cooked (compared to mine).  The broth was quite similar to my shio tonkotsu except amped by the spicy sauce.  Once again, the egg and chashu were consistent with the others.  Lastly, I got a side of Chicken Karaage and although the colour was rather pale, it ate well.  Fairly crispy on the outside, the batter didn't eat greasy while the chicken itself was tender and moist.  I didn't really need sauce on the side as the chicken itself was seasoned enough.  For this visit, I guess we got the new and improved version of Kokoro because the broth was impactful  Prices and portion size can be contentious for some.

The Good:
- Broth flavourful and full of depth
- Chashu and egg on point
- Friendly service

The Bad:
- Small portion size
- Can get pricey when egg added

Pamir Diner

I've said it before, but I'll say it again - there is a lack of diversity when it comes to food in the GVRD.  Woah...  Wait a minute, what are you talking about???  Some would argue that Vancouver sports possibly the most ethnic cuisine in North American.  Yes, that may be true, but consider this - the selection of ethnic cuisine is predominantly Asian.  Nothing wrong with that, but some of the other options are lacking.  Of course this has plenty to do with demographics, however certain cuisines are poorly represented.  One of them is Afghani food.  Unlike Fremont, California (lots of relatives there, I go often), one could count on one hand the number of restaurants in the GVRD (Afghan Horseman, Afghan Chopan, Afghan Kitchen and Afghan Bakery).  Well, we can add one more in Pamir Diner out on Scott Road.  Miss Y and I decided to check it out for an early dinner.

So probably the best dish we had, arrived first, in the Mantu stuffed with ground beef, onions, and spices topped with special house sauce and mint yogurt.  Soft and tender with an appealing elasticity, the dumpling skin had good mouth feel.  Inside, the ground beef was moist, tender and peppery.  The garlicky tomato sauce on top was nicely accented by the cooling yogurt.  Lots of good textures and flavours going on here.  Next, we had an order of the Leek Bolani stuffed with leek and green onion and house spices pan-fried and served with yogurt and chutney.  This was pretty standard, if not a bit more doughy than other bolanis I've tried.  It was still fairly tender and nicely browned.  There was just enough leek and onion for flavour and texture without going over the top.

Onto the meats, we had both the Pamir Chicken and Lamb Tikka Kabobs.  As you can clearly see, the chicken was marinated and beautifully charred.  On the outside, the chicken was completely caramelized with an almost crispy crust.  There was some spice, but completely amped up with the cilantro chutney on the side.  We found the meat to be a bit dry though, but excusable since it was all breast meat.  Of the two, we thought the lamb was the best.  Also exhibiting the same crispy crust, the lamb wasn't as charred.  Now that didn't mean it wasn't flavourful though.  It was well-marinated and wasn't overly gamy.  The meat itself was succulent and tender.  I enjoyed eating this with the cilantro chutney and yogurt.

As a side, we added the classic Kabuli with the usual raisins and seared carrots.  The basmati rice was fluffy and flavourful without being overly greasy and salty.  I loved this rice since the pop of the sweet raisins and carrots really add a balance.  I could just eat this all by itself without any mains.  Too bad we weren't hungry enough to order the lamb shank because this goes so well with it.  Where is Mijune when you need her?  Overall, we enjoyed our meal at Pamir Diner.  I'm not sure if it is any better than Afghan Chopan, but it provides an alternative.

The Good:
- Tasty Mantu
- Nice people
- Loved the lamb kabobs

The Bad:
- Portions could be larger for the price

Raijin Ramen (Burnaby)

At one point, the ramen game in and around Metrotown was pretty weak.  All we had was Kawawa and that's all that needed to be said about that.  In came Kamamarui and things improved considerably by that one addition.  Open the floodgates as now we have Jinya, Yaguchiya, Tokyo Tonkotsu and Raijin.  With Viv overworking herself again, I decided to take the kids to check out Raijin.  Located just around the corner from Kamamarui, Raijin is part of the Zakkushi Group and offers up both chicken and pork broths.

For myself, I decided to try their Hokkaido Miso Ramen sporting light miso chicken broth, veggies, corn, chashu and a pat of butter on top.  The broth was indeed light tasting, but still creamy from the melted butter.  It was fairly aromatic, but not overly impactful.  Noodles were on point being chewy and although the chashu was on the leaner side, it was tender and moist.  My son went for the Tokyo Shoyu Ramen with a lean chicken broth.  This was definitely less robust than my miso butter broth, yet still had a meaty essence.  Salt content was moderate while the chashu was fattier, hence more silky in texture.  Unfortunately, the egg we added to the order was a fail being almost completely cooked.

My daughter decided on the Shio Tonkotsu Ramen with a pork soup base featuring bonito, seaweed, shiitake and shrimp.  I can't say that the ingredients were super evident after trying the broth, but it was indeed full of umami.  The black garlic oil on top merely amped up the already rich umaminess.  Once again, the noodles were chewy and remained so throughout while the crunch of wood ear mushrooms was welcomed.  On the side, she had the Gyoza (she didn't finish it, she was just greedy...).  As evidenced in the picture, the sear on the bottom was fairly weak and uneven (some were seared more).  As such, the crispiness was just lacking.  However, the tender and thin dumpling skin was good.  Inside, the filling was balanced and juicy.

For my son, he wanted a side of Chicken Karaage, so I obliged.  Somehow I think I spoil my kids...  There was no Viv to say no this time!  LOL...  Well, it was a good call as the chicken was juicy and nicely seasoned.  The thin coating on the outside was lightly crispy and not greasy.  We liked how the pieces were just the right size where it retained a tender texture while not being too big to pick up with chopsticks.  Overall, we thought the ramen and sides at Raijin were above-average but at the same time, didn't stand out.  But for Burnaby, I guess they will have a steady stream of customers.

The Good:
- On point noodles and chashu
- Okay pricing
- Friendly service

The Bad:
- Broth is okay, but doesn't stand out

The General Public

Normally, one would find Japanese restaurants to be categorized into 2 groups - Japanese-run and non-Japanese-run.  No matter what group they belong to, most Japanese restaurants are not very flashy, nor have much in the way of personality beyond the sushi chef.  However, there are a few spots that buck the trend like Zipang Provisions and The Eatery.  These places offer up good Japanese eats (at reasonable prices) while all served in a "hipster-like" environment.  The General Public (related to The Eatery) out on Main and 17th takes it one step further with their eclectic decor and live DJ pumping out house beats (on Fri/Sat).  It really wasn't the place to bring Viv's parents, but we did so anyways (I think they complained it was too loud... LOL).

We started out with an order of the Assorted Sashimi consisting of Atlantic salmon, albacore tuna, tako, tai, ebi, hotate and hokkigai.  This was pretty good with the proper textures and a nice sheen.  Wasn't the most amazing sashimi, but it was par for the course when it comes to the price point.  Not sure about the deep plate though as it made it hard for others sitting farther away to see what was actually in it.  We also got a side of salmon sashimi as we knew the kids would devour it all on their own.  My son also added his usual Nigiri including tamago, unagi, tuna and chopped scallop.  This was also good with chewy sushi rice topped with enough ingredients for balance.

For our only sushi roll, we chose the featured Volcano Roll made with tuna, scallops, salmon and avocado on a lava bed of spicy imitation crab meat.   This was lightly battered and fried so the exterior was crunchy while the roll was served warm.  Lost a bit in the shuffle, the ingredients were plentiful, but the spice and zestiness was definitely at the forefront.  Loved the massive amount of imitation crab meat on top as it added more substance to the dish.  Just to get a sense of the menu, I also ordered the Salt & Pepper Wings.  Dusted with plenty of black pepper and salt, there was no problem with seasoning.  The skin was well-rendered and crunchy.  However, the wings themselves were really dry.  

Of course we had to see how their version of aburi sushi compares to Miku (because they are still the best IMO).  We got one each of the Aburi Salmon and Aburi Scallop.  These were neatly constructed and held together when picked up, yet at the same time, were not dense.  I thought the salmon was sauced enough for impact while the spicy salmon in the middle added another layer of spice to the Jalapeno.  Not particularly seared properly, the scallop was pretty bland, but it was buttery in terms of texture.  We enjoyed the Tuna Tataki as the tuna itself was buttery and soft while only lightly seared on the outside.  It was nicely accented by the vinegary dressing on the side.

For our carb of the meal, we decided on the Beef & Vegetable Curry on rice.  Unlike most other Japanese curries, this one was not overly sweet.  In fact, we got plenty of curry flavour in addition to mild spice.  There was plenty of beef to be found, but the slices were on the chewier side.  We could've also used more sauce since there was a good amount of chewy rice underneath.  Last dish was the Nobashi Prawns which were fried in a fairly thin batter.  Hence, it was crispy, but also light.  The prawn itself was cold-water crunchy where it was lightly sweet.  It was served with sweet chili sauce.  So since The General Public is related to The Eatery, it is with no surprise that the experience was somewhat similar.  Food was definitely more than acceptable at a reasonable price.  However, the main draw here is a hip, eclectic atmosphere coupled with late hours.

The Good:
- Eclectic vibe
- Decent eats
- Open late

The Bad:
- Some of the cooked items could be further refined