Sherman's Food Adventures: February 2011

Be 'wiched Cafe

The whole gourmet sandwich craze with the back-to-back-to-back openings of Meat & Bread, the Dirty Apron and Big Lou's is taking the Downtown core by storm. If you take Finch's, Re-Up, all the Vietnamese Banh Mi shops, La Ghianda, Las Tortas, La Grotta Del Formaggio, Chez Meme and Thomas Haas into consideration, there is much choice to be had. However, there hasn't been much noise made out in Surrey other than La Charcuterie, Veneto's and the Salt Cellar (and Estrella's in Langley). Why Surrey? Personally, I feel there is no love given to the next biggest city other than Vancouver proper in the GVRD. Yah, Surrey is always the butt of jokes and lets not even mention what people think of the culinary scene. By virtue of eating out in Surrey quite a few times in the last 5 years, I have gained an appreciation for the diversity and surprising gems that are not known to people other than the locals.

That would describe Be 'wiched Cafe to a T. When I first pulled up to the place in the same complex as the Big Ridge Brewing Company, it really didn't seem like I could find great sandwiches there. Little more than a small coffee shop, the place is deceiving. Inside its modest digs is a place where almost everything is made from scratch. As I waited for my order, I noticed how all the customers walking in were greeted personally. Repeat customers, a clear sign that they are doing something right. From their diverse choices of sandwiches, I decided to try the Cubano for myself. Now, whenever we see any attempt at a Cubano up here, it is generally disappointing (see Havana). Imagine my surprise when it turned out to be pretty good. It was the classic combination of roast pork, ham, Swiss cheese and pickles on ciabatta then pressed. I added a Clam Chowder as a side and that was good as well. It was not a creamy chowder; rather it was more of a broth. I liked how it wasn't heavy and had a subtle clam taste. The veggies were vibrant while being soft and there was plenty of tender clam meat.

To get a better sense of the place, I got 2 more sandwiches to go starting with the Corned Beef. Made in-house, the meat was tender and moist. Nice flavour too. For the price, they were not shy with the amount of it either. Now for the star of the show - the Pulled Pork Sandwich. I thought I was ruined for any other pulled pork sandwich after Re-Up. This changed my mind. The house-made pulled pork was melt-in-your-mouth soft while exhibiting a certain level of smokiness. The bold apple-butter BBQ sauce was both sweet and tart. The acidity and crunch of the coleslaw was a perfect compliment to the sweet sauce and moist meat. Although the bun looked like it was from Costco, it was nothing like it in texture. Firm enough to stand up to the ingredients while soft enough that it didn't destroy the sandwich in one bite, it was perfect. In fact, everything that I tried was very good. What a pleasant surprise. I can't wait to go back.

And guess what? I did go back, with Mijune no less. She loves this place too and it's a whole lot easier to tackle it with 2 appetites. One of the specials of the day was the Pulled Pork Chili. Apparently this is not available all the time. I hazard a guess that if there is any pulled pork left over, then it goes into the chili. But since their pulled pork sandwich is so popular, there are not many chances we will find leftovers. So consider us lucky to try this hearty chili. Essentially consisting of meat and little else other than a few token kidney beans, this was very filling. The flavour was not "hit-you-in-the-face"; rather it was subtle and there was an underlying heat that showed up at the end. We could definitely taste the elements of a regular chili; but it was amped by the considerable amount of meat.

The last time I was here, I really wanted to try their breakfast items. Too bad there was one of me and 20+ items on the menu. This time, Mijune and I split the Breakfast Burrito to start. It consisted of a whole wheat tortilla filled with scrambled eggs, turkey sausage, bacon, jack cheese, peppers and salsa. As you can clearly see in the picture, the whole thing was a bit wet. That made it messy to eat and soggy in texture. The individual components were prepared find, especially the fluffy eggs; however, I found it to be somewhat bland and uninteresting. Maybe more kick? A combination of hot sauce and tomatillo might do the trick.

Alright. This is what we were really here for... The Stuffed Apple Pie French Toast. This dessert-like breakfast item is comprised of apple butter and cream cheese sandwiched in between 2 slices of brioche dipped in egg custard and coated in granola. The result is an almost decadent breakfast item. Despite the wet ingredients, the whole thing works. The granola provides a nice crunch which gives way to the soft brioche and sweet cream cheese filling. I didn't even need the syrup to eat this. Yet, with a slight drizzle, it really made the thing sing. I'm not a fan of sweets; but I do like this. On the topic of sweets, we were presented with some Lemon Citrus Bars and hey, they had me at lemon... It's like they knew the only desserts I get excited for are lemon ones. Wow, the lemon curd in this was intense. Very tart with a sweet finish, it works well with the toasted coconut on top. One of the best I've had. The last thing we tried was the Chocolate Caramel Cookie. Think of it as a chocolate cookie with the Caramilk filling. The cookie itself had a nice crisp exterior that gave way to a moist interior. There was a rich cocoa flavour that was kicked up a notch by the runny caramel in the centre. Very good. I'll say it again. This place rocks. Sure, not everything is killer; but most of it is. It would put most other similar shops to shame if it were located in Vancouver.

The Good:
- Personable proprietors
- Practically everything is made in-house
- Not skimpy with the meat

The Bad:
- Location is not really close for most people, other than the locals (but please go try it!)
- It's small, mostly takeout

Be 'wiched Cafe on Urbanspoon

Pho Vinh

"Cash Only". That is pretty much a given with hole-in-the-wall restaurants. Hey, everyone needs to earn a living right? With a smaller operation, there is an inherent need to cut as many costs as possible, namely credit cards. However, dare I say under-the-table activity as well? I won't speculate; but c'mon... who are we kidding? I'm not judging at all. Once again, everyone needs to make a living and pay the bills. That's the bottom line. However, for us consumers, it is a real drag when all you have in your wallet are receipts and lint. Even worse when the nearest bank machine is not within walking distance and a $2.00 service charge is in order. That was the case last time Pomegranate and I wanted to grab some eats at Pho Vinh. No cash, no Pho. We tried Bubble World for some TBN. Once again, no cash, no TBN. We settled on Maguro since it accepts credit cards.

This time around, it was Viv and I attempting to eat at Pho Vinh. Once again, no cash. But they accept debit! Good thing too, we were in a Pho mood. Before I discuss what we ate, I found it interesting that they included Saw Leaf Herb along with the usual basil, sprouts, peppers and lime. It's very similar to cilantro, probably even a bit more pungent. There are not many Vietnamese places in town that serve this herb. In a role reversal, Viv ended up with the Pho Dac Biet (with almost every meat). Apparently, it included a Spring Roll. I guess we didn't read the menu correctly. We were dismayed that they used a wheat wrapper rather than rice. Despite this, the spring roll was decent with a good amount of filling that had a nice onion/fish sauce taste to it. As for her Pho, there seemed to be a serious lack of noodles. After a few bites, she was only left with meat. It's good that they provided enough meat; but curiously not enough noodles (which are not very expensive). The meat was good, generally tender and pretty typical. We felt the broth was too much on the sweet side and a bit too light. Not a bad broth, we just wished there was more meat flavour to it. For some reason or another, I went for the Bun Bo Hue again for the second time in 2 weeks. I just had the one from Pho Tam and it was so good, I was craving for more. Unfortunately, the one here paled in terms of portion size. Once again, there was a serious lack of noodles. Noodles are inexpensive, put more in! At the very least, the noodles were good. Nice rebound texture, albeit slippery suckers as per usual. I felt the broth was quite good with plenty of spice and some tang. Much like Viv's bowl of Pho, the meats were good and I liked the addition of a pork knuckle.

Now, for some reason or another (probably I wanted to try it), I ordered a Lemongrass Chicken on Rice with egg as well. Turns out that it was a great decision since my bowl of noodles was not enough for me. I think the one at Pho Tam is easily double the size. I thought the rice dish was fantastic. It was a lot of food. I didn't finish it. The chicken was tender with a good amount of charring. Great lemongrass flavour as well. A good end to a relatively okay meal. I would say the food here is middle of the road Vietnamese. Maybe I'm stuck on my love for Pho Tam; hence, I'm always comparing places to their standard of quality and portion size. It could be unfair to do so all the time. However, I do think that Pho Vinh should put more noodles in their Pho considering their slightly higher than average prices. But if you're not a big eater, the place does the job.

The Good:
- Food is generally quite decent
- Accepts debit, that one step above "Cash Only"

The Bad:
- Stingy on the noodles
- Prices are slightly high for the amount of food

Pho Vinh on Urbanspoon

Rose Garden

Here we are again, a late Friday night hockey game. I'm really beginning to wonder if we will ever get prime-time ice again. Once upon a time, prime-time ice would be before 9:00pm. Now, it appears that 10:30pm - 11:45pm can be considered acceptable for league games. Honestly, the game time doesn't really bother me. The time we get out for eats is the real problem. As I go through all the late night options in the GVRD, we are beginning to scrape the bottom of the barrel. Sure, there are quite a few good ones left; but some aren't open past midnight. Thus, we had to do the late night Asian thing once again. For some reason or another, we have avoided visiting the Rose Garden out on Kingsway, for the longest time. I've been there before and the food is definitely solid. But, they apparently "wronged" Costanza long ago and I boycotted the place in support. Well, time has passed.

Originally, we were going for a late night menu of sorts (da lang); but seeing how that Polka King's favourite dish of Shrimp & Eggs wasn't on available on that menu, we went for the regular size. Noticing it was probably a better deal to get the set meals, we went for the dinner for 4, which included soup, rice, crab and dessert. Probably because it was so late, we never got any soup or dessert. But it would've been nice to let us know that! Naturally, we got the Shrimp & Eggs. This was a pretty large portion with prawns rather than shrimp. The egg was perfect being just barely cooked while not being oily. It was fluffy and only modestly seasoned. Hidden within were plump, crunchy cold-water prawns. We really enjoyed it. To satisfy our veggie quota, we got the Gai Lan with Beef. Once again, this dish wasn't oily either. The gai lan was cooked perfectly being crisp and the beef was tender without being over-tenderized. This dish was also only moderately seasoned. It was interesting that our "appetizer" dish of BBQ Pork & Jellyfish arrived 3rd. No matter, it's late night, we didn't care. The jellyfish was cut into large pieces and had a slightly softer texture than I would've liked. I did like that it wasn't too salty with just enough sesame oil. I wasn't a big fan of the BBQ pork though. Look at it, the dark colour alone is a bit scary. Fortunately it did taste and chew better than it appeared; but the bottom line is that it was not great.

The next dish confused us. We originally ordered Wine Chicken and ended up with Fried Chicken with Soy Sauce. Not sure if the Chinese name for it even sounds the same. Whatever, it was not too bad really. I thought that the chicken was not overcooked, retaining some juiciness, including the white meat. The soy sauce was slightly sweet and not too powerful. Probably due to its preparation time, the Steamed Crab with Garlic arrived last. Normally, this would be the first or second dish to arrive; but again, this is probably due to the lack of kitchen staff at 1:00am. Nothing amiss with the crab, it was fresh (as in live prior to cooking) and quite meaty. Not bad for a complimentary crab. In general, it was a decent meal, especially at the time we had it. A bit weird to have a full Chinese meal late at night, considering that we weren't that hungry. It wasn't exactly super cheap since we ended up paying $23.00 each since we ordered a dinner for 4 and we only had 3 of us. But even if there were 4 people, it would be over $17.00 each. Yet, portions were good and food was tasty, not much to complain about.

The Good:
- Good portions
- Overall food execution is good
- Open late

The Bad:
- Not as cheap as you would think

Rose Garden Seafood Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Mamak Cafe

*Restaurant is now closed*

"You haven't been???" remarked Vandelay as he was suggesting lunch spots in Downtown. I admit it. It's true. I have been so busy lately! Although there has been plenty of literature about Mamak Cafe, I either chose to ignore it or I just didn't remember. Hence, it was right in front of my face while I was next door at Meat & Bread and I still didn't clue in. Well, to be fair, it is not exactly an easy place to spot. You see, it is inside Pub 340. And to top it off, other than a few small pieces of letter-sized paper stuck to the window, no one would even guess there was Malaysian food to be found. In fact, Pomegranate joked that he was there with his buddies and didn't even notice the place.

Once inside the pub, there is a small designated area at the entrance specifically for Mamak. Mind you, there is the option to sit in the pub itself and be served the same food. Depends on your fancy. For me, I chose option one since the last thing I need are inebriated individuals questioning my picture-taking. We decided to order some items to share starting with the Roti Canai. I have to say that this is one of the best versions I've tried in Vancouver. Flaky, chewy and crispy without being oily, the roti was further amped by the outstanding sweet curry dip. I liked the thickness of the dip as well since it easily adhered to the roti. We also got an order of the Chicken Satay to share. Nicely charred while not completely overcooked, the chicken benefited from the tasty peanut dip. The dip was a good combination of nutty and sweetness.

The first of our main was the Laksa. As you may know, there are not many places to get a good laksa in town, with probably one of the most popular being Bo Laksa. For me, it was good; but it didn't wow me. The one here didn't wow me either; but it came close. The fragrant coconut broth was darn tasty. It was probably a little heavy on the coconut milk; but personally I like that. Combined with perfectly cooked noodles and ingredients, I enjoyed it very much. Next up was another Malay classic in the Nasi Goreng. Presented a bit differently than I am used to, it was missing the fried egg, shrimp chips and fried chicken. The frozen veggies were a bit odd for me as well. Ultimately, it did taste okay with only a moderate amount of spice. I did like the perfectly cooked shrimp.

Lastly, we had the Beef Rendang. It was also very coconutty and easy on the spice. Sure, this dish is not supposed to be that spicy; but for me, it was a bit too mild. Despite this, there was still hints of the many spices that make up this dish. The big chunks of meat were both good and bad. Good, because there was lots of beef. Bad, it was a bit hard to eat. I guess it's a catch-22. Too small and it might turn out really dry. Whatever the case, this was still a good dish and went well with the perfectly cooked rice. As we were finishing up, there was a certain level of satisfaction at not only the food; but at the final cost. The food is reasonably-priced here for the quality and level of execution. Sure, it's got this odd-location, ethnic-food-thing going on which makes it unique. But if we look past that and focus solely on the food. It is pretty good and that is all that matters.

The Good:
- Reasonably-priced
- It's got a good dive-like quality to it
- Very friendly chef and staff

The Bad:
- Strange location for some people
- Limited menu

Mamak Malaysian Cafe on Urbanspoon

Commune Cafe

Being able to stay in a hotel room in one's hometown is somewhat of a treat. It's like getting away without really going anywhere. No planes, trains or automobiles. Well, not really. I did drive and ended up paying an exorbitant fee for parking. The attendant might as well wear a mask since it's highway robbery. I digress. Anyways, back to the hotel room. It was our annual conference in Downtown and I was lucky enough to be provided with a room at the Sheraton Wall Centre. Hence, I could "relax" all I wanted and still be around for the second session of activities the following day. Well, our relaxing was a bit too aggressive and we barely were able to wake up for breakfast. Let me rephrase that. I was able to wake up for breakfast, Snake Eyes struggled. And the best thing for that is a good meal to start the day. No fruit, no croissants and certainly no granola. I suggested the Commune Cafe since they had real food such as breakfast sandwiches and omelets. Furthermore, they only use natural free-range meats & eggs, organic produce, milk products and 100% sustainable locally-sourced seafood. Snakes Eyes seemed content on that idea and off we went. As we walked into the place, the long shared table is front and centre. Well, the place is named Commune Cafe. Why not a communal table? Simple colours, simple decor with a no-nonsense approach, Snake Eyes and I liked the place without even trying any food. Of course that would be a tragedy in every shape and form for myself, so...

Not knowing what to order, I merely asked for the 2 most popular breakfast sammies. The first one we got was the Turkey Sausage & Egg. This sausage was the star of this sandwich and everything complimented it. Not rocket science for sure in making a breakfast sandwich; yet, it was good and reasonably-priced at $4.00 (this is Downtown, so that's not bad). Since one sandwich is never enough food for me, I also had their version of a McD's Egg McMuffin with Bacon & Egg, cheese and tomato. Again, it ain't complex to make one of these; but it was good. Love the tomato in it which added freshness to an otherwise collection of heavy items. Snake Eyes went for the Ham & Cheese Omelet served with toast and tomatoes. The omelet was a bit on the watery side; however, that is much better than being overcooked. So in that regard, it was soft and fluffy. Again, for $6.00, this was also reasonably-priced.

Now fate would have it, I was contacted by the Commune Cafe shortly after my visit for breakfast. Apparently, they have an all new dinner menu and invited a few people to try it. Well, I was planning on revisiting the place for dinner anyways, so that worked for me. I was lucky enough to be seated across from Mijune (Follow Me Foodie) and we shared most of the items that came our way. However, I let her have most of the desserts. I knew that was a prerequisite for sitting close to her! We started off with the Cheese Plate which consisted of Stilton, Goat Cheese and Aged Cheddar (all sourced from Les Amis du Fromage). It is accompanied by walnuts, celery sticks, crostinis, pickled grapes, sesame crackers and an apple-raisin chutney. Again, not a complex dish by any means with great cheese and condiments. Next up were 2 Sangak Flatbreads starting with the Tomato & Bocconcini. Resembling a pizza Margherita, there were fresh tomatoes, the right amount of cheese and pesto atop a whole wheat sangak bread. This was not bad. Definitely tasted the freshness and of course the ingredients are a natural match. The bread was crisp on the outer edges and slightly chewy everywhere else. The second sangak flatbread was the Bacon & Caramelized Onion. Nothing ground-breaking here since the marriage of smoky bacon and sweet caramelized onions works if done correctly. In this case, there was full strips of tasty bacon with cooked onions. Yah, it wasn't really all that caramelized as you will notice the pale colour. The white sauce was apparently a bechemal which really had no impact. Yet, I still enjoyed this flatbread.

Our last appetizer was the Hummus & Flatbread. Unlike the hummus at Nuba, this one here can almost be considered chunky. It was served warm and it went well with the chewy sangak. It was really mild-tasting with only minor hints of garlic and lots of olive oil. I didn't mind it; but personally, I like my hummus with more kick. Moving on, we were presented with the House Cured Gravlax with a salad of fennel, crispy shallots, arugula with beets and horseradish crème fraiche. I decided to eat the components separately at first and that was a total mistake. Although the salmon was nicely cured, it was quite salty. Then I tried the fennel salad and it was slightly bland. Ah. Eaten together, it achieved some balance. Mijune wasn't a huge fan of the dish; but I found it to decent. Maybe I am a sucker for gravlax? Although, we did both agree that the horseradish crème fraiche did not have any impact at all.

The next item was something different. Described as a deconstructed Warm Chicken Waldorf Salad, the plate consisted of Heritage farm leg, celery salad, apples, pickled grapes and candied walnuts. I guess since not everything was not mixed together, it qualifies as deconstructed? Whatever the case, when all of the components were eaten together (hence, reconstruction), the flavours worked in harmony. Not overly dressed like other Waldorfs, the individual components such as the grapes, walnuts and chicken were discernible. I enjoyed this dish very much. We were presented with Steamed Mussels next in a classic white wine, shallot and cream broth. The mussels were mostly plump and perfectly cooked. As for the broth, it was very mild and light. Possibly a bit too light since there was very little in the way of impact in terms of flavour. With that being said, it was not bad per se, it just could've been better. I did like the accompanying bread, it soaked up the broth quite nicely.

By now, I was so behind in my photo-taking and eating, it was hard to keep track of everything. The food came fast and furious! So fast, I almost missed the Sweet Potato Gnocchi with broccoli florets, confit cherry tomatoes, almonds and sage butter. Luckily, Mijune was there to keep me on task. As for the gnocchi, they were very soft, almost a bit too airy. But then again, that is better than too hard... The entire flavour profile was dominated by natural sweetness; yet by little else. This could be more aggressively seasoned to bring some more balance and "pop" to the dish. Presented on a bed of risotto with smoked bacon, peas and preserved lemon, the Seared Salmon was perfectly cooked. The skin was nice and crispy around the edges while the flesh was moist and flaky. For such a simple product, risotto can be a b*tch to cook and execute. It can range from underdone hard to overcooked mushy. This one was done quite well. The rice stayed intact with some bite left while the rest of it was definitely creamy with a good combination of the bacon and peas. The preserved lemon was a nice addition since it cut the richness of the dish.

Now for the main attraction... The Berkshire Pork Belly served with braised red cabbage,
baby baked potato and apple sauce. Appearing very much like Chinese roast suckling pig, this was a beautifully-produced piece of hog. This was a such a simple execution; but it worked. The skin was crispy while the meat and fat were melt-in-your-mouth sinfulness. The braised cabbage satisfied the vegetable quotient while the baked potato added even more food to an already rich product. The apple sauce was a nice idea; but didn't provide much else. The last of our entrees was the Braised Beef. I guess they really did save the best for last because damn, this was fantastic. Super tender and completely melt-in-your-mouth, this has been better than many other versions from other more expensive restaurants. Simply presented on mashed potatoes with winter root vegetables and a rich red wine jus, this was my favourite dish of the night. The jus was quite flavourful. It could've used a little less red wine since that was quite dominant. Despite this, it had depth and was very "meaty" for a sauce.

After all this, we were presented with a large dessert platter consisting of Brownies, Cranberry Pecan Orange Raisin Cookie, Fruit Salad, Carrot Cake, Chocolate Torte and Biscotti. For me, I liked the Carrot Cake the most. It was was a mish mash of ingredients that included carrots and nuts. Hence it was very crumbly. No matter, I liked the textures. The icing was fairly sweet; but wasn't too much so. As for the Chocolate Torte, I liked the semi-sweet filling; but the pastry itself was quite hard and dry. This was only okay for me. I did like the Cookie though, it was a good combination of flavours which set it apart from the norm. I liked how it was still soft. The Chocolate Brownie was not bad. Although it was very chocolaty, it was not sweet at all. For me, I don't like overly sweet treats, so this worked. There wasn't much in the way of textures other than chewiness. I won't say much about the Biscotti because I had nothing to dip it into. From what I tried it was dry and hard. And the fruit salad was a fruit salad. It was very fresh though. Our last dessert was a classic Creme Brulee. If you look closely, you'll see how thick the burnt sugar top is. It was a bit hard to break actually. Beyond that, the custard was not too sweet and really smooth. A few tweaks and this would be good. In general, the food was pretty decent considering the prices. Sure, there were hits and misses; but that is normal. The dinner items were a bit surprising for a place that resembles a hip cafeteria. With the reasonable pricing, I have no problem hitting up Commune Cafe for eats if I am ever in the area.

*Note: This was an invited dinner where all food was comped*

The Good:
- Reasonable pricing
- Eats are good for the price
- Minimalistic; yet cool dining space

The Bad:
- As the name suggests, there are not a lot of separated seating
- Some refinement needed; but considering the prices, I ain't complaining

Commune Cafe on Urbanspoon