Calling all Vancouver foodies!! Especially those interested in traditional Japanese food. This hidden gem is a MUST TRY.
I am pretty lucky to have hardcore foodie friends that don't mind me tagging along with them on their foodie adventures. I had the privilege of tasting the most authentic Japanese soba noodles you could find in the Vancouver area. I was so pleasantly satisfied and excited afterwards about this find that I couldn't wait to tell you all about it!
VanSoba is really hidden. In fact, the Japanese chef cooks in a shared kitchen in a cafe called "Ethical Kitchen". The story I've heard is the chef had originally cooked out of a tiny kitchen in a small grocery store next door to Ethical Kitchen named Tama. But because of the lack of space and the lack of power of a real stove of an actual kitchen, he had moved next door to share space with the said cafe. What makes his soba so special is that he makes the fresh buckwheat noodles himself, which is a very difficult task in itself (says local Japanese chef, Tojo). And because these noodles are freshly made by himself, there is only a limited supply everyday. The last time my friends went hoping to try these noodles, they were sold out by 1pm because of its popular demand, and they were left disappointed with no more noodles to try. So, we decided we would trek out there right when it opened. At 11:30am.
Ethical Kitchen itself has its own charms. It seems to promote organic living and cooking with fresh produce that they mostly grow themselves. I had a housemade ginger and orange lemonade along with my soba noodles, and it was perfectly refreshing for the summer day. They also sell a variety of baked goods and packaged "fruit kimchi's" and brew their own kombuchas. They seem to be closely knit with the Japanese establishment right next to them.
Soba noodles can be served cold with a dipping sauce or hot in a broth. According to wiki, it takes three months to harvest buckwheat, so it sure is no easy and quick feat to make these noodles. Dan chose the zaru soba, which is the cold version, while Bran and I both chose the hot one served with a side of tempura. But first off, we started off with tamago. And boy, let me tell you about the tamago.
Tamago is a Japanese type of omelette made from folding many layers of egg. And the ones that were made by VanSoba were nothing like any tamago I've tried. Unlike the ones usually found in popular Japanese restaurants in Vancouver, it is very fluffy and not sweet. A sweet Japanese lady, whom we believe is the chef's mother, served us each dish with an explanation of how to eat them. This tamago is not sweeten, and served with a side of soy sauce. She said if we prefer, we could dip it in the soy sauce, but she suggests that we don't. The layers of this tamago is so delicately thin but when you bite into it, you can separate it into each fine layer. It was so light that it was like putting an egg cloud in my mouth. I didn't get to try tamago when I was in Japan, but my friends claim that it is very much like the ones they've tried on their trip. Just typing this makes me want to try it again.
Then came our noodles. Dan was first with his zaru soba. The Japanese lady explains how it is traditionally consumed. You grab a little bit of noodle with your chopstick, and dip it in the tsuyu sauce. (The tsuyu sauce is a mixture of dashi, soy sauce and mirin). If you like, you can take a bit of wasabi and green onion with your noodles before dipping. She says, "eat it quick or the noodles will become soft". After you finish the noodles, she brings over a small teapot with some of the buckwheat water that the noodles were cooked in.. with which you can pour into the tsuyu sauce and consumed as a soup. "The buckwheat water is very good for your health," she explains further.
I love how simple it is. The noodles are presented in a traditional way. It was laid out on a sieve-like bamboo tray (which is called the "zaru" - hence the name). The flavours are clean and the noodles have a bite to them. You can definitely taste the difference between these handmade noodles versus the packaged ones cooked by other local Japanese restaurants. The green onion and wasabi adds a bit of freshness and kick to it, which is perfectly balanced by the well-seasoned tsuyu sauce.
Then came our hot soba noodles with tempura. The Japanese lady explains that we could add a little bit of hot spice to it if we like but not too much. Again, it is important to consume it quickly before the noodles become soft.
I liked breaking up my veggie tempura and dipping it into the broth before eating it. The veggies were finely shredded, lightly battered and fried to super crispness. Oh man. It was so good. The only complaint I would have is that right after you finish your last bite, you are already wanting more and making plans in your head of when your next trip back would be!
After finishing our delectable meal, we walked over to the Japanese market next door named Tama. It is cohesive with Ethical Kitchen in that it sells only organic and locally grown products. On its wall is a list of all the local farms that they are partnered with. You can find some interesting Japanese produce that you would otherwise not find at a regular supermarket.
Nozawana is a Japanese leafy green of the turnip class. It is often pickled in Japanese cuisine.
Their Japanese staff are friendly and eager to explain anything you are curious about with their Japanese selections.
Tama has a small kitchen where they serve vegetarian bento boxes. (Something I want to try next!).
Dan bought some genmai mochi brown rice cakes. The Japanese lady in the store explained that you eat it by dipping it in a little soy sauce first. It is best consumed fresh, but if you keep it for the next couple of days, you can put them in the oven to heat up. It will puff up bigger and become a different texture.
Outside the Ethical Kitchen is also a small patio and garden. You can enjoy your food outside while watching them tend to their garden of where they get their fresh ingredients.
And of course, you have to stop and pet the super adorable shiba inu lazying around on the patio deck.
Overall, it was a great dining experience where I got to enjoy some really yummy food and learned a little more about their more traditional or homey foods. Yelp gives it a solid five stars with only four reviews. Perhaps not everyone has heard of it yet. Definitely a hole-in-the-wall hidden gem worth checking out.