It’s no secret that Vancouver has fallen in love with food trucks. What was a handful a few years ago has turned into dozens across Metro Vancouver In fact, some of Vancouver’s most popular restaurants have four wheels and no permanent address.
But that doesn’t mean brick and mortar are going away. Food trucks have their charm but so does sitting down and having a place to put my drink other than cradling it with my elbow as my fries play tightrope on my forearm. And what if it rains as it usually does here in Vancouver? That’s probably why many of the city’s most popular food trucks have been opening locations with roofs.
Re-Up BBQ is in New Westminster’s River Market. Tacofino now has several brick and mortar locations in Vancouver and Victoria. And while they’re not quite a food truck if you’re going to get technical, one of Vancouver’s biggest street food success stories, Japadog, has been open on Robson Street now for a few years.
A day before the official opening, Le Tigre’s Steve Kuan and Clement Chan showed us what they had in store on the menu, a mix of modern Asian cuisine served izakaya-style (small plates meant for sharing or Japanese-style tapas), some of which are interpretations of their popular food truck offerings.
The restaurant space is a stark, clean and modern looking room. It might look like a lot of minimalistic grey but there are also a lot of colorful accents like the warm wood table tops and chairs, slightly tinted light fixtures and the large wall of alcohol at the bar.
Torafuku has about 50 seats, many of which are around this large, polished concrete communal table.
The dinnerware is some of the most interesting I’ve come across, each a unique piece of clay. Sometimes they’re not the easiest thing to eat off, but they make the food look even more visually appealing (and photogenic).
We started with Me Like Papaya salad ($8), something I’m not usually a fan of but they get it right at Torafuku. It’s a great mix of flavors and textures. I especially like the fried lotus root chips, which give an otherwise tangy and refreshing salad a bit of earthy crunch. The seasoning is perfect, with a good amount of heat from the diced chilis.
Max Borrowman is mixing up all sorts of creative, tasty concoctions behind the bar, tailor-made to match the menu.
My favorite was our first drink of the night, called Shogun 75. A twist on the French 75, it’s made with Absolut vodka instead of gin. There’s also green tea syrup, yuzu, kaffir lime, basil, smoked pear bitters and sparkling wine.
It’s a bright, citrusy and refreshing drink, perfect for the hot summer day.
The “Rye So Messy” Chicken Wings ($12) are marinated in rye and gochujang, which is a Korean fermented red chili paste. They’re served with a mango glaze, ramen crumble and what Torafuku calls kfc sauce. There’s some great flavours here and they’ve got a decent spicy kick as well.
The menu quite clearly states that “This Is Not Tortellini” ($12) …although no one could give me an answer when I asked what they actually were then, if not tortellini. While they’re certainly shaped like tortellini, the insides are more like gyoza. Whatever they are, they’re delicious. Get a bite with a bit of every component on the plate.
The filling is pork, shiso, ginger, garlic, scallions and “angry tiger sauce”. And can we talk about how beautiful this is? That swirl in the middle blows my mind…how do they even do that?
It’s basically cheating to put a fried egg on top of anything because runny egg yolk just makes everything better, especially this Dirty Birdy Fried Rice ($12). The egg adds even more richness and silky texture to the perfectly cooked brown rice, topped with chicken liver, prawns, tofu, and chilli.
While the Shogun 75 was light and refreshing, our next drink, the Silk Route, had darker, richer flavours with lots of spice and herbs. It’s a mix of Grand Marnier, Amaro Ramazzotti, lime, honey ginger syrup, a goji berry ginseng tincture and lemongrass. It felt more like something I’d want to drink in the fall instead of a bright summer day with the sun blasting me in the face with heat. Still, it’s an interesting and tasty flavour combo.
As soon as I tried Torafuku’s Kickass Rice 2.0 ($10), I knew this dish was a winner. It looks simple but there’s so much flavour in that small bite, 80% of which is just rice.
The problem with a lot of Japanese restaurants in Vancouver is that rice is treated as an afterthought. The emphasis is put on the fish or chicken or pork and the rice is just the medium or the side-dish. In Japan, rice is always the main event and this Kickass Rice 2.0 reminds me of the best damn onigiri I’ve had. Perfect, succulent bites of Aburi-style torched pork belly, chilis and rice.
As the “Vegetarians Only” ($10) name implies, this combination of crispy, fried mochi, seasonal vegetables, mozza and torched mayo doesn’t contain any meat. The mochi themselves have a sweet, crispy and chewy texture and they aren’t bad but not really my thing. Some of my dining neighbours lost their freakin’ minds for this stuff and couldn’t get enough but I wasn’t really as smitten. I do, however, applaud the kitchen for taking the chance on this dish; it’s the first time I’ve seen or tasted anything like it.
We’re told this gorgeous thing is called “Dr. Octopus vs. Mr. Tuna” ($12), which raises more questions than it answers. Did Mr. Tuna not graduate from medical school? And what sort of doctor is Dr. Octopus?
My only complain is that there isn’t more of the amazing octopus salad, tossed with tomato, jalapeños, scallions, crispy nori, and served next to a tuna crudo in a Romesco sauce. The tuna is delicious too but the octopus salad just hits every note perfectly.
Dessert was a hazelnut chocolate bar with passionfruit crumble and a plum coulis. Is it good? Well, I finished the whole thing. The sweet is offset by the tartness of the coulis and the fresh berries on top. The bar is smooth and rich but you get some crunch and texture from the crumble. A well thought-out dessert to end a rather spectacular dinner.
Torafuku is one to watch, and there’s a lot to like about this Le Tigre spinoff. The menu is fresh, creative and cohesive. Most dishes are between $8 and $12 and nothing is more than $15. As a helpful bonus, the location has plenty of easy nearby street parking. It’s great to see this next step in this lively kitchen staff’s evolution, from food truck to restaurant and they’ve certainly shown they’re up to the challenge.
Torafuku Modern Asian Eatery
Address: 958 Main Street