Kam Do, Michigan Noodle, and Phnom Penh, Vancouver BC

With Indian cuisine to come at Vij’s and Dim-Sum well covered by Jade and Sea Harbour while my family requested more “traditional” breakfast fare for the rest of the trip, a trio of additional stops would round out my sampling of Asian ethnic cuisines in Richmond and Vancouver for this visit – one for traditional baked goods, one for hand made noodles, and the last for Cambodian specialties…all things I surely can’t find in any quantity or quality in Central Ohio. Again thanks go out to Sherman of shermansfoodadventures and the folks at Chowhound for their assistance.

Beginning first with a selection that could best be designated as a snack despite the fact that there is indeed a proper restaurant attached, our visit to Kam Do on Alexandria Road would only be for the pastries, and more specifically the “sweetheart” or wife cake as well as a trio of buns one early morning en route from our hotel to downtown Vancouver. Having heard that most of Kam Do’s selections were not only authentic, but also inexpensive and baked at various times throughout the day to ensure freshness our arrival would be just after 8:00am and true to form a whole stack of pastries was emerging from the oven literally the moment we walked through the door.

With the servers seemingly unaccustomed to customers lacking any knowledge of the Cantonese language but trying their best to help guide us through the vast selection my sister and I spent a few minutes browsing before settling on our choices and with the wife cakes actually kept in a separate area behind the counter each of our choices was individually wrapped in cellophane before being bagged – all four items plus plenty of smiles and excellent service for a loonie and two toonies.

Making our way back to the car to explore our choices we decided to start with the warm items first and in doing so opted for the Coconut Bun, a nicely leavened item we had seen on both dim sum menus but failed to order but this time much larger and featuring a sugary interior laden with coconut flakes inside of a soft buttery roll with an egg wash and honey glaze. Somewhat akin to an American dinner roll served at any number of diners but nicely accented by the coconut we additionally selected two more buns, one Taro and the other Pineapple, that were similarly constructed and although I personally love the flavor of Taro it was definitely the coconut version that stood out likely due to its warmth and freshness.

Moving next to the wife cake I have to admit I’d never heard of this item prior to reading about Kam Do but all things being equal I’m sort of glad I had not because I’d have felt a little bit jealous due to the lack of availability where I live. Something like a croissant on the exterior due to a skin made of candied winter melon beneath a sweetened egg-wash yet with a soft yet flaky interior harkening a pull-apart biscuit the texture of this small bun was divine yet what truly stood out was actually the flavor, a complex semi-sweet and savory amalgam of almond extract, sesame seed oil, and notes of cloves and anise all subtle but present and producing a sum much greater than the whole of its parts and definitely an item worth seeking out.

For a second stop along the way, a spot we’d originally targeted for lunch but ended up enjoying for an early dinner instead, Michigan Noodle would prove an interesting stop for a quartet of Ohioans a whole country away from our neighboring state but having it on good word that this a great place for hand pulled noodles and wantons at a bargain price we decided to take a chance and incidentally ended up with some really great food in a fairly unlikely place.

Located in a rather non-descript bank of buildings and tucked way back in the corner so much that we would have never seen it had it not been for our GPS we found ample parking at Michigan Noodle and made our way in to find the restaurant largely empty at the off-hour of 4:00pm. Again the only Caucasian folks in the room a young woman approached us with a simple “hello – four?” before leading us to our table where menus were handed to each of us before she returned to the side of the restaurant where what appeared to be the entire staff was sitting and eating; yes, our “off hour” had interrupted their meal before what would turn out to be a very busy dinner service.

Sitting and browsing the surprisingly large menu with more varieties of noodles and dumplings than I’d have ever guessed existed it would be mere moments before an older waitress would approach our table with tea ($1/ea surcharge) and a tray of condiments including soy, spicy, and sweet sauces and speaking English better than any of our Dim Sum servers she asked us what we would like while also making some recommendations – an eventual dialogue that led to four entirely different dishes that she assured us would be large enough to share.

Sitting and browsing the room, now with four other tables filled and soon to be at about 75% capacity, Michigan Noodle would prove to be the first Chinese restaurant we’d been to on the trip without a speck of Christmas or Americana dotting the walls. Composed mostly of dark woods, white walls, and traditional tapestries and photographs the restaurant certainly felt like a place for locals and all things being equal the service was actually much better than it needed to be with our server bringing us cold water and tea refills plus silverware (okay, perhaps a bit of an assumption on her part there) without request and with a partially open kitchen diners were also treated to a show as the team stood there forming, stretching, and cutting noodles with great rapidity in utter silence.

Feeling rather hungry as we had missed lunch it would be only a short while before our orders would arrive and with each served in a surprisingly large bowl given the low prices we all knew food would be going back to the kitchen but planned to do our best and ended up leaving very little. Beginning first with my order, at first a slip up (the good kind where you get more food,) I selected the Fried Duck Congee but was instead served the Black Mushroom and Chicken Congee and although the mistake was delicious with the intensely creamy and slightly saline rice providing a nice backdrop to the earthy noodles and chicken the duck was even better with a crackling skin and unctuous meat in the same rice broth. Adding a touch of soy for some bites, a touch of the sweet sauce for others, and just a dab of hot sauce to taste my only wish would have been for the duck to be deboned – a small quibble when eating casually, but messy regardless.

Moving next to the reason we decided to visit in the first place, the noodles, my mother’s Traditional Wanton Noodle Soup would prove to be a stunner – by far the best I have tasted in my limited experience but with a steamy broth was clean and clear yet rich and intense underlying springy and delicate noodles plus translucent pockets of pork and mushroom that burst in the mouth leaving behind a balanced but porky sapor. While certainly not for the MSG intolerant I will say that very few things that cost $5 are this tasty and this satisfying.

Choosing to sample her noodles without soup my aunt elected for the Lo Mein with Ginger and Green Onion and although it too was tasty I’m almost certain her noodles were envious of those that got to bathe with the wantons in that broth. Still impressively delicate given their thinness and with a great taste added by the ginger I will note that when sharing was complete it was just under half of this dish and approximately 1/4 of the *bonus* congee that went uneaten.

Rounding out our sampling (and likely accounting for my first congee) at the recommendation of our server my sister selected the Fried Noodles with Carrot, Black Mushroom, Chicken, and Bok Choy – an insanely large dish for the price that came served in big glass bowl with the crunchy noodles at the base and at least a quarter pound of boiled and lacquered chicken plus similar amounts of tender bok choy, crunchy carrots, and aromatic black mushrooms all bathed in a slightly sweet oyster sauce. Perhaps the most “familiar” of the selections as a similar version of this is found on the majority of Americanized Chinese restaurants I have to say that at first I was slightly surprised that our waitress had suggested this but in the end whether she did so because she assumed we were looking for familiar foods or because she really thought it was good doesn’t matter – it was delicious.

With the total bill after a 20% tip coming in at just over $25 (I’ve spent 4x this on appetizers) we made our way out of Michigan Noodle with plans for more sightseeing and a late dinner but in the end only the first happened with “dinner” merely consisting of drinks and desserts as we were too full. Drinks and desserts that would cost more than twice Michigan Noodle’s bill and be far less filling and even less satisfying.

Moving on to the last of the recommendations gleaned from Sherman of shermansfoodadventures.com my first experience with Cambodian cuisine would come at the hands of Phnom Penh, a location selected not only due to the high praise but also as a result of their flexible hours and relative close proximity to Rogers Center where we’d be taking in the 7:00pm matchup between the Canucks and Sharks – a game that even despite our best planning we were nearly late for given the popularity of our late lunch destination.

Billed as an authentic Cambodian and Vietnamese restaurant and accepting no reservations our arrival at Phnom Penh would be just prior to 4:00pm and although we had been warned of long waits nothing would have led me to anticipate what we found at an off hour between lunch and dinner on a rainy day – namely a 75 minute wait exacerbated by a fluid crowd comprised of patrons that clearly knew how to work the system in order to be seated faster while the rest of us stood around waiting for our names to be read from a handwritten list carried by one of the many staff members that seemed to change from moment to moment – frustrating to say the least but at the same time also reassuring as such a crowd clearly indicated something special waited at the end of our wait.

With our party of two finally called while my mother and aunt opted to sit this meal out in favor of sandwiches we were quickly led through the growing throng to a large 4-top along the wall without a word from the hostess and handed the encyclopedic menu to browse before water was poured and our arrived to take our order – all this occurring in a mere four to five minutes thus leading us to defer and apparently forfeit our “turn” as the young woman would not return for at least twenty minutes; plenty of time to make our decisions and to watch the chaos while taking in the room’s brightly colored decorations.

With orders finally placed and tables being turned and being filled at an uncanny pace while the line never seemed to shorten it would not be long before a collection of condiments would be delivered by the hands of one server while water was refilled by another. With servers speaking English only slightly better than I speak Cambodian or Vietnamese I’m relatively certain that it was at this point that our server said “food out in 5 minutes but you order too much” and true to these words the first dishes arrived shortly thereafter as we sat picking at the vinegar soaked carrots, sweetened soy sauce, bean sprouts, fiery BBQ sauce, and dried spices that were meant to compliment our selections.

With only two of us present but wanting to make the most of our meal the first plate to arrive would be Prawn Ball Rice Noodle in Soup with Bean Sprouts and served in what can best be described as a punch bowl I instantly realized why our server had suggested we had ordered too much – both at our table and those around us the portions were gargantuan – but digging into the bowl with a spoon I was quickly reassured that although some would likely go to waste it would not be for lack of trying as everything about the dish from the starchy hand pulled noodles to the savory snappy balls of prawn was texturally lovely with flavors brought to a peak by the fatty and briny broth, an effect amplified even further with the addition of some of the dry spices leading us to consume all but a half-cup of broth and a few stray noodles by meal’s end.

Served as a duo the next pairing would feature one sweet and one savory, both seemingly present on every table in the restaurant – the Strawberry ‘Moo Moo’ Shake and the “Canh Ga Lan Bot,” or Deep Fried Chicken Wing with Lemon Pepper Sauce. Beginning first with the smoothie, a relatively “familiar” dish consisting of pureed strawberries, condensed milk, ice cubes, and in this case coconut milk the concoction was light, flavorful, and airy like an Italian Ice but substantially more creamy and served with a thick straw it went quickly. Moving next to the chicken, considered by many to be Phnom Penh’s signature item, we opted for a half order for $8.00 and with 9 wings to the order not only was this a pretty good deal compared to many other purveyors of wings, it was also a hell of a lot better with a sweet meets savory shell that crackled on mastication giving way to supple flesh beneath. Slightly peppery on their own and served with lemon tinged vinegar pepper sauce for dipping I definitely understood why these were present at every table and with turmeric and garlic notes aplenty my only regret was that we didn’t order a full plate (which appeared to contain ~20 wings for $12.50 judging from the tables adjacent ours.)

Seeing the time approaching 6:00 and not wanting to risk missing the anthem I asked our server (she just so happened to be walking by – not that she was checking in on us or anything) if we could order our dessert to arrive with our final item and assuring us this was “no problem” it would be a mere five minutes later that we would receive the “Banh Xeo” and less than a minute later when the Taro Tapioca would arrive. Beginning first with the Vietnamese Crepe – an enormous golden fold of crispy bean sprouts, shrimp, pork, and eggs fried to perfection and served with raw vegetables the dish was surprisingly not overly oily and absolutely chalk-a-block full of savory notes carefully balanced by the vegetal bitters of the beans; another must order and something I’ve managed to recreate with minimal oil since returning home as a healthy protein packed breakfast.

Moving finally to dessert, the aforementioned Taro Tapioca – all I can say is that if you like taro and you like tapioca this warm preparation is a must order as the fibrous texture of the tuber blended nicely with the tapioca while the light saccharine notes of the maltodextrin and a dollop of condensed milk provided just enough sweetness to highlight the taro’s flavor without overwhelming it.

With the time now 6:15 and Roger’s Center beckoning the bill was presented and after being told to pay at the register we made our way to the back and settled the modest tab only to realize that by the time we made it to still jammed packed entryway our table had already been turned and a family of four was busy browsing the menu. I hope they ordered a full order of the chicken…and the moo moo shake…and the prawn balls…and maybe a crepe and the taro tapioca too.

Category(s): Canada, Dessert, Food, Kam Do, Michigan Noodle, Phnom Penh, Pork, Richmond, Vacation, Vancouver

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