What I Did On My Winter Vacation

Growing up, my family didn’t celebrate Christmas, so come winter vacation, instead of spending our two-week school leave shopping and stringing popcorn like everyone else we knew, we took an arduous and mildly-traumatizing family road trip in the trusty ol’ royal blue Oldsmobile station wagon, fighting for the travel Yahtzee and the best car snacks as my dad pressed petal to the medal up I-5 in search of the next indoor pool.

Old habits die hard, and almost every year, my family and I convene for Christmas vacation in an unfamiliar city, roaming the eerily empty urban landscape searching for food, feeling very much like an extra in The Walking Dead. This year, we explored beautiful Vancouver (BC) for Christmas, managing to track down some very worthy eats despite holiday closures. If you’re headed up there anytime soon, I’d suggest sniffing out these spots. Merry New Year!


Dirty Apron Cooking School and Delicatessen
540 Beatty St.

Just steps down from Medina Cafe and popular Chambar restaurant (all three owned by the same foodie power couple) in the hip Crosstown district of downtown Vancouver, this chic new deli and specialty market is a) a boon for those in need of a round of BC-made Camembert, fresh organic eggs, a squirt bottle of Raspberry Caramel sauce, a pint of Lemon Buttermilk sorbet, a pound of housemade smoked beef brisket or a fennel and chili-marinated pork tenderloin, fresh flowers/fruit/milk, a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon, and eco-friendly toilet paper; b) in possession of some seriously beautiful crab & shrimp, albacore confit, and Montreal smoked meat sandwiches; c) an excellent spot to stop for a gourmet snack at one of the chandelier-shaded communal farmhouse tables overlooking this trendy stretch of Beatty Street, and d) the place to take a hands-on cooking class, in an enviably tricked-out classroom ringed by Wolf gas ranges and outfitted with Sub-Zero refrigerators, All Clad cookware, and Wusthof knives (only the best for you, my dear). If I lived nearby, I’d be in early and often for the daily dinner-to-go, on this particular evening it was a lemon-paprika game hen with spicy cabbage, roast potatoes, and a fennel watercress salad, available for pickup after 4:30 pm for $16.99 per serving.


Medina Cafe
556 Beatty St.

This stylish Crosstown brunch destination opens at 8 am for fresh Belgian waffles and lavender lattes, but the famished will want to wait until 9am, when the kitchen green lights the full menu of co-owner/chef Nico Schuermans’s sophisticated breakfast and brunch fare, served daily until 4pm. After years of diligent practice, I’m proud of my ability to scan a menu and select my ideal meal in under 60 seconds, but I had to ponder Medina’s for a whopping five minutes, then spend another five minutes wishing I had 10 stomachs so I could try everything, then another five minutes carefully manipulating everyone into ordering dishes I just had to try or I wouldn’t be able to sleep that night. Fortunately, I had a fresh Belgian waffle with housemade fig orange marmalade and an expertly made chai to tide me over. The food was everything I’d been promised by the food-savvy friends who’d pointed me to Medina, and almost two weeks later I still wake up thinking about my breakfast paella–a baked egg over curried orzo with zucchini, red pepper and roast corn, ringed with Hungarian chorizo, avocado, and watercress.


Salt Tasting Room
45 Blood Alley

Every time I visit Vancouver, I stop into Salt Tasting Room. It’s uniquely located–tucked down dodgy “Blood Alley” (I looked behind me en route, and my mother had her pepper spray out), inviting–you feel as though you could spend hours in the casual brick-walled dining room, and educational–I always end up trying new and interesting wines, meats and cheeses while navigating their mix-and-match charcuterie and cheese wall. While the service has always been excellent in my experience, this year, we were fortunate to have a particularly knowledgeable Australian fellow as our kitchen-cellar-table liaison, who assembled a perfect lineup of wine and the meats and cheeses who love it. We checked the ticket for his name, so you could ask for him when you go, but sadly, all the ticket identified him as was, “Lunch.” For dessert, we marveled at the apricot blue cheese cheesecake, a mild, creamy revelation that was astonishingly well-received for a crowd that included a cheesecake hater, a blue cheese hater, and an apricot skeptic.

Note: Next door to Salt is Judas Goat, which was closed for the holidays, but I have it on excellent authority that it’s a must-visit. So add that to your list as well.

Bao Bei Chinese Brasserie
163 Keefer St.

This sliver of a bistro, tucked down a Chinatown side street and nearly invisible to the naked eye (thank goodness for Google Maps), looks like a quirky upscale Chinese saloon–vintage fringed lamps and an old-fashioned bar with flowery upholstered stools mingle with eclectic wall art like the neat row of Polaroids tucked into clipboards, while a precisely placed lineup of chef’s knives and cleavers painted bone white hangs beneath the kitchen window. The crowd is equally diverse–we sat between a young yuppie couple ordering nearly every inventive cocktail on the menu (I had the John Wein–shochu with fresh ginger and yellow flower tea syrup) and a three-generation Chinese family with such beautiful manners I Googled finishing schools when I left. Start with a “schnack,” like the Jenga-esque tower of Chinese sausage and dried shrimp-studded crispy Daikon cake fingers, then move into the “Petit Plats Chinois”…we delighted in the Shao Bing–a sesame flatbread split in half and layered with tender braised pork butt, slices of Asian pear, pickled onion and mustard greens. Our chopsticks crossed over the last duck and mushroom wonton in duck consomme, and the Pearl Bok Choi was divine–crisp pale green leaves sauteed with ground pork and black beans. For dessert, we shared a delicate almond panna cotta topped with a syrupy-tart kumquat confit and shard of cinnamon almond brittle. “Bao bei” means “treasure” or “precious” in Chinese…quite fitting.


899 Burrard St.

With a few locations around the city center, Japadog seems to have an omnipresent line at each and every one, and the one I waited in took long enough for my pant legs to be soaked from the knee down by the time I could get my mitts on a weiner, so I’m not sure I’d call it fast food. Delicious yes, fast, no. Endorsed by heavyweights like Anthony Bourdain, Steven Seagal (shut up, Hard to Kill is one of the best movies EVER), and Ice Cube (seriously, they have the signage and photo evidence to prove it), Japadog serves up fat, fragrant, steaming hot Kurobuta pork, Kobe beef, turkey, and veggie sausages topped with all manner of exotic deliciousness–like the Okonomi, a pork dog topped with fried cabbage, vinegar-kissed Japanese mayo, and a dusting of always-eerie bonito fish flakes, which wriggle and writhe as though they were alive when they hit the hot cabbage. For exact locations and hours and more info, check Japadog’s website or their Japadog Blog (my new favorite blog name).


Aphrodite Organic Cafe and Pie Shop
3598 West 4th Ave.

Vancouver’s youthful and thriving Kitsilano neighborhood is teeming with shops and restaurants that I wished to patronize, however, many had the gall to be closed for the holidays. Providentially, Aphrodite Organic Cafe and Pie Shop welcomed us with twinkling windows and pie. A cozy neighborhood favorite on the quiet end of  West 4th Street, Aphrodite was the ideal place to hunker down with a fresh Field of Greens salad, four-bean Harvest Vegetarian Chili, and chicken and shiitake quesadilla, to make amends for our regretful holiday overindulgences. Regrets vanquished by our healthy organic eats, we then ordered slices of Aphrodite’s signature housemade Blackberry Apple and Raspberry Rhubarb pie a la mode, and a wedge of tall dark and handsome Double Chocolate Beet Cake with a clean conscience. We also sampled two memorable organic hard ciders–Vancouver Island’s Sea Cider Farm and Ciderhouse’s Pippins and Rumrunner, the former light and pert, the latter dark and complex. So even if you generally avoid healthy fare, you could just visit Aphrodite for a cider and pie, and to admire the lithe, attractive, organic Canadian servers. (Seriously, why are Canadians so good-looking? Even our Aquabus driver had me a bit verklempt.)


Fairmont Hotel Vancouver
900 West Georgia St.

If you’re in the mood for a proper British tea, by all means splash out on the downtown Fairmont Hotel Vancouver’s Afternoon Tea. Ushered into the opulent back half of the Lobby Lounge, lulled by the bourgeois strains of the holiday harp, you can feast (daintily of course) on tiered tea trays of petit fours, crustless sammies, and scones with clotted cream, served with a pot of one of the Fairmont’s signature teas. For those who need some effervescence alongside their Earl Grey, champagne is optional. This year I was particularly taken with the sweetly festive candy arch leading into the lounge–the entire structure is constructed of licorice, sour balls, peppermints, etc., the result being the stuff dreams are made of. Just don’t get any ideas about licking it because the Fairmont security guys are big and definitely exude an air of anti-funny business.


Granville Island
1661 Duranleau St.

The best excuse to ride the colorful little Aquabus ferries that zip around the harbor AND the best spot to eat oyster chowder and fresh berry pie while splitting your view between the Vancouver waterfront and the fascinating hordes of international tourists who flock here, Granville Island is a year-round covered public marketplace that pulls you in one door, thrusts you into a maze of vendors hawking fresh fruit, meat, cheese, pasta, pastry, tea, soup, spices and everything else edible under the sun, then spits you out another door several hours later, stuffed and slightly dazed. The main market is mostly food with a few crafty booths thrown in, while the outerlying buildings are dotted with interesting art galleries, clothing, garden and doodad stores. There’s even a brewery for when your Dad’s reached his shopping threshold and needs to escape.