Simply judging by the vibrant neon sign of a rooster outside the restaurant and it’s location within the historic Chinatown neighbourhood in Vancouver might lead you to draw the conclusion that Sai Woo is a traditional Chinese restaurant.
If that is the case, then you are missing out on the creative flavours that embody how Asian Fusion should be.
The original Sai Woo Chop Suey first opened its doors in 1925 and flourished as a local hangout for over four decades, preserving some of Vancouver’s oldest history. The name was inspired by the legend of ‘West Lake’ (which is pronounced ‘Sai Woo’ in Chinese). One of the most well-known legends is legend behind West Lake’s creation, which tells the story of a battle between the Jade Dragon, Gold Phoenix and the Heavenly Empress over ownership of the perfect jade ball created in the heavens. The location today brings new life to this historical landmark with a modern and innovative menu.
The restaurant is full of original calligraphy artwork and artifacts from when the building opened when many Chinese immigrants lived on the floors above. Sai Woo is a time capsule of intriguing stories.
Past the entrance a high-ceiling, rustic and intimate dining space awaits. Exposed red brick walls feature Chinese decorations and memorabilia, as well as large painted portraits. Skylights at the rest of the dining space draws in natural light to brighten up the interiors in the elongated space. Semi-circle booths are accented with red cushions embroidered with the Chinese character “fortune” to play on the Chinese theme. A hidden downstairs lounge provides additional space for guests to enjoy the Asian inspired cuisine with surprisingly, light-hearted twists.
CHEF ISSAC KO
Chef Issac Ko creates a mix of small and large shared plates, including Szechuan Crispy Black Pepper Beef, Fried Cauliflower and Tofu, Korean Scallion Pancakes, and “Chinese Paella”. Having lived in Vancouver for most of his life, Issac moved to Vancouver from South Korea when he was seven years old. He cites his father as “an artist who loved to cook” and the main influence behind his cooking.
Chef Isaac also draws inspiration from notable chefs including Massimo Bottura, Gordon Ramsay, Marco Pierre White, and Mike Bagale.
We regrettably were not able to sample the entire menu (although we would have loved to), but the signature dishes alone solidified our determination to return to try out other items on the menu.
Here are the must-try dishes we tried from the menu.
GARLIC FRIED CHICKEN
This is not your normal small-bite fried chicken dish like the ones you see at a Taiwanese eatery or a Korean restaurant; these deep-fried chicken pieces are large and hearty, featuring a slightly heavier batter to pair with the delicious garlic sauce smothered across the crispy, crunchy skin. The batter holds up well with the garlic sauce, remaining crispy and not oily even after the dish has cooled. Garlic lovers, this is the perfect match for you.
If you love Paella, XO sauce and coconut curry, you simply cannot leave before you try this dish. Raise your hand if you would eat rice over any other available carb. After trying this dish I must say I would love to join the rice-carb team, as this ‘Chinese Paella’ envisioned by Chef Isaac can be summarized with one word - dreamy. The jasmine rice is served in a blend of Chinese and Thai flavours using a XO sauce and coconut broth, topped with thin slices of spicy Chinese sausage and large prawns. This innovative creation retains all the key elements of traditional paella, the rice, sausage, and seafood topped with greens; Chef Isaac switched it up with a focus on using Chinese ingredients such as Chinese cured sausage instead of Chorizo, and a spicy coconut sauce reminiscent of Thai curry flavours. Just the thought of the dish makes our mouths water.
SHAKEN BEEF (Bò Lúc Lắc)
If you love things saucy, this is the dish for you. Chef Issac took this traditional Vietnamese dish and infused it with flavours from Korean, Japanese and Chinese cuisine using traditional meat marinade, sauces and herbs. The Shaken Beef smothered in delicious sauce is balanced with a light and refreshing salad.
There are plenty of delicious cocktail options to go with the delectable dishes, such as the Sai Woo Sour and Belvedere Buck cocktails we tried. The Sai Woo sour is made with Bombay Sapphire gin, Bénédictine & brandy liqueur, fresh lemon, ginger, egg white, while the Belvedere Buck is a refreshing concoction of ginger beer, cucumber bitters, fresh limes and Belvedere vodka.
Sai Woo was not at all what we expected. It features a menu with dishes that cleverly blend the spiciness and deep-fried elements of Korean food, with herbs and sauces from Chinese cuisine, and spicy coconut flavours from Thai cuisine. It also draws on inspiration from western cuisines such as the traditional paella, and this approach to fusion is what real fusion should be about, striking a delicate balance between innovating flavours based on traditional dishes, and mixing traditional flavours to create a whole new category of cuisine.
Sai Woo’s signature dishes first suppressed and then eliminated our skepticism for ‘Asian Fusion’. We were floored by the variety of tastes we experienced in each dish, in particular the Chinese Paella and garlic fried chicken, that we would highly recommend this restaurant to anyone looking to experience Asian Fusion done right.