I have been told that with the possible exception of Hong Kong, Vancouver is home to some of the best affordable dim sum in the world. Sure, you might be able to find some swanky, upscale places in cities like New York, but if you’re looking to stuff your face with some sui mai and har gow on the cheap, Vancouver is tough to beat.
On a whim, we decided to hit up Pelican Seafood Restaurant yesterday for precisely that: decent dim sum that’s reasonably priced. Located just down the street from the strikingly similar Pink Pearl on East Hastings, Pelican Seafood Restaurant comes from the same lo wah kiu mindset for Cantonese cuisine. This means you get white tablecloths that may not be in the best of condition, but the food should be a good value.
(Note: The term lo wah kiu refers to Chinese immigrants who have lived in this city for at least a few decades. Most are from the Cantonese-speaking southern part of China and predate the early 90s wave of people from Hong Kong. I discuss this a little further in my post on history of Chinese Vancouver.)
For dim sum, which is served during breakfast and lunch hours, the menu consists of one double-sided page. It has been laminated and you simply mark off the dishes you’d like with the provided dry erase marker. Most of the regular dim sum items are priced in the $5 range, while more substantial dishes are about $8 to $15.
Prawn Dumpling: $5.50
The gold standard of good dim sum, the humble har gow at Pelican is generously sized with a good amount of juicy prawn in each dumpling. The translucent skin has just enough of a chew to it too.
Beef Tendon & Tripe in Spicy Sauce: $4.95
The sauce itself wasn’t nearly as spicy as we had anticipated, so the inclusion of a few chopped jalapeno peppers was appreciated. You see mostly tendon on top here, as the tripe (typo’d as “triple” on the menu) was buried underneath. Decent but forgettable.
Traditional Sticky Rice Wraps: $5.50
The lo mai gai were also a good size and served steaming hot. The mixture inside consisted of what appeared to be ground pork, some chopped shitake mushroom, and lap cheung sausage. Pretty good and satisfyingly savory.
Chicken Feet with Black Bean: $4.50
Sometimes listed as “phoenix claws,” the chicken feet here had a mild spiciness to them. They were definitely on the greasier side of things and the inclusion of the boiled peanuts underneath was a surprise. If you like slurping off that gelatinous skin, this is the dish for you. Unfortunately, Pelican Seafood Restaurant does not offer duck feet as part of its dim sum menu.
Shanghai Style Juicy Pork Buns: $4.25
Something that I have observed in Vancouver is that the “Cantonese” restaurants tend to do poorly with their take on xiaolongbao (or XLB for short). There’s not enough soup inside and the skin is far too thick. Pelican suffers from the same fate here. I much prefer the oversized versions at Xu’s in Crystal Mall or even the dumplings at No. 1 Beef Noodle House on Willingdon.
Chinese Donut Wrapped with Rice Flour Roll: $5.25
I generally prefer this version of the rice flour roll over the ones that come stuffed with beef or shrimp. In this particular case, while the sprinkling of shredded pork on top was plentiful, the Chinese donut wrapped inside was over-fried. It was too hard and oily, rather than offering the light and crispy crunch it should have.
Rice Flour Wrapped with BBQ Pork: $4.95
Combined with some scallion and fried garlic chips, this rice flour roll was decent if perhaps a little too gelatinous in texture. Maybe we should have gotten the beef version instead.
We also got a plate of the pan fried taro cake ($4.95, not pictured), which I thought was going to be a pleasant departure from the standard daikon cake (lo bak goh). I was wrong. The taro cake was lukewarm and it was much too dry. I would not order that again.
The days of $2 dim sum in Vancouver may have come and gone. You might be able to find a few places cheaper than Pelican Seafood Restaurant and you can certainly find places that are newer or fancier or more creative. You can even try northern style dim sum at somewhere like Shanghai Elan Restaurant instead. But that’s not really the point.
For me, there’s still such a nostalgic charm to places like Pelican. They’re from a bygone era before “ethnic” food got “gentrified” for mainstream appeal. They’re unapologetic with their greasy food, dated menus and stained carpets. I’m not sure if I would go back to Pelican any time soon, but I am glad that restaurants like this still exist. Given the mostly senior demographic populating the tables while were we there, though, I fear that it’s only a matter of time before this restaurant becomes a forgotten relic of the past.
The total bill for eight dishes — plus tea for three people, tax and gratuity — came to just under $50.
(Note #2: There’s a baby change table in the (women’s) washroom too! I think this is the first time we’ve encountered a change table at an Asian restaurant in Vancouver.)