When it comes to raw bivalves, the Hired Belly is more of an oyster fan. But the prospect of freshly shucked, plump and juicy Sawmill clams-spiced with hot sauce and coriander and paired with a pint of R&B East Side Bitter- was too good to pass up. It was also fitting as we pondered the menu at Fat Dragon Bar-B-Q-the latest from envelope-pusher Robert Belcham (Fuel, refuel, Campagnolo/Roma, etc.), who's earned a reputation for setting foot in unusual, sometimes gritty, 'hoods, with equally novel ideas.
Tucked away at Powell and Princess, on the edge of what used to be Japan Town, it's a brave move to open in limbo-land like this. But Belcham has a knack for reading things right, and so far there's no shortage of flavour hounds finding their way through the hot-pink, fabric tube that tunnels into this spacious, red-bricktrimmed haunt.
Belcham's paen to all things porcine is quiet during the day but fills up quickly by mid-evening. The name, along with its leaping dragon sign outside is appropriate to the crossover, East-meets-South cuisine, underpinned by a healthy dose of barbecue.
At Fuel (and later refuel) Belcham was among the city's first "nose-to-tail" chefs, with regular, whole animal offerings now emulated by others. Here you can have your way with just about any pig part, from smoked snout or trotter to half a smoked and roasted head, with bean-sprout kimchi and lettuce.
Our first lunch visit rewarded with a soggy but amply portioned, albacore tuna bahn mi and slaw, which was tasty and (testament to its juicy goodness) well-served by a pile of paper napkins.
We returned for irresistible mini bao buns ($2.50), spicy pulled pork shoulder, and contrasting textures of crunchy squid with scallion, coriander and smoked chili salt. Addictive, crunchy, thick-cut Szechuan peppercorn pork belly (usually six slices), paired with Meyer Gewurz, is an even better reason to cross town ($12); while chilled spinach and pea-shoot salad with a bright, mint and lemon dressing offered some green balance ($11). Our only "ho-hum" encounter was a bowl of stir fried, black bean rice noodles and cashews weighed down by greasy red cabbage ($15).
Overall, we like this menu for its flexibility. Plates roam the spectrum from small bites and sides ($2.50 to $12) to more substantial offerings that top out at $30 (except for the head, $45). And if you're not into pork, there's plenty of options, including a solid vegetarian selection, plus good cocktails and affordable, well-chosen beers and wines.
Fat Dragon Bar-B-Q, 566 Powell St., 604-558-0880. Open daily from 11: 30 a.m. No reservations, except for large groups.
Farewell to Top Chef Canada winner Dale MacKay, who's been obliged to close both Ensemble Bistro and E-Tap. We're not surprised pricier Ensemble fell on hard times, given the long-jinxed location at Smithe and Thurlow (formerly home to Corner Suite, Saveur and Piccolo Mondo, all within the last few years). But we're sorry also to see the demise of more casual E-Tap (Smithe near Hornby), which paired excellent casual tastes with smart beers. MacKay cites high rent among several reasons for the closures and admits in hindsight, he should have started in one of the lower rent districts on the margins of the city. Chalk up two more to Vancouver's real estate prices that are strangling downtown's small owner-operators.