The legendary Chau Veggie Express, nestled way up on Victoria Drive just past 34th Avenue, offers big bowls of vegetable bliss. The ethereal Golden Temple Soup has with lush and creamy turmeric coconut sauce; the Candle Lit Lantern Pho Soup guides tasters through a softly spicy broth made from star anise and cardamom; the Nonla Crispy Rolls are crunchy and satisfying, and the vegan “fish” sauce (made from a mix of apple cider vinegar, lemon juice, and fermented tofu) is funky delicious. Each plant-based dish at Chau Veggie is intricately planned—produce, tofu, sauce, broth, all in perfect proportion. And while you’ll quickly discover a favourite (possibly the Rice Fields Bowl), there really is no wrong choice.
Opened in 2011, Chau Veggie is the result of the Huynh family’s decades of experience in the restaurant industry. “My parents have been opening up places since before I was born,” owner Maria Huynh says over the phone. “The first was Café Chau, which was in Indonesia, in a refugee camp on Kuku Island. My parents and my two brothers escaped Vietnam and lived there for about two years before they were discovered by the Red Cross and moved to Canada.” Settling in Vancouver, Huynh’s mother, who was working in fast-food at the time, started craving some of the savoury comforts of home. So she began selling traditional Vietnamese meatballs in their social housing complex in Chinatown, and soon the family saved enough money to open the city’s first Vietnamese deli in 1986. “It was all meat-based, pâté, head cheese, the Vietnamese ham you have in sandwiches, all made in-house,” Huynh recalls. Over the years, the family opened four of Vancouver’s most beloved Vietnamese eateries, each bearing the matriarch’s name: Chau.
But in 2008, run down by 16-hour workdays at the family’s Robson Street restaurant, and Chau’s diagnosis with a benign brain tumour, the family decided to make a radical change. “We had a family meeting and my dad was like, ‘I think it’s time that we think about family and health,’” Huynh recalls. The family decided to sell all restaurant locations as well as the deli—a difficult decision for them to make. “The deli was a staple for us, it helped us get out of poverty,” says Huynh.
Redirecting the family’s attention from building up to paring down, they decided to do just one thing, and do it well. “We wanted to focus on something small, focus on family, and do something for our health,” Huynh says. Veggie Chau Express, which Huynh runs with the help of her mother, centres on a menu full of fresh vegetables and other deeply flavourful ingredients that are minimally processed and considerate of the season. The recipes follow flavour profiles from familiar Vietnamese dishes like pho—rich and fragrant—just without the meat. To get the most out of the vegetables, the restaurant uses pressure cookers to extract all the flavour, and sweeteners such as dates and dried lychees to give broths well-rounded depth.
Taking direction from the former deli, every item at Chau Veggie is made in-house. “All the spices—we buy them from our local grocer— we roast and grind them ourselves,” explains Huynh. The delicious taro chips, too, are all done by hand: peeled, cut, and fried in small batches in the wok. In addition to the savoury selections, Huynh has also teamed with pastry chef and elementary school friend Andrew Han for a full selection of home-style sweets available at the in-restaurant coffee bar. “The desserts are just based on childhood memories, based on flavours we had as kids,” she says. There’s a Mandarin Passion Fruit Lemon Tart with freshly whipped cream, vegan Ginger Molasses Snickerdoodle Cookies, and an ever-evolving roster of vegan ice cream including a pandan leaf flavour made with whole leaves, fresh-frozen.
Today, Huynh’s parents are “the healthiest they’ve ever been,” she says. “And my mom’s brain tumour is completely gone.” And even as the restaurant has expanded (it recently opened a Granville Island location), Huynh is dedicated to keeping the operation small. “I was kind of stressing out about how busy we were getting this year,” she says. “And that’s when we decided to shorten our hours a bit, from 11:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. to closing now at 7:30 p.m., because we want to preserve the by-hand quality. We want to focus on why we’re doing it in the first place, for family and health and to make a small imprint on our environment and the earth—and the best way to do that is traditionally.”
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