As with all cities, New Westminster is more than its stereotype. Sure, it is still a popular place to buy wedding gowns and prom dresses, but a growing and vibrant dining scene is making this waterfront locale a different kind of destination.
The epitome of the new New West lives at El Santo, a contemporary Mexican restaurant with a seemingly endless wave of hungry customers sitting down for fresh, fantastic meals. Perhaps start things off with a simple trio of guacamoles: mango, chicharrón, and tomatillo and citrus, or consider a warming bowl of Aztec soup with Oaxaca cheese and tortilla strips. Tacos, tortas, enchiladas—it’s all here, done incredibly well thanks to chef Shane King. The room itself, envisioned by owner Alejandro Diaz, is full of simple and effective elements, such as the large-scale embroidery on one wall, and the big mask of The Saint (El Santo in Spanish) made out of wine corks. “I wanted to create something different in New West,” says Diaz, and he succeeded: the space is modern, welcoming, and lively. Come hungry, and save room for the churros for dessert. Chef King learned the ins and outs of Mexican food by visiting the country on multiple occasions, and the authenticity of his education shows: no matter what you order, you’ll leave wanting more.
Longtail Kitchen and Freebird
The name Angus An is pretty much synonymous with delicious Thai food, and his Kitsilano mainstay Maenam is widely considered the city’s best. But An has expanded his empire into New West’s revitalized River Market, first with Longtail Kitchen, and then with Freebird.
Longtail, located in its own little restaurant within the River Market food court, is unpretentious, quick, and wildly tasty. While there are always daily specials worth checking out on the simple chalkboard menu, some classics such as the chicken wings with tamarind sauce, and chicken kao soi curry noodle or pad Thai, of course, shouldn’t be passed up. The best thing to do? Bring friends, order a few things, and split it all. There are even some pre-order items, such as the tantalizing whole chili crab with fried mantou. Longtail, helmed by chef Justin Cheung, uses whole, fresh ingredients that let the natural flavours really shine. Adding to the space’s charm is a retail wall, featuring everything from rice noodles to Pok Pok’s famous drinking vinegar from Portland.
Then there is Freebird, also run onsite by Cheung—but here, chicken is the star of the show. Get it roasted (whole, quarter, or half), put in soup, or sliced onto a sandwich. Make it a meal by adding rice and papaya salad. Only using free-range, hormone-free, organic chicken, Freebird celebrates the humble animal at a casual rotisserie-style shack.
With a reputation that expands well beyond its modest quay location, Re-Up BBQ lives up to its name. Southern-style meat reigns supreme, allowing carnivores to choose between fried chicken, pulled pork, brisket, and ribs. The pulled pork sandwich is an easy favourite, with soft, juicy meat and an oozing tangy sauce. Can’t choose? Go for a platter with a little bit of everything. Wash it all down with a glass of Dickie’s Ginger Beer, which Re-Up brilliantly has on tap.
Rounding out the fantastic selection at the River Market is Wild Rice, the brainchild of Andrew Wong (who, once upon a time, co-founded The Brickhouse). The menu presents an updated take on Chinese food, expanding the cuisine beyond the borders of sweet and sour pork (though Wong has a place in his heart for that, too). Using local and organic ingredients whenever possible, the restaurant serves fresh and flavourful share plates in a relaxed and enclosed setting with great views of the river. Wild Rice began in 2001 in Gastown and expanded to New West in the then-new quay; Wong closed the Vancouver location in 2014 due to rising rents and the desire to focus his efforts on one place. “A lot of it was a feeling,” Wong says over lunch, of choosing New West for the beyond-Vancouver locale. “New West has been pretty accepting of us: ‘Come into our community.’” Wong is undeniably passionate about food—not just how it’s cooked, but also how it’s grown and prepared. He describes the method they use to create such succulent Salt & Pepper Squid (the trick is in the thickness of the cut) served with jalapenos and house-made tartar sauce, and breaks down the flavour components of his delicious Beef Shanghai Noodles (slow-braised organic Angus beef, snow peas, ginger garlic sauce, red peppers). There are dumplings, even a vegan kale Caesar salad, plus local craft beers and a small selection of spices and sauces to take home.
Wong can point to any ingredient in a dish and name where it came from, and that is a beautiful thing. “Everything old is new again,” he says, in reference to the notion of people beginning to once again care where food is grown. “And maybe that makes me a dreamer.”
Solodko Ukrainian Bakery
Craving some dark chocolate babka? How about apple strudel? Solodko Ukrainian Bakery is a must-visit in New West, and not just for those of Ukrainian descent. Everything is made in-house from scratch, including the standard borsch, perogies, and cabbage rolls. But there are also baked goods galore, all beautifully created and notably delicious. Cinnamon twists, blueberry piroshki, poppy seed rolls, oh my.
Beverage bonus: Steel & Oak Brewing Co.
A small and cozy tasting room makes this craft brewery a great pit stop between meals. Grab a glass of the Dry Hopped ESB and saddle up on a stool, watching the flow of locals—be it cycling groups, young parents, or boisterous friend gangs—flow in and out.
Sometimes all you need is a little break from the big city. Consider a day trip to New West and see where it takes you—and we don’t mean down the aisle.
UPDATE, December 2018: Wild Rice is closing its doors on Jan. 1, 2019.
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