October 08, 2010 | | Comments 39

Ho Yuen Kee Restaurant on Fraser and 46th, Vancouver

If there is one thing that keeps ringing in my mind these past few weeks, it is CRABS.

I am thinking of Chili Crab, the national dish of Singapore. I had been asking around of where is the best place to eat this. What I came up with is Banana Leaf. I don’t know … Banana Leaf does not seem like a place where I could get authentic chili crab. In my mind, Banana Leaf is just too westernized.

I am also thinking of Typhoon Shelter Crab, the fried garlic and chili crab from Hong Kong. Yeah, I have been waiting for Buddha Girl to organize a chowdown of this dish in Top Gun. I heard that the newish restaurant called Luda also serves a mean Typhoon Shelter Crab too.

I am also-also thinking of the House Special Crab that Negative Space won Gold in the crab category in the 2010 Chinese Restaurant Awards.

And then of course, there is the famed Crab with Sticky Rice …

While waiting for the Singapore Chili Crab and the Typhoon Shelter Crab to happen, Suanne and I decided to go ahead to try the other famous crab dish in Ho Yuen Kee.

Ho Yuen Kee is located on Fraser and 46th in Vancouver. Whether you like it or not, Ho Yuen Kee is considered one of the finest Cantonese restaurants in Vancouver. In many ways, particularly the food, they do stand a chance to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with some of the best Cantonese restaurants in the world even. Yeah, some people do claim that.

With the proliferation of fancier Chinese restaurants the last few years, people are beginning to forget about them. I mean, people are talking a lot about all the newer restaurants and they talk lesser about older establishments like Ho Yuen Kee.

But Ho Yuen Kee is ever as popular. There is always a constant line-up here. Your best bet is to make a reservation ahead of time — and even that, there is no guarantee that you will have the table ready for you when you show up at the appointed time.

Suanne and I did not make reservation. We just showed up and was promptly told that it will be 30 minutes. We were OK with that. It is not that we are in a hurry to go somewhere. After all it is our Friday date night and we had the whole evening to ourselves. Actually we got a table in 20 minutes but it was a crappy table by the corner (we took it).

While waiting I took a walk around the restaurant. He he he … I do that because I wanted to spy what everyone is eating. You should do that when the situation arises. I often get ideas of what to order by seeing what others eat. Just walk casually like you are going to the washroom or something like that.

About half the tables had their signature dish — the crab or lobster with sticky rice. We are on the right track!

The restaurant is very busy and noisy. This is the kind of place that people bring their entire family out for dinner. It is common to see three generations of a family enjoying a meal together here. So you can imagine that they have a lot of big tables catering to these large parties. For a small party of two (Suanne and I), we get snucked into the corner.

Service, ambiance, presentation, cleanliness … all these takes a backseat. There is only two things that is most important here. It is the food and speed. Accept that and you will have a great time.

It is an old school Cantonese menu. Their prices are OK. They are not expensive but then they are not cheap either. For the quality of the dishes, their customers had never been known to complain that they are higher than other similar setup.

Just don’t expect to spend $12 here for a nice dinner. You could expect at least $15-$20 per person.

Our sight was already zeroed on to their signature dish. If you had never been to Ho Yuen Kee before, you just need to order one thing and it is this one. If you just walk around the restaurant like I did while waiting for a free table, you will see the above big bamboo basket on many tables.

It is the Lobster OR Crab with Sticky Rice on the bottom. There is no set price for this dish on the menu. It depends on the current prices of crab and lobster of the day.

It is not cheap, that much I need to say. We immediately asked the captain the prices of the signature dish. He told us that the lobster is $21 per pound and the crab is $13.80 per pound. And it is at least 2.5 to 3.0 each.

A quick mental calculation says that it will be $70-$80 for the lobster version. So that rules lobster out for us — it’s too much to spend for a dinner. We’ll save the lobster for a special occasion. The crab will do for now. I see a lot of people ordered the lobster version.

You know it will be expensive when they bring the life crab out to show it to you before they cook it. So the crab alone is $34.50 and that is excluding the $7 sticky rice that came with it.

I like that they served this in a bamboo basket which is lined with lotus leaf. It has that rustic (?) feel to eating it this way as opposed to a nice clean big plate. It does keep the food warm longer and it is important to eat this while it is still warm (in Cantonese, we say we eat this while “chan yeet”).

We had always been puzzled with the lemon infused soup that we were served every time we had crabs. I mean, I usually drink it thinking it is soup. After all, it does a great job in cleansing the palate.

Considered me educated and properly advised … thanks to Crispy Lechon. Crispy Lechon advised us that this is not a soup at all. It is actually a … dipping sauce for the crab.

Well, I have to report that the dipping sauce did nothing much for us. As a matter of fact, it actually diluted the taste of the crab. I mean, it dilutes it A LOT. So Crispy … was that kind of correct the way we are supposed to use the dip (see picture above)?

Their sticky rice is marvelous. It is not really sticky-sticky the way you have it in lotus wrapped rice for instance. It is loose and does not sticky together. I think the proper term is glutinous rice.

The taste is just … oh … I don’t know how to describe it. It is marvelous and you have to take my word for it. I was JUST ASKING Suanne if she knows how to make it at home and she gave me an evil stare … with eyes that says don’t you dare say another word. I was JUST ASKING, OK?

The rice was so good and we had so much crab, we ordered an extra serving of sticky rice. It is $7 per serving. I can eat this by itself.

It has corn and speckles of roe in it. It tasted sweetish too.

It is great eating the crab. They are mostly covered with the sticky rice so the first stage of eating this is to lick the rice off the crab with all the gooey goodness.

We ate with our hands, simply no two ways about it. And we noticed that we stopped talking while eating this. I looked around and see a lot of people like that too — they are all singularly focused on enjoying this delicacy.

I am not ashamed to say I don’t even know what type of crab this is. I just assume that it is Dungeness Crab — the crab of this region. Am I right? Can someone help give me a primer on crabs, particularly the ones we commonly see in Vancouver restaurants?

Hey I want to share with you something I lifted out of Wikipedia about Dungeness Crab … be warned this is X-Rated. Reader discretion is advised.

Males are attracted to potential mates by pheromones present in the urine of female Dungeness crabs. Upon locating an available female, the male initiates a protective pre-mating embrace that lasts for several days. In this embrace, the female is tucked underneath the male, oriented such that their abdomens touch and their heads face each other. Mating occurs only after the female has moulted, and the female signals her readiness to moult by urinating on or near the antennae of the male. The female extrudes the eggs from her body several months later; however, they remain attached under her abdomen for three to five months until they hatch. Young crabs are free-swimming after hatching, and go through five larval stages before reaching maturity after about ten moults or two years.

Did you find the above gross or romantic?

Tomalley! Very nice and crisp.

Oh BTW, I almost forgot to mention that the crab meat was superb. It was not one of those that sticks to the shell. They tasted very fresh and the flesh have … errr … “integrity”. You know what I mean, don’t you?

We find that their vegetable dishes are expensive. The above is $18. It is called Braised Bean Curd with Gingko & Pea Tips.

We didn’t see any gingko in it though. Suanne said that it is expensive because of the pea tips, adding that in fact any young vegetables are more expensive. I would have assumed that the younger the vegetable the cheaper it should be because it takes lesser time to grow to harvest.

Suanne complained that it has a bland taste. I beg to differ. I thought it has the real natural taste of the pea tips and mushroom. I think I have superior taste than Suanne. Let me correct that … I KNOW I have superior taste than Suanne. :-)

Too much food! We had the above to go. I specifically pointed to the three dishes (the pea tips vege, the sticky rice and the crab dipping sauce) to the waitress that we wanted them to go.

Talking about poor service. She totally forgot to pack the lemon-infused crab dipping sauce for us. That is going to come out of your tips, honey!

We did not realize that they provide free black glutinous rice sweet soup. So that was a nice surprise … except that …

.. we also ordered the Ginger and Milk Custard ($3.75) after we finish our meal. We had to wait a long time for this dessert because they only make it on order. It is sweet and spicy. It is also very very hot. I did not like it because I keep on thinking that this is only good for confinement women as this is a warming dessert.

$78 before tips for two people is expensive huh? Strange that for a restaurant that customers often order expensive dishes, Ho Yuen Kee accepts only cash and visa only.

Nice meal.

Ho Yuen Kee Restaurant on Urbanspoon

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  1. JLo says:

    Hi Ben,

    I think the lemon infused soup is actually tea mixed with lemon to cleanse your hands when you use them to eat crab or lobster. This helps to get rid of the seafood smell on your hands. I can’t be sure exactly in this case for Ho Yuen Kee, but I know many cantonese restaurants do this for hand cleansing and not dipping or drinking.

  2. Crispy Lechon says:

    The lemon water sauce is actually intended to dilute the sourness of lemons. It is customary to squeeze fresh lemon juice on seafoods. But for the Chinese taste, it is too sour if done like that. So they came up with the lemon water sauce to reduce the sourness of lemons. I sometimes add hot sauce to the lemon water sauce to make it more tasty. Of course you can also add soya sauce to it if you want but I feel it detracts a lot from the taste of the lemon. You can also pour this lemon water sauce over your seafood if you so desire. Actually not all Chinese restaurants serve it with seafoods. I dont know why coz its very inexpensive and it enhances the flavour of the seafood. If you dont see it served, insist on it and try it. I’m sure you will like it.

  3. Elaine says:

    BFT crab can also be made very easily at home ^_^ mom does it all the time! Suanne should look into it!

    • Ben says:

      Hey Suanne: Did you see that comment by Elaine? She said that the “BFT crab can also be made very easily at home” and that you should look into it. Don’t give me that evil stare again OK? I didn’t say it, Elaine did. :-) Ben

  4. Buddha Boy says:

    BFG crab at TG is good because they add chinese celery to it which gives it a nice twist to it. They don’t make it spicy though. We like it because the last few times we had it, they fried the crab just enough that the meat was still very moist.

    I looked back to my HK pictures and realized that i had the typhoon shelter crab in May. the crab used in HK has the shell like a lobster. it was good in HK, but i prefer the sweetness of a dungeness.

    The crab you had looked like they stir fried it first before steaming quickly with the rice. I’ve made this dish at home but it was a bit of a failure because i put the crab raw on the rice and all the flavour left the crab and went to the rice.

  5. jam says:

    Hi Ben,

    I’ve been reading you blog for a few months and just want to say that its great work! I’ve found lots of restaurants that I wouldn’t have found on my own so keep it up!

    Anyway I have to agree with JLo that the lemon soup is actually for cleansing your hands after eating crab. Some restaurants use it instead of providing wet napkins for diners.

  6. I quite enjoyed this dish when we were here — and I am not a sticky rice fan.

  7. 4SlicesofCheese says:

    Ben you took it to next level. Bravo!

  8. Victor says:

    I’m a canto boy that have eaten crab all his life and am pretty sure that ‘sauce’ is actually for rinsing your greasy and crabby hands! :P

    V

  9. agingteen says:

    Ben really love your blog! Usually when we get the lemon juice it is to clean your fingers while eating seafood such as crab and lobster. It is because lemon is acidic so it’s a good cleaner. They usually bring that after you are done your meal,some places will give warm hand towels instead

  10. wanda says:

    This restaurant is very close to my house. It would of been rude of me to interrupt your date night! I’ve noticed that dish at almost every table when having dinner there. Been curious about it….but that is a little overpriced. Isn’t it? Maybe my husband and I will have a night out to enjoy that dish.

  11. gw says:

    That’s not dipping sauce XD, it’s for washing your hands after you use your fingers to eat the crab.

    It’s Cantonese tradition.

  12. Lily says:

    Hi Ben,
    Thanks for a really great laugh tonight! You just cracked me up. Keep it going… Just remember, someone will follow your advice and I hope to witness it during a dinner out. Regarding the “sticky” rice, it looks a lot like regular long grain rice, rather than glutinous rice (lor mei fan). I do realize though that glutinous rice comes in both long grain form and shorter-rounder grain form. Also the lotus leaf imparts flavouring to the cooked rice as well as lined the bamboo steamer. I’m quite sure the rice is cooked first with the corn and roe before placing in the lotus leaf and further cooked by steaming.

    • LotusRapper says:

      So I’m not the only one who thinks that looks like standard long-grain rice and not sticky rice (med- or short-grained)

    • Buddha Girl says:

      Actually those were long gran glutinous rice…should be from the states because it’s cheaper. Unfortunately the markets are full with the ones from the states, but they are not very good…this year (just like any other year), when we tried to make sticky rice wraps (粽子) for Duanwu Festival (端午節)…these rice were horrible…does not stick at all…grrrrr…

  13. picardythird says:

    Hi Ben!

    Longtime reader, just stopped in to comment – like many others who have posted before me, I have been eating crab in chinese restuarants all my life and the “dipping sauce” has always been used to rinse off our fingers. (Tea dilutes grease, as does lemon.) That might account for the fact that the waitress didn’t pack it – she didn’t consider it as sauce!

    In fact, I do remember my mother telling me several times when I was young not to drink it!

    However, this sticky rice with crab is something I’ve not tried before but it sure sounds delicious.

  14. mo says:

    add my vote that the ‘dipping sauce’ is to clean your fingers! as the other posters mentioned, lemon is used to Pek Yau (rid oil, not chop people) and Pek May (rid smell) you’ve been punk’d :P

    one of my favourite sauces to make for dipping crab (or other seafood, but it works really well with crab) is a vinaigrette that I make. white vinegar, water, sugar, dash of cooking wine and soya sauce and loads of very finely chopped garlic.

  15. Carina says:

    Hi Ben, the picture of your last dessert, you would have thought they’d serve it without the huge chip on the pot.. really…

  16. iPanda says:

    I love their Beijing Duck there. but the space is a bit limited to me.

  17. Teresa says:

    I actually lived in this neighborhood for over 2 decades and use to go to Ho Yuen Kee a lot for lunch. You should also try their ginger milk dessert. It’s really comforting to eat during a cold winter night. For dim sum, we go to this restaurant on the corner of 49th and Fraser (in the same plaza as Starbucks). It’s a small place but I categorize it as high quality dim sum.

  18. RJ says:

    The bowl of lemon infused tea is definitely for washing your fingers after the crab.

  19. AD says:

    From my grandparents generation to my generation, the lemon tea bowl has always been used to clean your hands after the meal. It is usually “served” with lobster or crab dishes because those are the dishes that usually requires eating it with your hands!

  20. Yin Mak says:

    Thanks, good write-up on special crab-with-glutinuous-rice. I’ve lived in a few countries before: Malaysia, Singapore, Colchester (UK) & now in Melbourne Australia…most Chinese restaurants provide lemon-in-tea-mixture whenever a seafood dish that requires eating w/hands-fingers – it is for cleansing your fingers. Visiting Vancouver this October, if I do visit this restaurant, I shall ask – would be interesting if it’s done differently in Vancouver.

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