Zen Chinese Cuisine in Richmond

Updated 2nd Jan 2015; This restaurant is closed.

Updated 21 May 2010: this restaurant has reopened on No. 1 Road and Moncton.

Today, I am blogging about the “Best Chinese Food Outside of China” … well, that was according to Jennifer 8 Lee. Jennifer is a reporter for New York Times who had just published a booked called “The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food”.

In writing the book, she visited restaurants in 42 states in the US and other 23 countries in search for Chinese food. When she landed in Vancouver, she went to three restaurants … Kirin, Sun Sui Wah and Zen. Out of the many restaurants, she chose to describe Zen as the greatest.

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From the outside Zen does not really look like much of a restaurant. The location too is left too much to be desired as it is on the second floor of a smallish strip mall at the end of Alexandra Rd in Richmond.

According to the news, Zen had been struggling to bring in customers for a few years and is in the verge of closing down. When the news broke of the great review from Jennifer 8, all hell broke lose, so to speak.

From the days where there are only a few customers a week, the table seating were fully booked the week after the news broke. The only time available for us that week was 5:30 PM on a Friday.

Unlike other Chinese restaurants, Zen only have fixed tasting menus. You do not go there and pick your food from a menu. Instead, when you book a table, you will be given a menu of four choices to pick from. They even insist that the entire table have the same items (i.e. you do not order Menu A for some and Menu B for the others). It looks like Zen only takes reservation only and does not entertain walkins. All this is because Zen takes hours to prepare most of the food.

Suanne and I picked the cheapest tasting menu which costs about $36 per person.

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Zen is just that … a restaurant at the verge of closing down and is now struggling to keep up. Decor wise, it is quite spartan and simple. If I may even describe it, the cutlery were mismatched. We did not mind at all but it does jump at us when we got seated. After all we were there for the food and understand the circumstances that Zen went through.

I would describe the service as “eager”. The waitresses were quite overwhelmed by the crowd and at times had difficulty communicating in English. A number of them were quite raw and inconfident, even to the extend of not really knowing what the food is called … but they made up for it by having two great person who were coming to each table to speak with the customers. We enjoyed that personal attention — this is certainly not like any Chinese restaurant, formal or informal, that we had ever been to before.

The gentleman (I did not get his name) who came by our table told us that Sam (da man behind Zen) had been working in an overdrive mode the past few days. So, their number one priority was to keep Sam healthy so much so that they do not bother to fill on empty tables when there are cancellations.

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I ordered a beer, a simple Corona which is $5.50 per glass. The drinks menu really needed a fresher print. It was really old, worn and torn. I am sure that by now it would have already been replaced.

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Suanne ordered their Aloe Vera with Honey. This costs $3.50. She ordered this simply because she had never heard of such a drink before. It came served boiling hot and tastes a bit sourish. It was quite good and unique for sure.

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Before we got settled down with the meal, they gave us an appetizer, complimentary from Sam. Continue reading