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Eat your way through Canada’s best Chinatown for just a few bucks

Minutes on the train from Vancouver’s airport, cheap eats nirvana awaits.

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It’s a short ride on some of the continent’s cleanest, most pleasant public transport—the automated SkyTrain, serving Vancouver and many other communities in the crowded Lower Mainland region of British Columbia. Roughly 800 restaurants cook up all manner of well-known-to-obscure specialties from pretty much every corner of China, not to mention the rest of the Asian continent (and beyond, even). Better still, most of these restaurants are within walking distance of just a handful of well-located station stops.

Really—it couldn’t be easier to get to know Richmond, a once-sleepy suburb of Vancouver transformed into a vibrant edge city that can’t seem to stop growing. So why does the town remain a mystery to so many?

Time and again I’ve visited Vancouver, only to be encouraged (over and over again) down the same, well-trodden path to the same dim sum restaurants, even by people who eat there quite frequently. If we were talking about, say, Southern California’s San Gabriel Valley (another world-class Chinatown), where the best restaurants tend to be a lengthy drive from where most visitors stay, sticking with a few favorites might make sense. Getting there is a pain, after all. Everything’s spread out. Parking ranges from bad to horrendous. (We’re assuming here, of course, that you even care to drive.)

Richmond, however, presents no such obstacles to overcome. Less than half an hour from downtown Vancouver on the Canada Line train (fares can go as low as $1.60 USD, depending on how you buy) and you could be tucking into some of the best food you’ve ever eaten at prices you won’t believe you’re seeing in Canada, where going out to eat never seems to be terribly cheap. These days, with the stronger American dollar, Richmond is even more of a bargain. Ready to eat? Let’s get to it.

First, grab some cash. Cards are accepted at the bigger, flashier restaurants, but for the really good and really cheap stuff, expect to mostly pay cash. Don’t worry—it’s not like you’re going to be spending very much of it anyway.

Really, getting here couldn’t be easier. Built for just one of many recent Winter Olympics that nobody super-duper cared about beyond the host city, the Canada Line of the SkyTrain system connects downtown Vancouver with the city’s almost-perfect airport for just a few bucks. A spur line, easily accessible from either the airport or the city center (centre, sorry) brings you into what is known as Richmond’s Golden Triangle, a relatively unremarkable hodgepodge of aging shopping centers, office buildings, hotels and a growing number of expensive condo towers. But you’re not here for the scenery—you’re here for the food.

The street address is often a jumping off point. As in Asia, you will often find yourself standing in front of where you’re supposed to be, but not seeing anything like the place you’re looking for, anywhere on the block. It’s probably inside. Unless, of course, it’s upstairs, down the alleyway, inside the a) parking garage, b) food court or c) around the back facing another street entirely. Patience. What you’re looking for is in there, somewhere. If it’s lunch or dinner time, just follow the line of people.

English isn’t necessarily spoken, at least not extensively. Don’t worry about it. Many Richmond restaurants spend most of their time dealing with a very specific clientele, but you’re unlikely to feel unwelcomed or unwanted, anywhere in town. At popular spots like Lido Restaurant, a Hong Kong-style café/diner famous for its pineapple buns, sweet confections served with chilled squares of salty butter, non-Cantonese speakers will be excused for feeling just a little out of place. You’re not. Stay and eat. It’s totally fine.

Some of the best food costs the least. Whether it’s a pile of fragrant roast pork at HK BBQ Master, a steaming sliver of a shop tucked beneath the gargantuan Real Canadian Superstore on No. 3 Road, rustic soup dumplings at R&H in the excellent food court of the otherwise forgettable Lansdowne Centre mall, handmade steaming, giant bowls of lamb noodles at Xi’An Cuisine inside the workaday Richmond Public Market or some of the best chicken rice this side of Singapore at Prata-Man Restaurant (housed in an old donut shop), you can eat some of the best meals you’ll have in Canada for less than $10. (That’s American dollars, mind you.) No need to overspend.

Then again, you can’t skip dim sum. Imagine a scenario where you have unfettered access to chilly ocean waters filled with a surplus of tasty things, finned and shelled and otherwise. Now imagine that you’ve got a ton of discerning diners and some of the continent’s most capable cooks. No matter how much you love your favorite in New York or Toronto or Los Angeles or San Francisco, few if any of these places are ever going to seriously compete with British Columbia on the seafood front—certainly not at these relatively affordable prices. Everyone has an opinion about the most popular palace—and they are grand, mind—but a table full of steaming bamboo baskets on a rainy Sunday morning inside the bright and busy Fisherman’s Terrace or crammed-to-the-gills Shanghai River will likely be a highlight of a Vancouver visit for most.

Don’t skip dessert. From bubble tea to sweet buns, mochi to matcha cake, you name it, if it’s dessert and it hails from somewhere on the Asian continent, someone’s probably serving it somewhere around here. Any sweet-centric Richmond crawl must include Snowy Village, a dessert-only café way down Alexandra Drive where peak waits can run much longer than most can stand. That doesn’t mean there aren’t times you won’t be able to slip in to the smart space for heaping bowls of bingsu, the milky, superfine Korean shave ice that puts all other shave ices to shame, no joke. (Try the mango—it’s unbelievably good.)

Grab some baked goods for the road. There are better bakeries in other large Asian population centers—for instance Southern California, where flashy, transplanted chains like 85 Degrees (originally from Taipei) and Paris Baguette (Seoul) are nearly Starbucks-like in their ubiquity. But you’re here, not there, so you should go someplace like Kam Do, right by the SkyTrain at Brighouse. For a few bucks, you can fill a bag up with a wide array of sweet and savory snacks for later. Because the best souvenirs are—naturally, always—edible ones.

Looking for cheap airfares to Vancouver, BC? Start your search at CheapFlights, or compare multiple sites and save with BookingBuddy; as always when flying to Canada right now, be aware that the current exchange rate can make the Canadian airlines a very good value, indeed. Don’t forget that bundling your flight and hotel together can save you a lot of money; give it a try at either Orbitz or Expedia—both are great places to start a simple airfare search, too. In need of further travel inspiration, or just plain short on dough? Skyscanner now keeps a list of flights available for under $100 round-trip, while Orbitz offers a regularly updated list of fares below $200. If you’re just after the best Vancouver hotel deals, Hotels.com is a great place to start, but also make sure to look at Priceline, where you can save up to 60 percent on any given night by taking advantage of their Express Deals feature. (This simple tool has probably saved us—no joke—thousands of dollars over the years.) Don’t forget, you can also cross-reference a ton of hotel user reviews with the best rates available from more than 200 web sites at TripAdvisor.

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