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Vancouver's small-space restaurants go big on flavour

Niche cafes are making Vancouver a friendlier, and tastier, place to eat
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Say Hey Café co-owner Zach Zimmermann.


The astronomic rise of commercial rents has had one positive effect on Vancouver’s restaurant scene (always hunt for the silver lining): Aspiring and experienced restaurateurs have had to get creative in the small spaces they can afford.

This has given rise to single-dish places like Crackle Crème, which focuses on inventive crème brulée and classic Liège waffles, or Bestie, with its sausage-centric menu of currywurst et al. There’s also Meat and Bread, which has a couple locations in Vancouver as well as outposts in Calgary and Seattle (their Victoria location recently closed), with its juicy porchetta-stuffed sammies.

Perhaps it’s something about the smallness of the spaces or the simplicity of the menus, but these newcomers feel friendlier than your average bistro; more welcoming and more neighbourly. The rooms tend to have minimalist aesthetics and few seats, but “bright” and “airy” seem to be bywords.

Take Say Hey Café in Chinatown. The narrow little strip of space at 156 East Pender St. has been taken over by Zachary Zimmerman (an industry neophyte) and chef Graham Marceau of Corduroy Pie Co.

A few bar seats up front and some round tables toward the back make up the front of house. The back is where you’ll find the tiny kitchen/prep counter, where they make the hoagie-style sandwiches that will make you a repeat visitor.

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The Chinatown café boasts some bar seats and round tables, and then a tiny kitchen/prep counter in back. - Dan Toulgoet
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Say Hey's meatball hoagie with sesame seed bread. - Dan Tougloet photo

All the sandwiches are $10.50 (including tax) and the bread is from Bonchaz Bakery. It’s wonderful bread, toasted and studded with sesame seeds. It holds the house meatball hoagie with a firm grip, which is good, as your own might slacken as you bite for the first time into the beef-pork meatballs topped with provolone, pickled serrano peppers, peppery arugula and spritz of chili aioli. (If your eyes close while chewing, I won’t judge.)

The beef shoulder with jus aioli, cheddar, olive spread, mustard seeds and arugula is another beauty worth trying, especially if the wedge salad is a featured side. If not, hit up the “magic” white beans, slow-cooked in Amatriciana (the classic Lazio-region tomato sauce) and topped with parsley and parmesan. Do have a cold drink with your sammie, especially one of the fantastic Asian sodas that are sometimes hard to find here, or else a macadamia iced coffee.

Nearby on Gore Avenue, Hey, Dumplings! is serving up some seriously good pelmeni in its pop-up shop through to the end of summer. Owner Heather Johnston serves up her dumplings in the proper Russian style (boiled, with a side of sour cream), with a smile and seemingly boundless enthusiasm.

Pelmeni are smaller, rounder versions of perogies, with a thinner wrapping and usually a meat, fruit or vegetable filling. But preparing them in the traditional way doesn’t stop Johnston from branching out in presentation.

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Pelmeni from Hey Dumplings! - Greg McKinnon photo

Take the poutine version, for instance – topped with vegetarian gravy and cheese curds – or the ginger scallion with sriracha. Dessert pelmeni are stuffed with seasonal berries and topped with ice cream.

All plates are $10, apart from a rotating monthly special. June featured a creamy dill sauce with beet salad for $11.

There are no tables, but the dumplings are served in handy carboard containers that keep the sauce from running over. And you can even get some frozen ones to take home with you for late-night noshing (if boiling, it takes less than five minutes for them to be ready).

• Anya Levykh is a food, drink and travel writer who covers all things ingestible. Find her on Twitter and Instagram @foodgirlfriday.