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Here's what it's like to eat unique foods at the restaurant inside a Metro Vancouver car dealership (PHOTOS)

It's the first time Toyota has put a restaurant in one of their dealerships, and it's right here in the Lower Mainland.

I've clocked my fair share of hours at the car dealership, either waiting for my vehicle to be serviced or doing the paperwork for the purchase itself. Admittedly, in the mornings, having that box of pastries up for grabs next to the coffee drink machines helps settle the hungry rumbles when the wait time drones on. But to have easy access to fresh, healthier, more satisfying food made with care while biding time at the car dealership, well, that kind of sounds like a dream.

When I heard the Japanese green tea mecca Tsujiri was putting a location within the OpenRoad Toyota in Richmond, I was floored. That's because of all the Toyota dealerships to go into, it went into the one I go to. I immediately was looking forward to my next car servicing appointment - something you don't hear very often.

Now that you know I drive a Toyota, here's what you need to know about Tsujiri and this one-of-a-kind location.

Over a century of matcha expertise

The Japanese matcha shop opened their highly-anticipated first B.C. location in early 2019 in Richmond's Garden City area. They followed with an outpost at Metropolis at Metrotown in Burnaby that began as a pop-up ahead of the Christmas shopping season that same year. The Tsujiri inside OpenRoad Toyota's brand new facility at the Richmond Auto Mall opened this August.

Tsujiri has been around for 160 years and is known for its top-of-the-line finely ground matcha powder, used in an array of stunning foods, from sundaes to noodle bowls to beverages galore, shaved ice, and pastries.

I sat down with Joanna Ho, the Loyalty & Retention Manager of OpenRoad - properly masked up and distanced - to find out more about this unique venture, and to taste-drive some very special menu items.

As the plans for the new Toyota dealership building were evolving, Ho - who came from a foodservice background through her work in the marketing department for 7-Eleven Canada - was tasked with setting up a cafe within the building for customers and staff alike. In partnering with a business to bring into the space, there was one key mandate: It had to be a Japanese restaurant; it is a Toyota dealership, after all.

This is the only restaurant inside any Toyota dealership, says Ho, and it's likely the only car dealership restaurant in the region. It's not, however, the only one ever; in the Los Angeles-area there's a Ford dealership that's had its own restaurant, called the Horseless Carriage (get it) since the mid-1960s, and a few more in the States.

What's on the menu

On the menu are a number of popular hot and cold beverages, including Tsujiri's signature line of drinks made with their premium matcha. For guests unfamiliar with green tea and its potency, staff is on hand to discuss what you enjoy in a hot or cold drink to match you to your best menu option, and signage walks you through considerations like how much caffeine is present in their product - really helpful if you can't take that jolt after lunchtime, or you're ordering a drink for a child.

A drink like the Black Sesame Latte is served hot, with your choice of dairy milk or alternatives like soy or almond; the least sweet of the latte-style drinks, this one has a distinct nutty flavour and the deep and slightly bitter notes of the green tea really come through. You can experience green tea in its most refined form with Tsujiri's ceremonial-grade O-Matcha Usucha, or opt for something frothy, cold, sweet, and tea-free, like the tart and creamy Yuzu Citron Frappé (it's got yuzu slush blended with yogurt topped with whipped cream, crumbs, and mango puree). 

While there is no cold pastry display case, sweet treat fans will be glad to know this Tsujiri does carry the brand's iconic matcha and yuzu cheesecake slices, as well as a couple of other dessert options, like Shiratma Dango (a kind of mochi) or Matcha Zenzai (red bean paste mochi in a green tea soup).

When it comes to savoury dishes, you will find some of Tsujiri's signature fare, including their Tonkotsu Black or Red ramen, made using their green-tea infused soba noodles. Once you get over the initial "whoa, I'm eating really good ramen and I'm at the car dealership" feeling, keep eating and enjoy that really good ramen.

There are other green tea noodle dishes, as well as a salmon poké, but the star right now is a set of "sushi sandwiches" that you can only find at this one Tsujiri.

How 'sushi sandwiches' solve a key problem here

Called onigirazu, this casual Japanese food item is often what chefs and restaurant workers piece together at the end of a shift using bits and pieces of food from around the kitchen. Mounds of white rice "sandwich" cooked fillings like fried tofu skin with pickled veggies or a Hawaiian-style Spam and egg combo - and is wrapped nori sheets and cut in half. The result is a perfectly portable hand-held snack or meal that will stay fresh and delicious whether you have to put it down to go talk to a customer or check in with your service counter agent, like so many car dealership employees or guests need to do.

Ho says the menu item, which comes in three varieties with limited quantities daily (Salmon, Veggie, and Musubi), was created to address the unique needs of a busy business with staff and customers needing something fast and fresh that wouldn't lose its integrity if it has to get set aside for a little while. And this is a busy place, indeed - OpenRoad Toyota is the largest Toyota building in Canada, with over 200 employees on site. 

tsujiri-toyota-richmond-onigirazu-closeupA closer look at the onigirazu, with salmon (top), tofu skin (centre), and Musubi (Spam and egg). Photo by Lindsay William-Ross/Vancouver Is Awesome

With a captive audience of staff and customers alike, having a restaurant inside the car dealership is definitely a bonus. Of course, you don't have to have a Toyota-related reason to go there; anyone can dine there or pick-up take-out from this Tsujiri location, and they are also working with third-party delivery services.

One thing Tsujiri doesn't have - yet - is something you can still get for free while you're at the dealership: Coffee. But give Ho and her team some time. This is a crew that knows how to innovate and solve problems. In the meantime, those coffee machines are still churning out the java on the other side of the room.

Open Monday through Saturday from 11 a.m to 4 p.m., Tsujiri at OpenRoad Toyota is located at 13100 Smallwood Place in Richmond.