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Watch: What's on the menu at the remodelled Earls Test Kitchen in downtown Vancouver

Including one dish that seems to be a throwdown against a local "rival"

Ever wonder how a new dish makes its way onto the menu of a chain restaurant? Quite often the company operates one of its locations as a "test kitchen" where they try out new items to see what customers think.

While sometimes the restaurant doesn't overtly label the location as its testing zone, Earls' 905 Hornby St outpost is the official "Test Kitchen" location, and that space has just emerged from a significant redesign.

Earls has injected a breath of fresh air into the large downtown restaurant, which still has a large bar area with TV screens and a massive curving staircase ascending to the "test kitchen" proper (and washrooms, FYI). However, they've cleared the air quite a bit, eliminating partitions and opening up the space overall, allowing tons of light to flow through the corner window walls. Gone is the dim, dark overall tone of the room, replaced with white tile, tons of greenery, and lots of vibrant artwork. Some high tables have been swapped with low ones, and the banquettes are in an off-white fabric, adding to the brighter feel. 

Though I had not been to this particular Earls before, others who have attest the change is significant (and photos of the previous decor scheme corroborate). 

What dishes are on the Earls 'test kitchen' menu?

The Earls menu - which began 40 years ago as one based on burgers and beer - seems suited to the more modern space. There's plenty of seafood, salads, and approachable dishes that a chain of its calibre builds its rep on. The happy hour pricing can't be beat, and there's even a full section of the menu that clearly denotes vegan dishes. 

Since this is the Test Kitchen, however, what this Earls offers is a selection of dishes that are in development. A manager explains that a "roll-out" of items being worked on will often consist of five dishes in varying stages of development, of which maybe two will wind up on the permanent menu across the chain. Staff here have Google forms on their iPads through which they can log customer feedback; sometimes, a dish may stay on the test kitchen menu but have had ingredient swaps or other tweaks based on that feedback. 

For its post-reno debut, the test kitchen dishes at Earls on Hornby are a cheese tortellini with truffle and steak; yuzu tuna tataki; a seafood platter; a Bangkok rice and salad bowl; a pulled chicken Clubhouse sandwich; grilled achiote chicken; a chicken biryani; Bumble Berry + Apple Pie; and "Angry" Chicken Lettuce Wraps.

Now, maybe you saw these dishes and thought what I did: That sounds a lot like dishes from Cactus Club.

In fact, I was specifically intrigued by the lettuce wraps, because I am steadfastly loyal to one dish at Cactus Club: The Szechuan Chicken Lettuce Wraps. 

So what the heck is going on here? Is Earls ripping off Cactus?

Earls and Cactus Club, a love story (sort of)

A pause for some Canadian chain restaurant history. Earls was started in the early 80s in Edmonton by the late Leroy Earl "Bus" Fuller, but has long called Vancouver its HQ. Currently, it operates over 60 locations in Canada and in the U.S. And yes, there has been a little tension between Earls and Cactus over the years. (Feel like a sidenote? The Fuller family is also tied to another big Vancouver chain, Joey (which also operates in Canada and the U.S.). 

Before you go thinking Earls and Cactus Club might end up having major beef over this particular chicken dish, here's the thing: In February 2022, Cactus Club's founder, Richard Jaffray, sold the entirety of his stake to the Fuller family. Not only did that bring an era rife with disputes - including legal ones - to an end, but it also basically clears the way for Earls to kind of "Cactus itself" with no repercussions. 

Suddenly the angry lettuce wraps are a little more friendly. 

Obviously, I had to see how the dish compares. 

Flavour-wise, Earls absolutely nails it with a spicy-sweet sticky sauce on the chicken. There's not quite the same heat surge, and also no cooling creamy sauce. Construction-wise, the Earls ones come pre-assembled, whereas at Cactus you load up your own chicken, sauce, and peanuts onto crispy iceberg pieces. There's a bit of a textural sad trombone at Earls because they use butter lettuce, which goes soft from the heat and moisture. Still, for a zingy appy that's easy to share, I'm not mad at the Angry chicken lettuce wraps. 

As far as other Test Kitchen dishes go, the Bangkok bowl is a massive portion with beautiful fresh components like thinly sliced watermelon radish. The seafood platter is a decadent share plate suggested for two to four; it has raw oysters, cold jumbo prawns, the Crispy Prawn sushi roll (Avocado, cucumber, mango, unagi sauce, sriracha mayo) and tuna tataki and is a scaled-down version of Earls' seafood tower item. 

The relaunch of Earls' downtown Test Kitchen location seems to be kicking off what could be a big year for the 40-year-old Vancouver chain. The company is about to open its sleek new Brentwood location in Burnaby (Feb. 16) and recently revealed plans to spin off its former Lougheed Highway branch into a new California-casual concept called Birdies

Watch: Checking out the renovations and exclusive dishes at Earls Test Kitchen location

@forkingawesomevia I’m not mad at the Angry chicken, but… #forkingawesome #vancouverbc 🎙️ @LindsayWR ♬ Collide (Sped Up Remix) - Justine Skye

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