The checkerboard floors of Vancouver’s Northern Cafe are warped, the only views are of nearby industrial warehouses, and diners waiting for a table must navigate the hazards of an active lumber yard.

And yet the tottering Chinese Canadian restaurant, with its red vinyl booths and mismatched porcelain mugs, is so busy on a weekday morning that a scattered line forms between pickup trucks and forklifts.

The rickety structure of the eatery, which sits above a hardware store, holds the unlikely honour of being the best place to dine in Canada, according to the restaurant review site Yelp. Its accolades have led to a recent surge in new customers scrambling for a spot at the Northern Cafe’s 11 tables. But the family’s improbable success also reflects a broader legacy of sacrifice and entrepreneurship that defines many of the Chinese restaurants and diners throughout the country.

Since Yelp announced the diner’s steaks and spring rolls had drawn the highest customer reviews of any eatery across Canada, some visitors have waited nearly two hours for a table. And the Mah family, who own the operation, say they’ve done the unthinkable: turning away paying customers.

“We’re super blessed, but it’s overwhelming,” said Richard Mah, who recently gave up a corporate job in Japan and moved his family to Vancouver so he could work alongside his parents and brother in the cramped kitchen. “As exhausting as it is, this beats reporting to the head of a multibillion-dollar company.”

Richard’s parents, Jimmy and Connie Mah, bought the 73-year-old restaurant in 2008 and have long relied on repeat customers.

Vancouver Northern Cafe
‘A kitchen is a kitchen, small or big.’ The Northern Cafe. Photograph: Leyland Cecco/The Guardian

“We like to think our motto – ‘Our house is your house’- is what helps people feel so welcome,’” said Richard.

But the Mahs, who initially bought the decrepit Northern Cafe as a way of relieving the boredom of retirement, are also able to draw on the expertise of their son Raymond, a former head chef with stints at a number of hotels, who joined them four years ago.

“A kitchen is a kitchen, small or big,” said Raymond of his shift to the cramped cooking space at the Northern Cafe. “The biggest change is learning to work with my parents.”

Like many Chinese immigrant families, the Mahs have a long history in the restaurant business. Jimmy emigrated from Hong Kong in his teens in the 1960s, joining his family in Saskatchewan, where both his father and grandfather were working in restaurants. He and Connie eventually made their way west, managing and owning a string of restaurants and food court franchises in Vancouver themselves, where their own children helped out.

This model, replicated for generations in countless restaurants across the country, requires that first-generation immigrants start a business, with the hopes of handing new opportunities to their children, said Ann Hui, a reporter with the Globe and Mail and author of Chop Suey Nation.

“They sacrifice and they grind in order for the next generation to not have to do the same,” she said. But with the Mah family, things are different. “The next generation, the children, are choosing to come back. They have that choice. They’ve benefited from their parents working tirelessly so they make decisions based on things like happiness and fulfilment – not just survival.”

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The dishes on the Northern Cafe’s menu, a mix of omelettes, sandwiches and burgers as well as Chinese dishessuch as wonton soup, chow mein and potstickers, also speaks to the unique place this cuisine holds in Canadian culture and history.

Many of the early immigrant-run restaurants in Canadian small towns and large cities initially served familiar diner-style food. But over time, Chinese dishes were slowly added to menus by enterprising owners to give something “special” to diners, said Hui.

“They were really cautious about making the food a little bit unique. They had to offer something that was a little bit different than what people could make for themselves at home,” she said. “As time went on, these dishes that were originally designed to be somewhat foreign and different gradually became comfort food for people. And eventually, this kind of ‘exotic’ food has become the exact opposite.”

Many of the reviews that praise the taste and quality of the Northern Cafe’s comfort-food dishes also read like elegies to the traditional diner, a seemingly endangered entity that is quickly disappearing in major cities as customer tastes change and operating costs rise.

“What’s really stands out about the [Northern Cafe] is how it’s being singled out for its really great food. Because throughout the history of these Chinese Canadian cafes and restaurants, a big theme has been the idea of consistency and of replication. You could go to any of these restaurants in any of these towns and know exactly what’s gonna be on the menu and how it would taste,” said Hui. “That consistency was key to the survival and success of Chinese cuisine in Canada. That a new generation is becoming known for other things beyond consistency is great, because it’s an important shift in how we think about cuisine and food.”

Other than experimenting with the occasional new dish, Raymond says he has little interest in departing from the staples his family have perfected over the years. “These are family recipes. This is a menu my dad created. The wontons are my mother’s recipe. My role here is just to elevate what they’ve accomplished over the years.”


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