I would never have thought that Nine Dishes would become one of my favourite restaurants in Vancouver. I had first heard about Nine Dishes from some local Chowhounds. I had read about their multi-hour (5-6 hours) eating adventures and for a few, even on consecutive nights, at this informal eatery. After reading their accounts about the cheap beer, free rice, and having to bus one’s own tables, I wasn’t sure what to expect at this place. In my mind, I had pictured this dark, dingy Beijing style beer parlour full of Chinese bachelors hanging out, eating, drinking, and telling dirty jokes and stories late into the night. All I knew was that the local hounds loved this place and they kept on going back again and again. Hence, when I was in town back in January I was curious to try. I got my foodie friend, Grayelf, to organize a mini-chowdown there with some of the local hounds so we wouldn’t feel weird going there by ourselves as just a group of females. As it turns out, Nine Dishes was nothing like what I had imagined. It was modern, bright, and clean. And it was not rowdy at all. There were quite a few tables with females and the place didn’t feel like a bachelor hang out at all. Perhaps, we went early on a week night or didn’t stay late enough to close the place down. In any case, I enjoyed the food so much that I wanted to go back again during my recent visit at the end of May.
Even though the owner, Chef If, is from Beijing, Nine Dishes mainly serves Sichuan food. The menu is split between four booklets – each with 9 dishes. Of the four booklets, one is for skewers, one for appetizers, one for main dishes, and one for noodles and soups. The menus have English translation and great pictures so ordering is easy. Chef If comes by with a pad and we write out our own order.
We ordered a bunch of dishes from the appetizer menu. The Cucumber with Garlic – L3 ($3.99) consisted of cool cucumber chunks tossed in a garlicky vinaigrette. The cucumber was well-seasoned and flavourful. This was a nice crunchy palate cleanser and textural contrast to the rest of the other dishes.
Of course, we ordered the Si Chuan Sausage – L5 ($3.99). This dish has been a favourite amongst the Chowhounds. This spicy sausage is house made and the flavour is amazing. They’re like a Sichuan chorizo. They are dried to the perfect chewy texture and cured with sichuan peppercorns to give the sausage citrus and earthy notes.
Next up were the Fried Vegetable Balls – L6 ($3.99). They reminded me a lot of Indian Pakoras. The outside was crispy while the vegetables inside were tender.
My other favourite dish from the appetizer menu is the Deep Fried Lotus Root Stuffed with Minced Meat – L8 ($3.99). Each order comes with four pieces. I’ve had a similar version of this dish at other restaurants before but I think this one at Nine Dishes is one of the best. The lotus root slices are juicy, crunchy, and toothsome. The minced pork sandwiched in between the lotus root slices is tender and flavourful. The batter encasing the lotus root sandwiches is perfectly crispy and light. I just can’t get enough of these fried lotus root sandwiches. I love the contrasting textures all in one bite. They are the perfect snacks to go with cold beer.
From the noodles and soups menu, we ordered the Tofu Pudding with Meat Sauce – M9 ($5.99). The tofu is soft, silky, and smooth. It is topped with a spicy, flavourful sauce and garnished with peanuts, sesame seeds, and cilantro.
From the main dish menu, we ordered the Boiled Fish Slices with Chili Oil – C1 ($15.99). This dish is better known as Water-Boiled Fish or Shuizhuyu (水煮魚). This dish is for sure the star of the show at Nine Dishes. In fact, I would say that this is one of the better versions of Water-Boiled Fish that I’ve had in the Vancouver area. The boneless fish slices are perfectly cooked in the spicy broth. They are soft, tender, and flaky. I also like the crunchy bean sprouts at the bottom of the pot that are blanched in this spicy, flavourful poaching liquid. The sichuan peppercorns create the tingly numbing sensation on my tongue but also give the dish citrus, earthy notes. Don’t let the pictures fool you! This dish is not as spicy as it looks unless of course you decide to eat the chilies.
We also ordered the Cilantro Pork Meat Ball Sour Soup – C2 ($15.99). I was a little disappointed with the dish on this visit. I’m not sure why but the flavours were a bit muted and flat this time. I remember liking this dish a lot more on my first visit. The sourness of the soup along with the cilantro reminded me a little of Thai Tom Yam soup except that this soup is thicker and less complex in terms of flavours. The pork meat balls were still very tender like before.
Lastly, from the main dish menu we ordered the House Special Spareribs – C5 ($9.99). This is another outstanding dish. The spareribs are braised till they are fall-off-the-bone tender. The slightly sweet braising sauce is rich and flavourful.
The other thing that Nine Dishes is well-known for is their cheap beer. They serve Yanjing beer, practically at cost, for $2 a bottle. Though I’m not a huge beer drinker, the beer is light and refreshing and pairs nicely with all the spicy dishes.
One of the unusual things about Nine Dishes, as I mentioned earlier, is that the rice is free. The rice cooker is located in the corner along with the clean dishes and everyone goes up to get their own dishes and fill their own bowls with rice. This is a true indication of how informal the place is.
For me, Nine Dishes is a true hidden gem. I don’t mind that it’s a hole-in-the-wall, informal type of eatery. In fact, I think it’s part of the charm of this place. I walk in knowing exactly what to expect. I’m there for the delicious food, especially for the Water-Boiled Fish and the Deep Fried Lotus Sandwiches. It’s best to go there with a small group of 4 or 5 people so you can sample a variety of dishes. Nine Dishes is technically open for lunch although according to Chef If’s time, that means at 2pm or sometimes even later so we probably should call that “lupper” instead.