When I dine out, I tend to favour tiny, out-of-the-way places where the food served is less oriented toward mass appeal and more about the chef and his/her pursuit of impressive flavour.
Many of the places I’ve reviewed are small hole-in-the-wall spots (Le Petit Dakar, Fishhook on Fort) or they are hidden far from our usual trajectories (Chuck’s Burgers or last month’s Fairfield Branch Café). I look for places that are fantastic, often in some little way, but that most readers will not have visited or even heard of.
If size is the only criteria, this month’s restaurant qualifies as a hole-in-the-wall, but it is certainly not hidden away, nor will it be unfamiliar to most Victorians, for it has been serving locals and tourists alike, in the heart of Chinatown, for over 30 years.
The Fan Tan Cafe’s iconic marquee is squeezed over a high contrast red and black façade just a few metres wide Despite its diminutive size, the café has a richly lacquered finish: mahogany coloured tables and chairs are arranged, grid-like under a dark ceiling and dim lighting. Black wainscotting encircles the interior and a large fish tank brings luck, fortune, luminance and gentle motion into the room.
Reservations are both accepted and recommended. I arrived with friends and no reservation. We were lucky, and relegated to one of a few tables set out on the sidewalk under the cherry trees that line Fisgard Street.
My friends, visiting from Alberta, insisted that Victorians are lucky to be able to enjoy sidewalk dining. It is not just about eating outdoors: if it were, any patio would do.
We sat like four rocks clustered at rest within a turbulent stream of tourists sucked into the vortex of Fan Tan Alley clashing with the reverse stream pouring out. We picked out individuals to follow, if only briefly, catching snippets of conversation: some excited, some business-minded, some lost. Pedicabs unloaded next to us, their captains calling directions and recommendations to guests quickly subsumed in the crowd, while across the street, a delivery truck unloaded boxes of fresh produce for the Chinese market there.
It was a moment in the midst of the stream, but apart from it. It felt intimate, like we were really seeing the city now. An urban moment, or to paraphrase Don Henley, a Victoria minute.
I ordered the Spicy Lunch Combo ($14.95), which includes Kung Pao Chicken, Curried Chicken Chow Mein and Sweet/Chili Pork served together on one plate. Each component was just spicy enough to give my tongue a pleasing tingle and awaken my palate. And I was particularly happy that the sweet/chili pork was not the neon red found in most Chinese restaurants. I washed it all down with Peppermint tea served in a traditional teapot.
Alternately, guests can create their own combination plates, choosing any two ($10.95) or three ($14.50) items from a list of 22. Fan Tan also offers a gluten free menu and, of course, their famous Bubble Tea, which is offered in an impressive array of flavours. Hours are from 11am- 8:45pm every day, though they stay open an extra hour on Fridays and Saturdays.
Fan Tan Café, 549 Fisgard St.