Health is top of mind at vegetarian Vietnamese restaurant in Vancouver

posted on April 8, 2015

By Mia Stainsby, Vancouver Sun | Link to Article

By Mia Stainsby, Vancouver Sun | Link to Article

Six years ago I reviewed a restaurant on Robson Street called Chau Kitchen and Bar, and found the food was remarkable for the modest prices — such as prawn remoulade on persimmon paper and basa with Vietnamese caramel sauce.

Then, heartbreak. Maria Huynh sold it a year later when her mother took ill with a brain tumour. As she saw it, this modern Vietnamese restaurant was her baby, her passion, her pride and joy and — truth be told — I was sad to see it close, too. But as her parents saw it, Maria was in crisis.

“I looked like crap, my life was in shambles and I was literally living in the office to be able to pay the rent. I loved the restaurant so much,” she says.

She listened to her mother, Chau Thi Ho Huynh, a study in survival. After fleeing Vietnam in the late ’70s, she ran Cafe Chau, a coffee and congee hut, in an Indonesian refugee camp, with pop can lanterns, a sign with Styrofoam and stumps for seats. AND, she looked after three orphans.

In Vancouver, she and her husband ran a couple of Vietnamese delis. But after the cancer diagnosis, the family regrouped. The parents had a plan. Why not start a restaurant with the healthiest food possible: a vegetarian and vegan Vietnamese restaurant? To Maria, it was going backwards to work in a family business.

“Just put your passion somewhere else,” her parents advised her.

Well, the tumour shrank and in 2011, they opened Chau Veggie Express with a catering arm next door (not vegetarian). Her mother is still cooking in the kitchen and the casually creative front of house is obviously Maria’s vision. Light fixtures are a dangle of canning jars, coat hooks are bent cutlery, and the music is cheerful retro rock (Do Wa Diddy Diddy, Sugar Town, Sunshine Lollipops and Rainbows). A couple years ago, they took down the wall separating the restaurant and the catering business and put in a coffee bar. And Maria is the happiest she’s been.

“It’s cool. I never thought we’d end up here,” says Maria, who is expecting a baby in just over a month. She’s taking courses in holistic nutrition to take healthy cuisine up a few more notches.

So Chau Veggie Express is a Vietnamese restaurant without meat or fish. That’s a tall order when you consider fish sauce is the linchpin to so many Vietnamese dishes and so many dishes contain beef or pork.

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