WHALLEY: An enclave of authentic ethnic food

Food from around the world makes for a multicultural vibe in the heart of Surrey.

Richie Hussett

If you want authentic ethnic food and you want variety, Whalley’s the place to go to find it.

Jamaican. Mexican. Japanese. Ukranian. Vietnamese. African.

And these aren’t chain restaurants. No, this is true-to-its-roots, bona fide fare.

Many are tucked away from the bustle of the ever-developing and ever-changing area.

Take Pho Tam, for example.

In a small, somewhat rundown strip mall near Surrey Central SkyTrain at 10302 City Parkway is a busy Vietnamese noodle joint.

The modest tables are almost always packed and once that food hits the table, you’ll understand why people cram into the little place.

Another gem, also tucked away, in behind the pawn shops and churches along King George Boulevard near 108th Avenue, is Taquiera Jalisco (13646 Grosvenor Rd.).

It’s said by some to have the best Mexican food outside of Mexico – just a small place with great food.

Mexican blankets covered in plastic add splashes of red and green to the tabletops. Homemade salsas and chips served while you wait. Quesadillas, chimichangas, tamales, all served with refried beans. Lots of beans. There’s also the lesser-known Mexican dishes, such as huevos rancheros – country style eggs served with rice and beans.

Galina’s Euro Food, run by a local mother and two daughters, is tucked away in the corner of the Dell Shopping Centre (13531 102 Ave.).

They describe themselves as “Little Europe in Central City,” serving up handmade perogies, hand-rolled cabbage rolls and, of course, borscht, which is beet soup for those not in the know.

One of their specialties is pelmeni, aka Siberian meat tortellini, also made by hand.

A stone’s throw away is the Rickshaw, a culinary landmark that’s been in Whalley since the 1950s, on the east side of King George Boulevard at about 105th Avenue.

It became a household name around the Lower Mainland, and while several other locations opened up, only the Whalley establishment remains. It attracts diners from here to Alberta and beyond.

About five years ago, the Chinese restaurant moved west, directly opposite its longtime location. But today, the iconic sign still stands on the east side of the street.

Just a short jaunt down the road, at 13593 King George Blvd., is Di Reggae Cafe, serving up authentic Jamaican cuisine with a cool island vibe.

They’ve got the classics, such as jerk chicken and Jamaican patties, but try yourself some curried goat, oxtail or fish fritters while you’re at it.

“Friday is our biggest day,” said owner and chef Richie Hussett. “We promote it as fish Friday. We have an in-house DJ, and it’s not hype type of music, it’s lounge music so you’re still sitting there visiting and eating.”

Then there’s the rum cake, also known as black cake, and sweet potato pudding.

“As far as our desserts, we just can’t stock them enough,” he said.

ONE DOOR CLOSES, ANOTHER OPENS

Hussett opened the cafe just over four years ago after a favourite dining spot of his, Taste Nice, closed its doors just down the hill from his restaurant.

He would drive all the way from Chilliwack, where he lived at the time, just for their food.

“Chain restaurants are so common. If you want something unique, if you want to eat something like how mom would prepare a meal for you‚ go into a smaller restaurant, where they can take time and prepare your meal, there’s just nothing that can compare to that,” said Hussett.

And there’s no shortage of choices in Whalley. Hussett attributes that to the area’s population, which is as diverse as the food offerings.

“I just found that the majority of folks from my background – not just Carribeans but also Africans and South Americans – the majority of them were based out in Surrey and Delta. Choosing this location was easy.”

Operating the business has been rocky at times, partly because he came into the area blind, Hussett said. He wasn’t aware of the area’s issues with drugs and homelessness.

“From a visual standpoint, someone coming to visit your restaurant, there’s a nice Jamaican restaurant there and if you’re coming down Grosvenor (Road) and the first thing you see is people drinking in the park and not behaving as what we call proper, it’s kind of a turnoff. We had those obstacles.”

Hussett considered throwing in the towel a few times, but each time, it was the people that make him realize he should stay put.

“When I hear someone say, ‘Man, I so appreciate coming here, it’s so nice to get the aura and the music and the food, it feels like we’re at home.’ That’s what Canada is about. Every culture comes here and creates their own little nest.”

The chef said he’s in Surrey for the long haul, adding he loves the tight-knit feel in the Whalley area.

“I pop in the Mexican restaurant once in a while, that’s just how we are in this community. Surrey Natural Foods, it’s a health food store, I get all my cream from there and the owner has all his lunches here. All the way down to the nitty gritty of, ‘Hey, I ran out of tomatoes,’ that’s how tight the area is. There’s no competition, it’s just a complement. We support one another.”

And support each other they must, said Hussett, as the inevitable chain restaurants descend on an area now dominated by small businesses.

Lucky Supermarket is coming to the Dell Shopping Centre and Hussett worries how that will impact the small businesses.

Shops like Seven Day Seafood and the Asian markets along King George Boulevard will be hit hard, he predicted.

The landscape of Whalley will likely change, he added.

“Why should people support these smaller restaurants? It’s just like the smaller supermarkets. You go to Seven Day Seafood, and it’s like you’re going to your neighbour, you know them on a personal level. You walk into a giant chain, nobody has time for you,” remarked Hussett.

“Community’s need to be built and small businesses are the way to go. If we’re not supporting our small little niche, then nothing is authentic anymore. It’s just like our foods. Our clients tell us it’s authentic, the best food in town and that’s something we’re very proud of.”

REDEVELOPMENT OF AREA IS A DOUBLE-EDGED SWORD

The redevelopment happening all over Whalley is a double-edged sword, mused Hussett.

“I see the growth going very well in Whalley, which is a positive note, but these giant companies coming in will hurt. They’re re-doing the whole (Dell) strip mall down here and it’s great for them, there’s even stuff that’s going to help me there, but on the larger scope of things, how many small businesses are going to have to shut down?”

Bonnie Burnside of the Downtown Surrey BIA said most people don’t realize there are so many neat restaurants in the area, but she sees larger tenants coming to the area as a positive.

“People tend to go, ‘Oh we don’t have a Cactus Club,’ or, ‘We don’t have an Earls,’ so there’s nowhere to eat,” said Burnside. “You want these unique places like we have, but you still have to have the anchor tenants so people will come here and hopefully discover all the unique places that are here.”

Last summer, the Downtown Surrey BIA released a restaurant guide, which they update every year. On it, you’ll find a plethora of ethnic food choices. Click here to find the most recent version.

amy.reid@thenownewspaper.com

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