There is a weathered orange awning over a door in the alleyway between East First Street and East Second Street just a stone’s throw from Lonsdale Avenue. The walls immediately surrounding the door are also painted orange, although curiously the door itself is not.
There is a steady circuit of inbound and outbound traffic from that door and egress is attended, more often than not, by a weighty looking shopping bag of goods. The operation behind that door does little (that I’ve seen, anyway) by way of self-promotion. Some days a faded, street-beaten sandwich board sits at the corner of the alley and East Second Street by Il Castello Restaurant, but beyond that, I am only aware of this business because of my ventures into the aforementioned pizzeria (which is currently closed for renovations, incidentally) or to nearby Pho Bon Mua for a bowl of Bun Bo Hue.
In the competitive world of Szechuan casual dining, Orange Door is the speakeasy, the knock twice, wait, then knock again hole-in-the-wall that likely appeals to its fan base as much for its obscurity as for its cuisine. In my experience, being an insider with hard-won insight has almost universal appeal. And yet here I am, blowing the Orange Door wide open with a feature column. Way to go, Chris.
No matter. I suspect Orange Door will remain a niche business even in the wake of my reporting here. It is a no-frills, takeout-only operation, offering standard Szechuan fare geared towards a western palate, which is to say, tame on the heat and spice scale and instantly recognizable. Think Egg Foo Young, Chow Mein, Ginger Beef, Sweet and Sour Spareribs, and Lemon Chicken more than Ox Tongue in Chili Sauce, Tea Smoked Duck, or Mayi Shang Shu (spicy ground pork with mung bean noodles).
This is not to say that Orange Door is deficient in any way; it does what it sets out to do with professionalism and skill. In fact, there were a couple of dishes from my recent takeout experience that were above average. Also, for those picking up from the restaurant rather than ordering in, it is good fun to while away the final minutes of waiting for your order by watching the busy kitchen team chop, cook, toss, season, occasionally flambé, and eventually pack up the food. The diminutive business is clearly practiced in its field and it took fewer than 20 minutes for my order of eight dishes to be completed on a busy weekend evening.
The star of the meal was a generously portioned dish of Dry Garlic Spareribs, served bone-in, and cooked to a deeply caramelized finish. The bite-sized ribs were crispy on the outside and moist nearer to the bone, with notes of sweet garlic balanced by a salty kick. These ribs are, in my opinion, an ideal beer snack.
Deep Fried Squid in Spicy Salt and Pepper was another strong showing, though I was initially wary of the pallor of the coating. I was afraid the light batter was underdone but, in fact, it was not, revealing an unexpected crunchiness and, when briefly re-tossed in the container to agitate the seasoning that had settled at the bottom, striking flavours of garlic, chili, and five spice, the Szechuan peppercorn and star anise notes of the spice blend adding welcome complexity to a familiar dish.
Szechuan Black Pepper Stir-Fried Beef was nicely prepared, the medallions of meat tender to the bite and complemented by al dente wedges of onion and green pepper, while Bok Choy with Garlic was similarly still crispy and fresh-tasting, though the clear accompanying sauce was arguably under-seasoned, a touch gloopy, and contributed little to the betterment of the vegetable.
A dish of Szechuan Green Beans, a Dagenais-household favourite leftover snack, was reasonably executed with intense garlic content, although I am accustomed to the beans in this popular Szechuan staple being heavily studded with potent red chi--lies, absent in Orange Door’s recipe.
Vegetable Chow Mein was straightforward, though lacking in that deep brown, wok-singed, beansprout-laden character that is so elusive here on the North Shore; I last found this preferred style of chow mein at the now shuttered KK BBQ House on Lonsdale and have not encountered it again since. I would appreciate it if anyone well-versed in the Chinese noodle pantheon could tell me what the name of the style of chow mein I have described above is called. Interestingly, it is the standard chow mein style of most casual Szechuan diners I have frequented in the East of Canada (Montreal, Toronto, and Ottawa, for example) and yet I find it exceedingly hard to find at local Szechuan eateries.
An order of Wor Won Ton Soup proved substantial and was served in two containers, both filled with pork and shrimp wontons, slices of barbecue pork, prawns, and broccoli. A full container of the soup remained by the end of my sizeable family meal, along with a significant portion of the one dish that simply did not work for me here, the Szechuan Style Shredded Pork Chow Mein. I recognize that various vinegars, especially the Szechuan specialty Bao Ning black vinegar, are widely used in this regional cuisine and can add unmatched depth of flavour and complexity to dishes. However, the vinegar used in the preparation of this specific chow mein had a potent, heady funk to it that, when paired with subtly seasoned, soft strips of pork and soft noodles, created an end flavor and aroma that for my taste was incongruous with the dish and challenging to the senses.
Pick-up orders receive a 10 per cent discount. My meal, which fed a family of five twice, was $92.
Orange Door Cantonese and Szechuan Restaurant, 119 East Second St., North Vancouver. Orangedoorexpress.com. 604-986-1355. Take-out and delivery only.