Great news, PDX gourmands on a budget: some of the tastiest Japanese food in North America is just an hour’s flight north in British Columbia.
Sure, Vancouver tends to be the Canadian province’s big draw—home to Stanley Park, Granville Island Public Market, and the Capilano Suspension Bridge. But just south of the Fraser River, the suburb of Richmond offers an immersive transoceanic vibe missing from the bigger city, similar to how Beaverton has more legit Asian flavor than Portland proper.
For visitors, Richmond’s not unlike the Japantown/Chinatown version of that Studio Ghibli-ish ad launched by Travel Oregon last year. Here, the air smells like roasted duck, adorable feral bunnies graze the underbrush of shopping center parking lots, and killer bowls of ramen can be found in every strip mall.
Thanks to British Columbia’s historical ties with China (a relationship eclipsing even Portland’s deep history of Chinese immigration) and laissez-faire regulations that have attracted gobs of Asian cash, Richmond today boasts large populations from mainland China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan—along with, arguably, the best Chinese food outside of China. Yes, there’s an official Dumpling Trail here, and dim sum beloved of New York Times food writers.
However! We’re centering our adventure on Richmond’s equally delicious, also ubiquitous Japanese food. Let’s put it this way: Portlanders can board a 10 a.m. plane, breeze through customs (conveniently, Vancouver’s airport is already in Richmond), and inhale the West’s best black garlic chashu ramen by lunchtime.
It’s not just that Richmond’s Japanese food is everywhere; it’s also stuff rarely seen outside Japan, like iekei (“home-style”) ramen. A specialty of Yokohama, this is ramen at its most distilled: pork tonkotsu and shoyu broths slicked with chicken schmaltz; a wad of thick, chewy noodles; spinach instead of scallions. At G-Men Nan Chuu Ramen, the Richmond outpost of the Vancouver-based Ramen-ya, find chashu pork and kikurage mushrooms folded into tonkotsu broth creamy enough for bathing.
A 15-minute walk away, G-Men’s li’l sister Gyo-O serves superlative donburi (sashimi, fried chicken) and the Okayama specialty bukkake udon. (Grow up and stop giggling: bukkake means “splash.”) Instead of a bowl of broth, the bouncy noodles are served dry with your choice of protein and rich tare sauce on the side. Bonus: house-made soy sauce, and a staff that tolerates patrons trying out rusty Japanese.
Even hole-in-the-wall sushi joints nail it. Don’t expect Bamboo-style austerity at the charmingly unpretentious Tokyo Joe Sushi—eat here because you love sushi and hosts that yell “IRRASHAIMASE” as you walk in, offering miso soup and tea before the coats come off. Plus, the values are wild: a bowl of exquisite chirashi don arrived with roughly a metric tonne of supple sashimi, for less than $13 US.
A mere mile (erm, 1.7 kilometers) away, find DIY teppanyaki—like Japanese fajitas—at Pepper Lunch. Fry your own aged beef on a raging-hot 500-degree iron plate, mix it up with corn and rice, and then slather on the umami-rich sauces. (“Why so yummy?” the eatery’s website asks visitors. Spoiler: it’s the “finest salt and pepper” and “original butter.” Learn more by watching “How to Sizzle,” Pepper Lunch’s bizarrely thorough, Cooking Mama-esque training video.)
Sweet tooth? Yes, Pocky and KitKat abound at grocery stores (look for fun flavors like matcha and sake), or get Japanese cream puffs at Gorton’s fisherman-themed Beard Papa’s.
Imagine Portland’s Saturday Market was huge, and far more multicultural—say, with 300 largely Asian vendors. You’re picturing Richmond Night Market (May–October), an outdoor smorgasbord of food carts and handicrafts, and the largest of its kind in North America.
If the weather outside is garbage, Richmond’s shopping malls offer quality climate-controlled rambles. Aberdeen Centre is the only Canadian outpost of Hiroshima-based Daiso. It’s kind of like if Dollar Tree sold twee Japanese sundries, with ceramic dishware, snacks, stationery, and eight-packs of gel pens—all about $1.50 a pop—along with a mind-boggling array of Korean beauty masks.
Bargain shopping not your bag? Take a 30-minute bus ride south to Steveston, an 1880s fishing village full of Japanese artifacts, Buddhist temples, and oddities like the Herring Reduction Plant at the Gulf of Georgia Cannery Museum.
Lodging options in Richmond range from big chain hotels to casinos and homespun B&Bs. Also, scads of reasonably priced (sometimes illicit!) Airbnbs nest in Richmond’s newer condos.
For local grit, stay at the bare-bones Steveston Hotel (rooms from $60/night). Built in 1895 and just a short stroll from the historic cannery, this place dishes up solid Twin Peaks vibes, complete with its own Double R-esque diner. Or take the train into Vancouver proper for a boutique splurge at the sleek Loden (rooms from $211/night) or the Instagrammable Opus (rooms from $233/night).
Direct round-trip flights from PDX to Vancouver (YVR) start around $200 on Air Canada and Alaska Airlines. Amtrak round-trip train rides—eight hours each way—start around $100. (From Portland, trains arrive in Vancouver late at night; returning trains depart Vancouver early in the morning.)