VANCOUVER - Visitors to a Chinese restaurant that's gaining a word-of-mouth fan base in Vancouver hardly notice the orangey-peach walls and black ceiling as they stand in line for a meal.
Instead, their eyes are fixed on the food being devoured by diners in the packed "hole-in-the-wall" eatery where decor has taken a back seat to good taste and value.
The dish that tops several tables is chef Ru Lin Zhang's pork dumplings, which won him a critic's choice award this year at the city's inaugural Chinese Restaurant Awards.
Zhang, who opened the Lin Chinese Cuisine and Tea House near a bustling west-side intersection two years ago, demonstrated two of his dishes - Green and White Fish Soup and Crunchy Golden Prawns - at the Vancouver Home and Interior Design Show's food stage last week.
"The prawns are to die for," said diner Cori Ruhnau, who works in the neighbourhood and is a regular at Lin's, which specializes in northern Chinese cuisine.
Lin's is among several hot Chinese restaurants in Vancouver, a city being touted by diners and critics alike as having the best Chinese cuisine in the world.
Six weeks of online voting for the diners' choice category of the Chinese Restaurant Awards is currently underway, until Nov. 15, and the winning eateries will be announced next January, along with the critics' choice of chefs' signature dishes.
Zhang said through translator and restaurant manager Yu Miao that he trained under a master chef in his native Shanghai and cooked in Tokyo before settling in Canada 15 years ago.
Stephanie Yuen, a former food writer for a Chinese newspaper and founder of the Chinese Restaurant Awards, said Zhang's dumplings stand out because of their thin, light pastry that surrounds a moist stuffing of ground pork, chicken stock and various flavours.
Vancouver's Chinese restaurants are influenced by a wide array of cooking styles from Hong Kong, mainland China and Taiwan, Yuen said.
"I personally believe that Vancouver offers the best Chinese cuisine in North America, if not in the world," she said. "And I've been back to Hong Kong and China and even Taiwan, places like that, and I still believe the whole Chinese culinary system is much better in Vancouver."
Yuen said fresh seafood from the Pacific Ocean is a huge plus for Vancouver's Chinese restaurants when it comes to the availability of Dungeness crab, spot prawns and large geoduck clams, among other delicacies.
As a gateway to the Pacific Rim, Vancouver is also closer to fresh ingredients straight from China, including Szechuan peppercorns and bamboo shoots, she said.
Tung Chan, CEO of the Chinese social services agency Success, said he just returned from a world cruise, eating his way through stops in Asia, including Shanghai and Hong Kong.
He said the Chinese food in Vancouver and the municipality of Richmond, B.C. - home to Canada's largest number of Chinese residents - is "the best in the world."
"I ate at (a restaurant) in Hong Kong, right by the pier where our cruise ship docked, and the Peking duck I had there, we make better here," Chan said.
While Shanghai boasts the best dumplings in China, "a Richmond restaurant can do a better job," said Chan, who moved to Vancouver in 1974.
For him, other North American cities with large Chinese populations, including Toronto, New York and San Francisco, don't rate.
He said top chefs were among the professionals who left Hong Kong before 1997, when the city was handed over to China, taking their culinary skills to Vancouver.
"So it really raised the professionalism here."
Chan said some of Vancouver's older Chinese restaurants were forced to shut down because they couldn't compete with the quality food cooked up by chefs whose meals far eclipsed the olden days of chop suey and chicken chow mein.
A more recent influx of people from northern China has influenced Vancouver's Chinese cuisine yet again so there's now a greater emphasis on spicier food and noodles instead of rice.