Review: Lao Cai serves up Xi’an’s diverse cuisine in West Vancouver

Ryan Cai opened Lao Cai in West Vancouver soon after graduating university, serving Xi’an cuisine.

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Lao Cai

Where: 1425 Marine Dr., West Vancouver

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When: 11:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. daily

Info: 604-925-9231;

Wouldn’t you know, the only time that Ryan Cai takes a break — for Lunar New Year — I call him, interrupting his snowboarding. He’s in Whistler, shredding, just as he does in life.

The 26-year-old has been running Lao Cai Chinese restaurant in West Vancouver for over five years since graduating with a degree in environmental science and statistics from SFU.

He had wanted to run a business since he was a kid, and since his parents own two restaurants in Yantai, China, it wasn’t entirely foolhardy to take on this risky business.

“At first, it was the easiest business for me to start, but now I’m passionate about it,” he says. “It’s really interesting when you make food and customers are happy.”

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He returned to China to learn from the chefs in the family business and had an assist from his mother here. Now he trains his kitchen staff to cook the specialty dishes from Xi’an, in central China, where the family first lived before they moved to Yantai, on the coast. Xi’an is known for the terra cotta warriors archaeological site, but also boasts a cuisine layered by diverse cultures, thanks to its position on the Silk Road.

He is now planning to open a second restaurant near UBC later this year. Lai Cai means ‘old’ Cai referencing his family name, he says. The second one will keep the family name, but he’ll change it up. The bigger and open kitchen will accommodate more dishes and noodle-making shows.

Liang pi noodles at Lao Cai.
Liang pi noodles at Lao Cai. jpg

The family first started by selling liang pi, a popular Xi’an noodle dish and pork “burger,” or rou jia mo, in food stalls. Liang pi ($8.99) are springy handmade noodles, served cold, tossed in Xi’an chili oil, aromatic spices, garlic and black rice vinegar. I loved the chew and the gentle umami. Cai imports his chili from Xi’an. “It’s very special. It’s not spicy but very flavourful,” he says.

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The pork burger ($6.99) isn’t the burger as westerners know it. The “bun” is handmade with semi-fermented dough. Pieces of dough are formed into a log, flattened and rolled up, pressed into a bowl shape and then fried lightly and baked. The pork shoulder filling is braised with about 30 herbs and spices, and then chopped. Both the liang pi and pork burger are available at Lao Cai, and I’d recommend both. The pork is nice and intense, requiring no condiments.

Under the “salads,” I’m a fan of the chopped cucumbers ($7.99) dressed with vinegar and garlic sauce, made just before serving. “The vinegar disappears a little and the sugar changes if you make it ahead,” Cai says. The more starchy lotus root salad is nicely balanced with a light pickling in a sugar and vinegar marinade.

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Sweet and sour pork ribs.
Sweet and sour pork ribs. jpg

I felt reassured that sweet and sour pork ribs ($15.99) wouldn’t be the sad Chinese-Canadian version made with ketchup, vinegar and canned pineapples. The menu describes it as “braised with black vinegar sauce in the Northern Chinese style.” Cai cooks the pork in the sauce until it reduces down to a glaze and serves you up a heaping bowlful. It’s super-delicious.

Shrimp, pork, chive dumplings.
Shrimp, pork, chive dumplings. jpg

Xi’an cuisine is built around wheat noodles, not rice, and you will find lots of noodle dishes and soups as well as dumplings and hot pots. Shrimp, pork and chive dumplings ($15.99) were plump with a dozen to a plate. The filling gets a flavour boost with some of the pork stock from the pork burger braise. You have the choice of steamed or pan-fried.

The spicy lamb cumin noodles ($14.99) and the duck noodle soup ($7.99) are a specialty, he says. The noodle dish has been “adjusted” from the traditional method. He cooks the lamb and noodles separately instead of together to avoid overcooked noodles. There is a generous amount of braised lamb and it’s tossed with long, gnarly handmade biang biang noodles. Chili oil, garlic and spices assert themselves. Biang biang takes its name from the onomatopoeic sound of the noodle slapping against the counter as it’s being pulled and stretched.

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The duck soup isn’t as intense as I’d prefer, but the broth is made with a whole duck, spices, herbs and some pickled carrots to add some sour. It’s hearty with greens, mushrooms and hand-ripped noodles.

The duck or lamb broth hot pots are popular with the Chinese clientele, he says, and servings can be for one to five people depending on the size ($38 to $48).

The liquor list includes some uninspiring beers, two B.C. wines by the bottle, and some powerful Chinese and Korean rice wines “stronger than vodka straight,” Cai says. I suggested he replace the Kokanee, Molson and Corona with some local craft beers.


Les Dames d’Escoffier, B.C. Chapter, invites those who identify as women to apply for scholarships to further careers in culinary, beverage, agriculture, aquaculture and other hospitality fields. Scholarships are awarded on merit, ability, commitment, and passion. The association has up to $20,000 to award this year. The application is open to Feb. 13. To apply, go to

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