Restaurants serving vegetarian versions of the kind of hearty, satisfying comfort dishes meat eaters have always loved are on trend right now. But one independent Richmond eatery has been covering the approach for many years—and it’s a long-time favourite with in-the-know locals and visitors.

4 Stones Vegetarian Cuisine has a convenient city centre location and serves up an extensive menu of meat-free dishes­­ ranging from kong pao ‘chicken’ to ‘beef’ noodle bowls. And its fancy-free wooden tables, window booths, and small counter are often busy with regulars as well as newbies discovering it for the first time.

4 Stones Vegetarian Cuisine
Burdock and veggie meat hot pot. | Photo: 4 Stones Vegetarian Cuisine

The reason they keep coming? The unique dishes created by chef/owner Lei Shih, an unassuming veteran of the Richmond restaurant scene who has an enduring passion for creating meatless comfort food. “My cooking is not about me; it’s about the ingredients. I just help the ingredients to show their quality and potential,” he says, adding, “I’m not a master, I’m a worker.”

4 Stones Vegetarian Cuisine
Lei Shih is the unassuming chef-owner at 4 Stones. | Photo: ​John Lee

How it all began

The story of 4 Stones Vegetarian Cuisine goes hand-in-hand with Shih’s evolution as a chef. And the fact that he didn’t start out as a vegetarian cook partly explains his latter-day skills in replicating meat textures and flavours. Born in Taiwan and apprenticing in the early 1980s at what is now the Sheraton Grand Taipei Hotel, Shih later attended cooking college in Tokyo and worked at several Chinese restaurants in the city.

But after returning to Taipei to open one of Taiwan’s first ramen eateries, he had a career-changing epiphany. “I was cooking with meat but I was always looking for better quality alternatives. Slowly, I began to move towards vegetarianism.”

Drawing on his diverse kitchen experience, he developed a new approach. “I was learning a lot and being very creative,” he recalls. “I took the DNA from Chinese, Japanese, and French cooking and I mixed it all together. There wasn’t much vegetarian food in restaurants back then so there was no one to tell me how to do it.”

Launching a vegetarian buffet restaurant in Taiwan in 1986—it later became a successful a la carte eatery with a menu of elegant meat-free dishes—Shih continued to polish and reinvent his techniques. But after 10 years, the family moved to Canada and everything changed again.

4 Stones Vegetarian Cuisine
Assorted mushrooms on a plate is one of the dishes Shih brought with him from his days in Taiwan. | Photo: 4 Stones Vegetarian Cuisine

Catering to Canadians

“When we opened Simply Vegetarian Cuisine in Richmond [on Ackroyd Road] in 1997, we created a different menu for Canadians,” he says, adding that hearty comfort dishes became the foundation of his new approach. “It was more like fast food but better: tasty, convenient dishes made with simple, good ingredients.”

The approach was refined even further when the business moved to the city centre stretch of Westminster Highway in 2010, rebranding as 4 Stones. Defining comfort dishes as “food that people can eat every day,” Shih uses very particular natural ingredients—such as textured soy protein, egg white powder, and whey protein—to fashion classic meat-like vegetarian dishes that never feel like ‘fake meat.’

The restaurant’s top-selling kong pau ‘chicken’ has an almost crispy exterior. The steamed cut buns are filled with juicy, BBQ-style glazed ‘meat.’ The wonton-style ‘veggie beef’ noodle soup is richly fortifying. And the deep-fried, panko-crusted oyster mushrooms have the texture, consistency, and belly-filling appeal of pub chicken wings.

4 Stones Vegetarian Cuisine
Deep-fried oyster mushrooms are akin to chicken wings. | Photo: ​John Lee

But it’s not just about meat-like dishes. Other 4 Stones vegetarian favourites include mountain yam hotpot—complete with fried tofu, mushrooms, bok choy, and more—while a delicious Chinese herbal soup is a perfect tonic on chilly days, complete with red dates, goji berries, and dong quai. And while all the dishes here are vegetarian, vegan choices also abound.

The restaurant is also on Richmond’s popular Dumpling Trail, and has veggie versions of wontons, water-boiled dumplings, and pan-fried pot stickers on the extensive menu. And since most dishes range from $8 to $16, diners typically share a few diverse plates between them.

4 Stones Vegetarian Cuisine - Photo: John Lee
4 Stones is on Richmond's Dumpling Trail. | Photo: ​John Lee

A family affair

There’s no need for diners to lose their way on the large menu, though—especially when they are greeted by Shih’s friendly daughter Anita. The restaurant’s hardworking assistant manger, she’s the face of 4 Stones for many visitors—and an expert at quickly clearing tables, taking orders, and helping diners with their choices.

“I always like to talk to people when they arrive. And I like to get to know them a little before they order,” she says. Still not sure what to go for? There’s also a handy ‘cheat sheet’ of 10 favourite menu items on the wall.

4 Stones Vegetarian Cuisine
Kong pau chicken is a top-selling dish here. | Photo: ​John Lee

“We have something for everyone. Being vegetarian is just one of the reasons people come here. The main reason is that we’re a place for good food,” Anita adds, noting that her own menu favourites change frequently but currently include mapo tofu, a dish of tender stewed tofu in a spicy-savoury veggie-meat sauce.

And after more than 20 years of honing his craft in Richmond (plus another decade of meat-free cooking in Taiwan), Shih is still dedicated to his culinary journey. “In the beginning it was hard to create this vegetarian approach and I had to do a lot of research. I’m still learning and I find out something new every day,” he says, before summing up his kitchen philosophy. “Making food is like making music: sometimes its fast, sometimes its slow, sometimes its quiet. But you have to love doing it.”

If you go:

4 Stones Vegetarian Cuisine is at #160 - 7771 Westminster Highway, a 10-minute walk from Richmond-Brighouse Canada Line Station. It’s open from 11:00am to 8:45pm Tuesday to Sunday. The restaurant closes from 3:00pm to 5:00pm for a staff break, while last orders are at 2:30pm for lunch and 8:30pm for dinner.