I’ve never really thought of Mui Garden (5960 Minoru Blvd.) as a Hong Kong style cafe or cha chaan teng. I’ve never associated Mui Garden with thee “western” breakfast combos you might find at Lido Restaurant or the mixed grill combinations you might find at Alleluia Cafe. To me, Mui Garden was about something else. And that something else was the Hai Nam chicken.
To be fair, my experience with Mui Garden growing up was not with the location in Richmond, but rather with the one on Main Street in Vancouver. There’s also another location on Victoria Drive and up until not that long ago, there was another location along North Road on the Burnaby-Coquitlam border.
I only learned recently that the Mui Garden family of restaurants in Metro Vancouver is literally run by the Mui family. They got their start in Hong Kong before taking their culinary expertise across the Pacific. It’s not a franchise. It really is the success story of a humble family business.
Even though the address for the Richmond branch of Mui Garden places it along Minoru Boulevard, just behind Richmond Centre, it’s not actually located right on Minoru. The entrance is along the side of the building, visible from Firbridge Way. There are a few parking spots in front, as well as rooftop parking.
Stepping inside the restaurant immediately elicited the same nostalgic feeling I got eating at Happy Date. It’s like stepping into a time capsule from the 1990s. There’s this quaint charm, and the extra wooden motif I remember from the Main Street location back in the day carries through here.
The menu has expanded considerably since the ’90s, but I felt compelled to return to at least a couple of their old classics. Interestingly, they have an all-day menu with mini sets for about $10-$12 that are akin to what you might find on the lunch, tea time or late night menus at similar restaurants. The full size variants are naturally always available too.
Go to the Mui Garden Restaurant homepage and you’ll find two key dishes highlighted. The first of these is the authentic Malaysian curry. My dad would always order the Beef Brisket Curry with Rice (above), but you can get the curry with a variety of other meats too.
Pictures can never do curry justice — whether it’s Indian, Japanese, or in this case, Malaysian — because it’ll always look like a monochromatic mess. But if you’re looking for some of the best Malaysian curry in town, Mui Garden is the place to go. They blend together 20 different spices and ingredients to deliver a complexity that is thoroughly satisfying. With a slightly grainy texture, this curry is safe for folks who normally stay away from the spice. It’s served with a side of white rice, which you’ll need to soak up all that sauce.
Perhaps even better known that Mui Garden’s curry is their Hai Nam Chicken. These days, it’s far more common to see restaurants list this as Hainanese chicken. This is mostly due to the transition from Anglicised Cantonese to the official romanization of Mandarin and written Chinese. That’s why “Peking” became “Beijing” and “Canton” became “Guangdong,” for example.
You could order the chicken on its own or you can get the Hai Nam Chicken with Hai Nam Style Rice. It’s served with a side of soup, boiled peanuts, a vinegar-like red sauce, and a ginger mixture for dipping. I’m not a big fan of ginger myself, but that red sauce really hits the spot.
At first glance, Hai Nam chicken can almost be mistaken for the white cut chicken you may find at your local Chinese BBQ. There is a definite similarity, but the skin is more yellow. You also move away from the usual scallion dipping sauce to the red sauce and ginger concoction described above. Mui Garden also uses free range chicken, so you’ll find far less of the gelatinous fat under the skin.
Realistically, the main reason why I ever order Hainanese chicken in any restaurant is because I’m interested in the rice that accompanies it. This is no regular white rice. Mui Garden calls it Hai Nam Style Rice, but in Cantonese, the colloquial term I’ve always used loosely translate as “oil rice” or “oily rice.”
The rice is slightly oily in consistency and has been cooked in chicken stock. This results in a much more flavourful rice with powerful hits of umami. It works as a great contrast to the cleaner and lighter flavours of the chicken itself.
A staple of many Hong Kong style cafes is the baked pork chop on rice. It’s what I ordered at Copa Cafe and it’s what I hold to be the gold standard of a cha chaan teng. I decided on a slight variation at Mui Garden, opting for Baked Pork Chop with Tomato Sauce on Spaghetti. The substitution came at no additional charge.
The tomato based sauce was accompanied with some chopped mushrooms and celery. I was disappointed with the lack of cheese on top and the dish as a whole simply wasn’t as good as I have had at other Hong Kong style cafes.
If anything, this demonstrates that you should order the specialties of the house. The curry was good. The Hai Nam chicken was good. Another staple I often ordered from the Main Street location were the meat skewers, served with pineapple, cucumber, and a curry-like dipping sauce.
Both the beef brisket curry and the baked pork chop were ordered off the “all day menu” and were accompanied with a complimentary beverage. We got an Iced Lemon Tea and an Iced Hong Kong Style Coffee/Tea. They were of generous size but otherwise not that noteworthy.
One thing that is worth mentioning is that Mui Garden is surprisingly kid-friendly. You still won’t find a change table in the restroom, but they’ve got high chairs and they’ll even supply your kids with their own plastic bowls and utensils. Of course, if your toddlers are anything like my daughter, they’ll eventually insist on using the big people cutlery.
All of the dishes arrived far more quickly than I had anticipated, leading me to believe that some of it had to be pre-made. Only the baked pork chop with spaghetti took a few extra minutes, but that can only be expected with any baked dish.
It would hardly be accurate to say that Mui Garden is cutting edge with its approach to its menu. At the same time, the restaurant family has won many awards over the years, both from critics and through public voting. It’s a restaurant that has stayed true to its roots and it continues to deliver great curry and Hainanese chicken.
Mui Garden is a classic gem that has been hiding in plain sight for years. They just don’t make them like this anymore.