The Northern Cafe probably shouldn’t exist, but it does. Literally a few metres from the bank of the Fraser River in south Vancouver, you could easily walk past the sign outside Northern Building Supplies and not notice. Even if you follow the signs and walk through the cedar-scented parking lot, you’re likely to miss the small awning in one corner. Open the door beneath the awning, go up the narrow, slightly slanted wooden stairs (no wheelchair access here), turn right, and head down the hall. That’s when you finally get to the Northern Cafe, a small gem of a diner.
The black and white checkered tile floor is far from even, but establishment is clean and cheery, with vintage booths and tables. Half of the space is taken up by the open kitchen, serving breakfast and lunch. The fare is standard North American diner, but with an emphasis on quality ingredients and home cooking.
The establishment’s co-owner and manager is Jimmy Mah, who warmly greets visitors in Chinese-accented English. He and his wife are the Northern’s only staff. Born in Hong Kong, Jimmy arrived in the Prince Albert region of Saskatchewan at age 14, and his family kept moving west:
My father and my grandfather were running restaurants already. I’ve worked in restaurants as a chef all my life. Sometimes twelve hour days, seven days a week. It’s a really, really hard life. Also, I’ve run franchise businesses too.
He came to Vancouver in 1984. "We started a franchise food court with seven or eight locations, selling fish and chips and chicken. That was a really hard time. I’ve worked hard all my life, and by the time I’m fifty-three years old, I sold everything and retired for three years. I did a lot of traveling on vacation."
After three years, Jimmy and his wife realized retirement wasn’t for them. "When we came back to Canada, me and my lady said, ‘What are we going to do the next day?’ Finally, my lady and I said, ‘Let’s look for something to do again.‘"
What they found was a diner called the LT Kitchen, dating back to the late 1940s. "The founder was Bert Thomas, but he passed away about ten years ago, age of 96. When he started this whole lumber yard, he was cutting the lumber at the river and selling the lumber to the builders. Then he started buying all the individual buildings, the shacks around here. This used to be a cow barn for a farm. After that, he started buying all the buildings and turned it into a lumber yard. This lumber yard is very unique, still family operated. Anything you ask for, you get the stuff on the next day. Very friendly service, just like family." Thomas’ portrait still hangs on the wall.
The previous owner was selling when we were looking at this place. The price was a little bit too high and there was no sale. Very dirty, filthy, and the price was not right. Me and my lady took another holiday. Five months later, we came back and he still had it. We negotiated the price down a little bit and we closed the deal. For the first two weeks, hardly any business. When customers did come, they were so happy with what I did, with all the personality and cooking.
Jimmy renamed the establishment as the Northern Cafe, and revamped the menu as well with an emphasis on freshness and quality:
Everything I make, I try not to bring the frozen stuff in. I do everything as home cooking. All hand made, hand skill. People know the way I do all the food prep is old school skill. Now all the new chefs in the restaurants, everything comes in frozen. Not like home cooking. My little place has quality cooking.
The Northern is promoted almost entirely by word of mouth and online reviews. Jimmy says he has never spent a cent on purchased advertising. Despite this, and the hole-in-the-wall location, the Northern has developed a loyal following in the last ten years. Only a year ago, Jimmy started collecting testimonials, and the walls of the Northern are covered with hand-written notes of appreciation from visitors from the US, Germany, the Philippines and even further away.
All of this is operated by just Jimmy and his wife. "No staff, no headache." Even with no employees, Jimmy keeps the Northern open six days a week. They take a break from mid-December to the end of January, and then it’s back to work. "I don’t get sick, because I like what I’m doing," says Jimmy. "When I retired, I missed what I do. And that’s why I came back with this little restaurant. And everybody said, ‘Hey Jimmy, you should open your own diner out in BC. You should explore the area. You can make a lot of money.’ And I told my customers, ‘That time already passed.’"
In four or five years, Jimmy says he might hand the Northern over to his son, Raymond, who is already an experienced chef and has worked at many high-level restaurants in Vancouver. "You never know."
As a sample dish, Jimmy served up a deluxe burger with cheese and bacon. The patty proved moist and meaty, with the bacon adding a little chewiness. Because of the current warning about tainted Romaine lettuce, Jimmy refused to serve a green salad, and instead provided a side of French fries and a small cup of homemade potato salad. "I can tell you, some supermarkets and four or five high end restaurants wanted me to provide them with this potato salad. I told them, it’s too much work. I’m happy with what I’m doing."
Meet The Photographer: Ricardo Vacas
Ricardo Vacas, owner of the firm Kerp Photography, always showed intense interest in many forms of creative arts. His professional photography career started in his home country, Spain, where he was the official photographer of several music bands, models and clothing brands. He decided to move to Wellington, New Zealand in 2012, knowing his real interest was fashion photography more than any other field. Currently living in Vancouver, Canada, he now combines his fashion, editorial and commercial photography projects with regular trips to Europe and USA.