Twenty-seat Chinese noodle bar is a secret no more

Driving southbound into downtown Halifax, one could easily zip right by Beaver Sailor Diner. Its small, unassuming location at the corner of Hollis and Duke, next to landmark eatery Bluenose II Restaurant, could be missed with the blink of an eye. But people in Halifax are taking notice of this 20-seat noodle bar. Perhaps it’s the curious name? Maybe the delightful cartoon beaver logo? Whatever it is, over the past two years this humble hole-in-the-wall has steadily earned its place as a not-so-hidden gem — a go-to for both noodle aficionados and lovers of home-cooked Asian comfort food.

“We started from noodles,” says owner Yue Su when we sit down to chat on a quiet Monday afternoon. He and partner Ting Jun Han took over the Beaver Sailor Diner location from a friend, opening almost two years ago, in July 2015. Finding a lack of good noodles in Halifax, and no other restaurants at the time doing only noodles, Su and Han decided the focus for Beaver Sailor Diner would be the classic Chinese staple — homemade noodles. “Noodles are actually very typical in China. It’s like burgers and pastas here,” says Su. Over time they’ve grown the menu from four or five noodle dishes to 20-plus items, including appetizers and non-noodle entrees. They also offer a generous collection of drinks and Chinese desserts. “Every six months we try something new. If it’s good, we keep it,” says Su.

Ting Jun Han and Yue Su

Originally from northern China, Su first moved to Canada from Beijing in 2011 to attend Humber College in Toronto. After university, Su couldn’t find a job in Toronto. “I was thinking maybe I should go home at the time,” says Su. But, wanting to see more of Canada first, he decided to make a stop in Halifax. Here, he ended up with a job prospect in the IT field and met Han. “I would say Halifax chose me,” says Su. “In this lovely city, I [found] a job, bought my first house, met my partner and now we are running this little restaurant.”

Su also moved his mother to Halifax, where she helps with the family business. “Mom … she knows the recipes,” says Su. He gives partial credit to his mother for how he learned to cook, along with YouTube. Su does the cooking, bookkeeping and a little bit of everything. Han, a Nova Scotia College of Art and Design (NSCAD) graduate with a masters in design, created the brand, logo and menu; he also handles drinks, desserts and serves the tables.

“Noodles are actually very typical in China. It’s like burgers and pastas here” – Yue Su

With little to no experience in the restaurant business, Su and Han still have managed to build a following for their noodle shop. “It started from the teachers and professors at NSCAD, they tried it first and they spread the word,” says Su. “About half of [our customers] are Chinese students that are [living] here, another half are Canadians. Canadian guys like noodle stuff.”

The noodles are made from scratch in-house, with a pasta machine, using only all-purpose flour and water. The types of noodles at Beaver Sailor Diner range from udon, soba and ramen, to belt noodles (a thin, wide and flat noodle), to a shape simply called “noodles” on the menu — which is kind of like the house noodle. “Chinese noodles are usually named [after] the method of how they were made. Cut-noodle is the most ordinary one,” says Su. “Each family has their own favourite shape.” The shape that Su prefers for his cut-noodles (or house noodles) is roughly the size of spaghetti, though these noodles have more body and bite than the pasta equivalent.

Su prepares one of their most popular noodle dishes for me to try — the hot and sour noodles, which have Taiwanese-style pork belly on top and a deep brown oily, spicy sauce resting at the bottom of the bowl that offers rich umami flavours. The noodles used for this dish are the house noodles. On top are thinly sliced green onion, crunchy sprouts, bits of mushrooms and a mound of the chopped up pork belly, which has been stewed in soy and Japanese sweet cooking wine. It’s the depth of flavour in the spicy sauce that elevates this dish. “The sauce. It took some time,” says Su when I ask him how it’s made. Aside from peppers, onion, garlic and ginger, there is a little bit of cinnamon, dried chilies for heat, plus vinegars and soy sauce.

Chicken wonton soup is another favoured dish at Beaver Sailor Diner, and Su prepares a bowl for me. Served in a classic miso broth with floating slices of green onion and seaweed, the handmade wontons (a kind of dumpling) are stuffed with a filling made from ground chicken and cabbage. The wonton wrapper itself is extremely supple, and the salty umami flavours of the broth marry perfectly with the rich, juicy ground chicken inside.

Su also makes three appetizers for me to try, including the Japanese style golden chicken bites, which are dangerously tasty. The chicken is extremely tender inside the golden, crunchy (and not greasy) batter, complemented with a simple spicy mayo for dipping. A contrast to the crispy chicken bites, I next try the marinated seaweed salad (Su admits he doesn’t make it in-house), which acts as a cold, salty and slightly briny palate cleanser. It takes a few bites to get used to the slimy texture, but, even being store-bought, the flavours are bright. The third offering from the snack side of the menu, the sliced beef shank, is served cold and is made onsite by Su using a pressure cooker. Once cooked, he wraps the tender meat tightly, places it in the refrigerator overnight and the next day he is able to slice it very thin. The slices are served with a sesame oil and soy sauce mixture for dipping.

The desserts are a collection of Chinese specialties, most of which I’m unfamiliar with. There’s black sticky rice, as well as something called sago, which is a soup made with coconut milk that can be served hot or cold. The sago itself refers to small pearls that are similar to tapioca. “Those are for the Chinese guys. It’s more homestyle, it’s not that sweet,” says Su. There are also a few types of grass jelly, which is “a kind of jelly, but it’s mixed up with the Chinese herbs. It looks very black, it tastes a little bitter. We Chinese people believe it has medicinal purposes,” says Su. For my dessert, Su suggests I try a mubic, a small square of gelatinous milk pudding dusted with matcha powder. This tastes mild, like jello made with milk, but the intensely earthy and slightly bitter matcha powder adds a needed jolt of flavour.

Su and Han have tapped into something that diners in Halifax are responding to — comforting food made with care. While the menu doesn’t target any specific region in China, or even Asia, the focus on handmade noodles brings a consistency and recognizable theme to what Beaver Sailor Diner has to offer.