How the Magic Bowl's quality food is changing the perception of Chinese food in Calgary
Tucked away from the rush of the city, the Magic Bowls offers customers Chinese cuisine not typically found in Calgary.
Despite competition with other Chinese restaurants and a downturn in the economy, the Magic Bowl has come out as one of Calgary's premier Cantonese restaurants. It has been serving up Dim Sum, amongst other Chinese food, for over three years now.
"You want ginger beef, I'll make it for you; but if you want Har Gow (a shrimp dumpling) I'll make that too. But inside, I want to make food that will change your mind and make you want to come back to eat more. I want to change the perception of Chinese food," Sam Chen said.
Chen, 42, has been studying various Cantonese — amongst other Chinese — cooking over the past 27 years. Born in the "cooking capital of China," Guangzhou, Chen has been able to keep up with the traditional and modern version of Chinese cuisine, which has allowed him to treat his patrons to a meal experience not typical of a Calgarian Chinese restaurant. Before opening Magic Bowl, Chen had also worked in top rated restaurants from China to Toronto.
The food that the Magic Bowl serves varies from what one might normally perceive as Chinese food — such as Peking Duck — to items that are still new on the menu in Guangzhou, like honey-styled tripe.
For those who are still unsure, the best suggestion may be to try the rice crepes as they come in shrimp, beef and pork varieties and contain a very smooth and velvety texture. For those a little more adventurous, try the tripe — it's glazed in a great sauce and tends to melt in your mouth.
However, it was not an easy journey for Chen, who arrived in 1991 with his family in Toronto when he was in his twenties and couldn't speak a word of English.
"I didn't need to speak it at the time," said Chen. "The restaurant, the hospital, everywhere in Toronto had someone who could speak Chinese."
However, Toronto's economy took a downturn in the mid-2000s, which affected Chen greatly.
"I lost my job, the economy became no good and Chinese restaurants began to shut down. I wanted to find a job, but it became too hard [with the language barrier]," he said.
So Chen left Toronto to try and find greener pastures in Calgary. It was a little more than three years ago when Chen decided to open up the Magic Bowl in southeast Calgary, amidst warnings from the previous owner who had been trying to sell it for over a year. The site had originally been home to another Chinese restaurant.
"They told me that the location doesn't work and I wouldn't be able to succeed, but I knew that if your food is good, fresh, and at a good price, that's it; people will come," Chen shared.
As Chen might agree, opening a restaurant alone is never an easy task. While he does receive help from his loved ones, on most days Chen is still hard at work maintaining the restaurant. Not only is he the owner, but he also manages, cooks, waits on tables, and buys the supplies needed to keep the restaurant afloat.
The praise that Chen has received has not just come from his patrons, but also from esteemed food critics, such as Calgarian John Gilchrist.
"When I heard that the Magic Bowl was doing their own line of in-house Dim Sum, I had to check it out," commented Gilchrist in a recent review. "It's very good food."
Recently Gilchrist awarded the Magic Bowl as one of his top ten best cheap eats in Calgary through Swerve Calgary.
Chen and his wife and co-worker, Snowy, recently welcomed their first child six months ago; meanwhile, the work load has been increasing drastically at the Magic Bowl.
"Some days I work 12-14 hours a day, with only Tuesdays off," spoke Chen. "It's hard on my wife to try and raise our child when I'm not there to help her. But maybe when the economy picks up I'll be able to take time off and even travel back to China."
The hard work and quality Chen maintains does get passed down to the customer.
Jinghua Zhang was enjoying a meal at the Magic Bowl with her family.
"I'm not from this area, but I try to come here as much as I can. There are many Chinese restaurants in Calgary, but not many of them actually serve food that is similar to what you can get in Guangzhou and still tastes this good," she said.
And while the restaurant has attracted support from the Chinese community, it is also attracting support from those who might not normally try "new" food.
Chen doesn't seem surprised by the reaction he has been getting with his new customers.
"Calgary is different from Toronto. Many people here don't know what real Chinese food is, or what new items are. I try and give them an experience that is closer to real Chinese cuisine," he said.
Magic Bowl also tries to change the "unhealthy" stereotype that has been linked to Chinese food.
"We try and cook with no MSG and with as little oil as possible," Chen said. "It's possible to make quality food without it being unhealthy."
Magic Bowl is located at 1215 Lake Sylvan Drive, Calgary and is open Wednesdays through Mondays.
- By ANDREW SZEKERES