I won’t call Oyster Express a hidden gem because it features prominently on the corner of Gore and Keefer in Vancouver’s Chinatown but I do think more people should know about it. For a little place, it might just have the largest selection of oysters in town.
Over A Decade of Oysters
Shawn Chesney and Soran Im, a husband and wife team, opened Oyster Express eleven years ago. I think I must have started visiting shortly after. The earliest photo I can find from there is from 2014. I remember it was a hot day. I had walked over from the JJ Bean in the Woodward’s building where I was working at the time. This is a reminder as summer approaches: I’m not a doctor but I do believe one of the best ways to cool off and replenish vital electrolytes is to enjoy some ice-cold oysters with a likewise ice-cold glass of white wine or beer. Oysters do, in fact, contain omega-3 fatty acids as well as zinc, B12, and vitamin D.
OX: Oyster eXpress
Oyster Express is very much a mom and pop business. When people say mom and pop they might mean a business as large, with as many locations as, for example, JJ Bean. In terms of Oyster Express it literally means a two-person operation. Who will be shucking your oysters? Shawn. The name, Oyster Express shortens to OX, which I can only imagine is a romantic reference. OX or XO: hugs and kisses, an affectionate sign off for a note to a lover, and a great name for a sweet spot like this one.
The location for Oyster Express is ideal because of its corner orientation. It is also important that it is in Chinatown on Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. It makes Oyster Express more accessible to people from a range of cultural, racial, and financial backgrounds. At different times in history, oysters have been a working class food and Oyster Express does offer a daily oyster special. While fresh oysters may not be considered cheap eats to some, I feel with a well sourced and well shucked oyster that the product matches price. It’s worth noting that a small and perfectly plump Kusshi oyster has taken four years to grow to its modest size.
Tasting Technique and Slurping Different Species
If you’re eating oysters and there’s an expert on hand, take the opportunity to learn about what you are eating. I find the details fascinating! Beaching will produce brininess. Tumbling of baby oysters will produce a deeper cup. Different oyster varietals can be grown using different techniques and the resulting range of flavours is discernible.
One new thing I learned while I was chatting with Shawn is that the species indigenous to the coast of Vancouver (Olympia oysters) aren’t actually grown here anymore. Decades ago, due to disease and over-harvesting, outside oyster species were brought in. Given the delectability of some of these foreign species, I’m not complaining. For example, I got to try the Totten Virgin oysters from Washington State. The Crassostrea virginica is an East Coast species and they were fat, mild, and fruity.
Shawn told me about the Billion Oyster Project in New York which works to revitalize the once robust oyster population in New York Harbor. Two million pounds of oyster shells have been collected to be used to grow new oysters, and 100 million live oysters have been restored. Oyster shells are heavy and they also hold a lot of carbon that the oysters suck from their environments. This is great for the planet, but is also why the shells should be repurposed. Shawn is actively working in Vancouver to establish a similar project, which would also cultivate our local Olympia oysters again.
As mentioned, Oyster Express might boast the largest oyster selection in Vancouver. Daily, they offer up to ten different kinds, depending on the season and availability. One of the great things about Oyster Express is that they can source oysters from smaller farms as they move through stock quickly and serve a select customer base. I visited just as Oyster Express opened at 4pm. I had a selection of eight oysters to choose from with a ninth arriving that very evening.
Besides offering a wide range of fresh oysters, Oyster Express also serves a prawn cocktail, grilled oysters, French fries, yam fries, and chicken wings. They also carry a selection of wine and beer, as well as a Spicy Caesar. On Wine Wednesdays, there are specials on bottles as well as glasses of wine.