Everyday over 1000 irresistible wontons come out of one of the city’s tiniest kitchens.
The place is called Aroma Bistro and despite being less than a year old (it opened in November 2019), customers have been known to wait for more than two hours to get in, it’s been praised by Instagrammers and CJOB’s Kevin Burgin, while the takeout and delivery orders don’t stop from 11 a.m. until close. (Indeed, while we were filming at 9:30 a.m., the first SkipTheDishes order came up in anticipation of the 11 a.m. opening).
Aroma Bistro is helmed by Chef/Owner Louie Lui (who goes by Louie) and Sous Chef Weilin Cao (who goes by Harry). The duo describes their dishes as fusing Western technique – as learned during their stints at Red River College’s (RRC) culinary school – with flavours from their Chinese home cities of Hong Kong (Louie) and Chengdu, Sichuan province (Harry), particularly when it comes to these highly-rated wontons.
“The Sichuan wonton is super spicy,” said Chef Louie. “They put a lot of the Sichuan pepper inside and it can make your tongue numb – even me, I cannot accept too much of it. So, I change a little bit and I put some Hong Kong sauce inside… that special sauce is sweet, and not too salty… but you get lots of layers of flavour,” said Louie.
“We try to do what we learn at Red River – Western ingredients and method… but utilizing our Chinese background. I have the sense to think about what will people love more easily, [rather] than the traditional version.”
In the above video, you can watch how they make their two most popular dishes, Aroma red chili oil wontons, and the deep-fried pork wonton (both just $8).
Not shown in the video, but also highly recommended, is the Hong Kong Style French toast ($7), of which 50 are prepped and served per day. This brunch dish gets double-fried and egg battered, coming out from the second fry nearly double in size before being slathered in a sweet sauce made of condensed milk. Liu says most customers familiar with the dish order it regularly and quickly eat it in their car as soon as it comes out of the kitchen.
Altogether, Aroma Bistro’s quaint kitchen serves on average 300 takeout dishes a day right now during the pandemic, with the two chefs cooking almost non-stop for 14 straight hours, from 9 a.m. to close.
Louie moved to Winnipeg from Hong Kong in 2017, where he had previously been an interior designer and businessman. “I always loved cooking since I was a teenager, but in Hong Kong, I didn’t have too many opportunities to go into culinary school. There I had chosen my second-favourite subject which was design, because I love artwork.”
After working in that field for a decade, he ended up selling his business shares and decided to pursue his cooking ambitions. “After saving money I decided to change and make my dreams come true. And I started to search, and some of my friends were telling me Canada was a great place to learn cooking.”
A few Google searches later, he settled on Winnipeg, where he was soon enrolled in RRC's culinary school.
“After school, I used to practice four to five hours a day… plus English is not my first language, so I had to brush up my English for all the paper work.”
Just a few months after graduating at the top of his class in 2019, Louie opened Aroma Bistro and quickly brought Harry on board, noting that Harry's version of Sichuan wontons would be a great platform to inspire a menu.
During his RRC time, Louie also cooked at Bergmann’s on Lombard and Bonfire Bistro. At the later, he was bit by the fresh pasta making bug, a skill he employs at Aroma to adapt that original wonton recipe, along with the occasional house made Shanghai noodle.
Between the culinary school, Bergmann’s and Bonfire, Louie says he has found several cooking mentors who have continued to support him now that he’s out on his own. This includes chef David Bergmann, who is a regular at Aroma, along with RRC Culinary Instructors Chef Karl Oman and Chef Scott Ball. He also sites Chef Ed Lam, another prominent Winnipeg Chef originally from Hong Kong, for advising him on how to make the most of their small kitchen space after Lam and members of the Yujiro team came to Aroma for Hong Kong-style French toast.
“We are always thankful for the people supporting us,” said Louie. “We have people traveling from the north and west area [of the city] for 30 or 40 minutes... We have some people travel two hours to come here and we had customers come from Vancouver who said, “oh Louie, why don’t you open one in Vancouver because we don’t have that food here.”
With business nearly being maxed out at this location on St. Mary’s Road (there’s only so many orders they can fulfill in such a small space), Louie has aspirations on opening a second location in the Garden City area of the city where he lives and where many of his customers are traveling from.
Until then, this is the only spot in the city to get these coveted wontons, along with other great dishes that mix Cantonese cuisine with a world of influences.
Aroma Bistro is open Tuesday to Sunday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. and located at 741 St. Mary’s Road. It is open for pickup, dine-in (room for six only) and does city-wide delivery via numerous apps.