by Claire Lassam | I’m still a little new to dim sum. It was introduced to me about five years ago when I started dating a man whose father was born in Hong Kong. Before then, I didn’t know that I wanted soy sauce at 9am and that barbequed meats and green tea would make me so happy so early in the day. It’s undeniably, irreversibly true. I’m completely converted to Chinese brunch now. I love dim sum.
While I love steamed gai ling with oyster sauce and nearly every kind of dumpling I’ve ever tried (I even liked chicken feet more then I thought I would, though I tried it just to be one of the cool kids), what I love most of all are the steam buns. Just a simple package of dough with a healthy scoop of BBQ pork (my personal favourite) steamed until the dough is soft but not sticky and the pork wants to ooze out by way of the X that marks the spot on top. They should be savoury, deeply flavoured with char, and that magical marinade they put on barbequed pork in Chinatown, something that usually involves soy, Chinese cooking wine, hoisin, and a myriad of spices that no butcher I’ve ever asked has revealed to me.
Which is a long way of saying that I really enjoyed researching for this article. A lot. I feel like I started researching years ago. I’ve had the steam buns at sit-down restaurants, which mean they’re steamed to order and usually piping hot and fresh, and I’ve had them “to go”, where they’ve had to sit for a while. I’ve also had them for dinner, and once I even tried to make them at home, a la Momofuku. They’re hit or miss, depending on where you go.
What I learned on this particular mission was that I really want steam buns at night, preferably with a cocktail. Until recently, my love of them was either a morning thing, a break-from-work-to-grab-a-steam-bun thing, or an I’m-super-hungover-and-nothing-will-cure-it-but-a-steam-bun thing. If anyone could convince me of it being a drinking-a-Manhattan-and-eating-a-steam bun thing, it would be the talented Joel Watanabe, chef at Bao Bei. His are rolled differently, with the flap of dough steamed and then filled more like a taco, which allows it to taste slow-cooked from the pork but also fresh from the welcome addition of sprouts, preserved turnips and sugared peanuts. The dough is flawless, too: soft but not sticky, and more flavourful than most. On the menu, they’re known as mantou, the word for steambun in the Shanxi province of northern China. They are exceptional. You can imagine as much just by looking at the photo above.
But if you’re looking for a bun with your dim sum, your best bet is Jade Dynasty, an unobtrusive little spot on East Pender with all around delicious dim sum (the fried taro balls with duck would rank high on my favourites list). The steam buns are delicious, too. The dough is soft and filled with a heap of meat, all held together in a sauce that’s a deep red from the charred skin of the pork.
It’s leaps and bounds superior to the other buns I ate on this mission; better than Garden Villa, where they tasted processed, and the ones at Kam Wai, which had been steaming for so long that the dough stuck to my teeth and I had to go to the washroom to get it off. Jade’s were better than Floata’s, too, although theirs’ were nicely seasoned and had big chunks of pork. Sun Fresh had a good pork-dough ratio, which is to say it nearly burst with pork, but it was also covered in a thick, gravy-like sauce thickened with so much cornstarch that you could taste it. And much to my disappointment, Maxim’s and Streamland couldn’t give me a fresh steam bun. I had to buy them in packs of 8, and they were all of the exact same type. Streamland said they’d steam mine for me a la minute, but then they went ahead and actually used a microwave. It tasted every bit as processed as it was, with small pieces of pork and far too much dough. It was chewy instead of meltingly tender, as they should be when made to order.
The only place that didn’t make theirs’ to order but was still worth it was New Town. I’ve long been a shopper here because you can grab just one to go at a moment’s notice, which is sometimes necessary in my life. Also, their dough is a little firmer. It holds up, and though not quite as hot as the super fresh ones, they give way when you bite in, revealing mouthfuls of well-seasoned, properly portioned BBQ pork.
So perhaps this mission left me with too many options (I did try to narrow it down by only going to places in Chinatown rather than extending the hunt to Richmond). I might grab a bun from New Town on my way to work and take them from Jade Dynasty during dim sum hours, but for the best steam bun in town, I’ll take mine as a mantou with a drink at Bao Bei.
Claire Lassam is a baker, blogger, and freelance writer based in East Van. She has been cooking and baking her way through the city for nearly five years, working in restaurants ranging from Cioppino’s to Meat & Bread. She currently toils at Beta 5 Chocolates and runs the baking blog Just Something Pretty.
Eggplant softened with soy, garlic and ginger | $4 | Bao Bei Chinese Brasserie | 163 Keefer St.
The GOODS from Bao Bei
Vancouver, BC | We’re looking for a serious cook to work full time in our busy restaurant. Chinese food experience a plus but not necessary. Successful candidate will be well versed in all aspects of the kitchen and will possess a professional attitude. Wage to be discussed. All intereted parties are asked to contact executive chef Joel Watanabe with their resumes at firstname.lastname@example.org. Learn more about Bao Bei after the jump… Read more
We’ve invited one of the first of Vancouver’s new street food vendors, Cartel Taco, to join our GOODS section as a recommended company. They are now proud members of Scout, and as such we will be publishing their news on our front page and hosting a page for them on our list of local and independent goodness. We’d like to take this opportunity to thank them for their support of our little website, and for their awesome tacos!
Psst! If you think your business would be a good fit for Scout, we want to know.
Job posting from Scout supporter Bao Bei
Vancouver, BC | Bao Bei is looking for an organised, hard working cook to run the garde manger station full-time at our busy, award-winning modern Chinese restaurant. 5 years cooking experience desired (Chinese food knowledge a plus but not necessary). Must also be adept on saute section. Committed professionals without attitude need only apply to joelwatanabe2000 [at] yahoo [dot ca]. Find out more about the restaurant after the jump… Read more
Chinatown’s award-winning Bao Bei is now a proud member supporter of Scout. We will be publishing their news on our front page and hosting a page for them in our list of recommended restaurants to check out. We’d like to take this opportunity to thank them for their support of our little website. Click ahead to read on or jump directly to their Scout page here… Read more
by Andrew Morrison | As one of several enRoute magazine’s regional advisors for their annual Top 10 Best New Restaurants in Canada issue, I was not a little stoked this morning to find that one of my favourites for 2010 had cracked the top three (they don’t tell us in advance). Our sincerest congratulations to Tannis Ling and her staff at Chinatown’s Bao Bei. Just making it onto this list is an honour, and being named #2 is huge. Comment on whether or not there were other Vancouver restaurants that should have been recognised and find out which other joints made the grade after the jump… Read more
by Andrew Morrison | Several months ago, Abigail’s Party owner James Iranzad (interview) teamed up with Jesse Grasso and Joel Watanabe (the two kitchen rulers at Chinatown’s Bao Bei) to create “Cartel”, a street cart serving Korean-style tacos.
They’d hoped to win one of the coveted 17 mobile food vendor slots given out in City Hall’s famously messed up pilot project lottery, but no such luck. With concept, brand and menu ready to go, they were forced to wait patiently until granted a location and an operational green light. That assent from on high came late yesterday, and today – their first day of trade – went down swimmingly on the southwest corner of Georgia and Burrard.
The first thing I noticed when I arrived during noon’s final prep was the smell. It was intoxicating. It caused hundreds of hungry passersby on their lunch break to slow down long enough to catch the quick zephyr wiffs. “What are you guys cooking?” was asked just about every ten seconds. You’d think “Korean tacos” would be the least expected answer imaginable, but no one was overheard replying “that’s crazy” or worse, “ew, gross“. The expressions on all the passing faces seemed to say “whatever it is, it smells freakin’ good”. It’s rare that a deadly fine aroma is also unfamiliar. Our brains trick us into thinking we know all smells, but when a new one comes along and it’s so rad that it makes your olfactory toot, it also quickens the pulse.
The tacos come in three guises: pork, beef and vegetarian. Both the beef and the pork are done in the Bulgogi style (a wet Korean marinade, literally “fire meat”). As mentioned, it’s very aromatic stuff. Both meats are local and organic, with the pork from Fraser Valley Farms and the beef from Two Rivers. Thinly shaven, they’re sizzled on a square flat-top before landing on corn tortillas (also local, from Burnaby’s El Comal). Once plated, they’re topped with cilantro, onion and a mild kimchi. The vegetarian version is with mushroom and tofu from Sunrise Organics, but I could give a damn about that (sorry guys).
The prices are reasonable. One double tortilla taco is $3. For two, it’s $5.75; three, $8; and four, $10. I had a pair, and I’m still thinking about them 10 hours later. I’ll talk about the taste in my column on five new and upcoming eateries in the next issue of the Westender. Some food porn above (video) and below (big photos) to tide you over until you bumrush the joint at lunch tomorrow… Read more
It’s possibly only a matter of a day or two (again, crossing my fingers and knocking on wood) before Vancouver gets treated to Bao Bei. I checked it out again last night in its final construction phase, and I can say without any reservation that’s really looking beautiful (see for yourself below). For those of our newer readers who’ve never heard of the place before, the Chinatown restaurant is widely acknowledged in trade circles to be the city’s most highly anticipated room. Here’s what we wrote about it when we first broke the news of its coming last May… Read more
Returned to Bao Bei in Chinatown tonight for another glance. It’s come along plenty in just the last few days. I’m loving the details that have popped up so far: lots of recycled stuff like unique lamp shades in the bar and stools so grand-maternally homey that they couldn’t not have come from your grandma’s house. All the little design choices that have been made to date have been great, and it is hoped that chef Joel Watanabe should start testing in the kitchen soon. Mmm…soupy dumplings, soupy dumplings, soupy dumplings. I am ready for you. Read more
Saturday was Tannis Ling’s last day bartending at Chambar, which means things are going to be accelerating at the Chinatown construction site (163 Keefer St.) that will eventually become her first restaurant, Bao Bei (Mandarin for “darling”). Scout broke the news of its coming back on May 16th, the day after Ling took possession. Take a look at the photos below, keeping in mind that it’s still a shell and that the horrific burnt orange colour (what a friend calls “seven shades of Tuscan regret”) is from the old tenant, and is in the process of being primed over to eventually become a soft white. Read more
Tuesday to Saturday 5.30pm – Midnight.
Open Mondays from Nov. 29 – Dec. 31.
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Owner: Tannis Ling
General Manager: Chen-Wei Lee
Head Chef: Joël Watanabe
Bar Manager: Derek Granton
About Bao Bei
Meaning “precious” in Mandarin, Bao Bei opened in January of 2010 in the heart of Chinatown with the hope of recreating that special charm that the area used to have. We specialize in rustic Chinese small plates meant for a more intimate dining experience. Chef Joël Watanabe, utilizes French techniques and the Japanese eye for plating and presentation to refine traditional flavours, creating unique dishes that maintain authenticity yet display a modern approach. All our ingredients are locally sourced, organic, hormone free and sustainable and not to worry, we do not use MSG in anything. Derek Granton oversees the bar with a diverse beer list, a succinct but smart wine list and an imaginative cocktail program using ingredients found in neighbouring Chinatown herbal shops that owner, Tannis Ling, grew up with. The room is a labour of love with elements of a traditional French brasserie intertwined with vintage Chinese motifs, clean modern lighting and playful details that nod to the owner’s family. Our aim is to stuff you with yummy food and drink and serve it to you in the most genuine, sincere manner.
EnRoute Magazine: 2nd Best New Restaurant in Canada
Georgia Straight: Best New Restaurant
Chinese Restaurant Awards: Diner’s Choice Best New Modern Chinese Restaurant
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Hamilton & Dunsmuir (effective May 2011)
The People That Make It Happen
James Iranzad – Partner (center)
Joel Watanabe – Chef/Partner (right)
Jesse Grasso – Chef/Partner (left)
About Cartel Taco
Cartel Taco is the first project by the Cartel Street Food Company, the rolling obsession of its three founders and their collective forty years of restaurant life. Cartel Taco specializes in hand-making Mexican fusion tacos, using quality meats prepared in the traditional Korean style of Bulgogi. Using grass-fed, free range beef ribeye from Pemberton Meadows Farm and free range pork from Fraser Valley Farms, our meat is marinated and braised before being barbecued and served quickly to order on freshly baked corn tortillas with finely chopped onion, cilantro & kimchi accompaniment. All Cartel ingredients are made or sourced locally, including our kimchi and hand-made tortillas (safe for gluten-free diets), and our amazing salsas are prepared from scratch daily in the Cartel kitchen. For the summer season we’ll also have an excellent fresh papaya salad with kimchi vinaigrette & toasted pumpkin seeds.
“…these are solid fusion tacos that are priced right…” – Alexandra Gill
“With Cartel Taco, it’s like Korea and Mexico had gone and eloped and found happiness.” – Mia Stainsby
“I was thrilled by the unique flavours and aromas. Almost as good are the prices” – Andrew Morrison