163 Keefer Street
“Modern is the new Fusion.” I don’t know how many times I have heard this glib and cynical phrase in the last few months. The recent launch of modern yet “authentic” Asian restaurants such as Bao Bei, The Keefer Bar, Oru, and a few others have this city’s foodies sitting up at full attention. Are these places at the beachhead of a new era in Asian dining here in town? This city is certainly not crying out for authenticity like most of North America’s urban centers. Vancouver has an embarrassment of riches in terms of great Asian food. So what makes these places so special?
One look around at Bao Bei provides a clue. The place is hopping…and it is a predominantly non-Asian crowd. It sounds so incorrect even as I write this….but there it is: the food appeals to non-Asians. A more charitable way to say it is that part of Bao Bei’s success to date can be found in their approachable renditions of “authentic” Chinese food. It is in the same vein as Wild Rice on East Pender which is perhaps the true prototype for this type of dining in this town.
Another reason for what I see as boosterism around Bao Bei could also be in part a desire to see Chinatown revitalized to its former glory (Bao Bei and The Keefer are virtually next door to each other on the slowly gentrifying Keefer Street). This part of Chinatown is on the periphery of downtown and certainly not as disheveled as areas just east and north of here.
Back to the food….
Granted, I’m clearly not part of their target market, but I’ll offer my thoughts anyway. Bao Bei’s claim to authenticity certainly falls a little short since they have taken some liberties with some of the preparations. In terms of quality, it is a mixed bag….some of the food is quite good, but some is poorly executed. The best items include the pork braise and the pork shao bing sandwich. You will most certainly find better examples of all the dishes served here elsewhere (even at some of the Asian food-courts around town). The potstickers are a bit of disaster. Each time I have come here, I have been served with something that looks like the dish pictured below. Misshapen, unevenly cooked, and (the horror) punctured. The dumplings taste fine, but with even holes-in-the-wall serving much more refined examples, I have to wonder why they keep it on the menu.
I do have to say that Bao Bei excels at cocktails old and new. Some of these new cocktails are innovations by proprietor Tannis Ling who plied her trade at Chambar prior to Bao Bei. Of note is her new signature drink Kai Yuen Sour (named after her auntie). It is made with a dried plum infused simple syrup, Forty Creek rye, egg whites and lemon juice. Very good. With that one drink, I have found a good reason to keep returning to Bao Bei – I will come for the drinks (though I will most likely pass on the food).