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By Michael White
Some of my earliest and fondest food memories are of a Chinese-Canadian restaurant to which my parents would take my brother and I when all of us were much younger than we are now.
Ding Ho — in Hamilton, Ontario — (the name is a phonetic simplification of “ding hao,” roughly meaning “the best”) was emblematic of the sort of Western-style Chinese restaurants that flourished in North America throughout the 1960s and ’70s. The capacious, multi-sectioned dining room was typically bustling with white suburban families, all of us still in thrall to the revelation of what we didn’t yet know was thoroughly inauthentic fare, conceived to push the most vulnerable buttons of our white suburban appetites. It may be a deception of nostalgia or the blur of too many decades, but my recollection is that Ding Ho’s renditions of the dishes that would soon achieve food-court ubiquity — sweet-and-sour chicken balls; garlic spareribs; wonton soup; Cantonese chow mein — were better than any I’ve had since. Everything was better than it needed to be, and the product of a kitchen that knew what it was doing (I saw its doors swing open often enough to know the only non-Chinese faces at Ding Ho belonged to the customers).
I’ve come to think of Jingle Bao — which opened in late 2019, at the northern edge of Denman Street where the West End bleeds into Coal Harbour — as a 21st-century notion of what made Ding Ho and its ilk so groundbreaking (and so addictive) half a century ago. I mean this as a compliment. Its goal is to take what was once somewhat exotic and refashion it — via clever branding, a gimmick or two, and unabashed deliciousness — for a new mass audience. I wouldn’t be surprised if its owners have global expansion in mind.
Jingle Bao’s menu isn’t as breathtakingly all-encompassing as those that once were standard (and, in some places, still are) at the Western Chinese restaurants of old, but variety is a large part of the objective. There are more than 65 items here, divided between categories including Appetizers, Dumplings, Dim Sum (many of which could pass as Appetizers), Main Dish, Soup, and Rice.
But Jingle Bao’s marquee offering, it won’t surprise you to learn, is bao. This, however, isn’t referring to the steamed-bun sandwiches you might be familiar with from Vancouver mainstays like Bao Down and Heritage Asian Eatery, but to xiao long bao (or XLB), better known in this part of the world as soup dumplings. Conceptually simple yet painstaking to prepare, each multi-pleated dumpling is filled with pork, beef, seafood or vegetables, and a piping-hot broth that bursts forth when its dough encasement is punctured by your bite. (Eating them is itself something of an art form.)
Jingle Bao drew attention from the moment it opened its doors for what it calls “rainbow” xiao long bao ($9 for five, or $11 for the “magnificent seven”): an assortment of dumplings, most featuring a Crayola-bright skin (apparently the result of all-natural colouring agents), and each with a different filling, such as pork, prawn, mushroom, and spinach. The mark of an exemplary bao is a thin, virtually translucent skin that yields to the merest intrusion of a tooth. Jingle Bao’s dumplings are relatively sturdy, which may lead purists to dismiss them out of hand, but their flavours are very good and they stand up well to reheating at home — a serious plus in these takeout-centric times. True to its name, the “Supersize” xiao long bao ($8) is a single dumpling that fills an entire steamer basket, its skin already pierced when it arrives with a squeezable syringe of Zhenjiang vinegar (a soup dumpling’s traditional dipping accompaniment) and a straw through which you drink the broth.
Does this smack of novelty? Yes. Is that the point? Absolutely. Jingle Bao’s management has acknowledged its bao are ideal for Instagram, and the hundreds of posts thus far (in a year when restaurant traffic has been cut off at the knees) suggest the public is indeed amused.
Equally photographable and almost as outrageous is Crispy Snowflake Dumplings ($11), a half dozen gyoza-style dumplings (filled with pork, beef, chicken, fish or vegetables) conjoined by their pan-crisped exteriors, decorated with chili mayo and a showering of scallions and edible flowers. It beautifully, shamelessly exemplifies what a friend once described to me as “slutty food” — a dish whose existence is predicated solely upon appealing to your most primal cravings. These dumplings have it all, or as near to it all that it makes no difference: crunch, chew, salt, spice, a hint of herbaceousness, colour…. It reminds me of nothing so much as Taco Bell’s peerlessly slutty Fries Supreme. Again, I mean this as a compliment.
If none of the above piques your interest, you must have an aversion to fun. But you should also know that Jingle Bao offers familiar comforts by the dozen, including four types of fried rice ($14 each), steaming bowls of noodle soup ($9 to $14), and classic “Which decade is this?” menu warhorses such as orange chicken ($13), sliced beef with seasonal greens ($14), and — gasp! — BBQ pork chow mein ($14)! Vegetarians, for a change, will also be spoiled for choice.
Everything is very pretty. Everything is very happy-making, in the way that affordable, approachable restaurants such as these always purport is their aim but all too rarely deliver.
(Photo: Kley Klemens)