Middle Eastern Cuisine

Review: Superbaba

Watch the video review here!

By Michael White

Did you know the exact origin of falafel has proven impossible to determine? I didn’t until I sat down to write this review.

What historians do know (unless they don’t) is that over 130 years ago, one or more clever individuals (likely Egyptian, unless they weren’t) lit upon the idea of mashing together fava beans with herbs and spices, forming the resultant paste into balls, and frying them until they became crisp and golden brown. Word of this culinary innovation — delicious, nutritious, simple and economical — spread throughout the Middle East, and various populations adapted the recipe to suit whatever legume was at hand, most prominently chickpeas.

Flash forward to today, when a minimum-wage Pita Pit employee dispassionately passes to a hungry but perhaps equally dispassionate customer a sandwich containing a handful of angrily hard falafel pucks that arrived in a freezer bag and were reheated in the microwave.

All cuisines are born of environment, ingenuity and love. And all cuisines are destined to eventually become a product of cold-blooded opportunism, their constituent parts debased until we bite into something we implicitly understand is supposed to be delicious yet can no longer recall why. Middle Eastern cuisine is among the most intensely flavourful and aromatic on Earth, and here in Vancouver there are some places — Nuba, Aleph and Jamjar among them — that properly honour it. But there are a great many more who seem to not be disrespecting it so much as seeking revenge upon it: dry, bland shawarma meat; dry, bland falafel balls; pita bread from the supermarket (dry and bland also, of course); vegetables left to wither and fade behind the glass of a warm display case. Kley and I almost broke up in the annoyed, bloated-yet-still-hungry aftermath of a takeout meal from one such establishment near English Bay. (Seriously: fuck that joint.)

But now Vancouver has Superbaba and, save for matters of convenience (as yet, the city has only one location, at Main and Broadway, and delivery isn’t an option), we have no acceptable reason to settle for bad Middle Eastern food here again.

Superbaba is the brainchild of various people whose success is built upon laser-focused attention to detail: Robbie Kane, whose Café Medina forever elevated Vancouver’s expectations of brunch; the principals behind Tacofino, which began as a food truck and is now a city-straddling empire; and chef Abdallah El Chami, who developed a reputation for transcendent West Coast-inspired Lebanese dishes at various pop-up dinners.

Merely glancing over its menu, one wouldn’t necessarily expect there to be anything that sets Superbaba apart from scores of other shawarma-and-falafel takeout spots. (The restaurant space was designed to accommodate dine-in seating as well, but then COVID, etc., etc….) A list of both wraps ($9.95-$12.70) and bowls ($11.25-$13.95) offers identical options between them: chicken, steak, falafel, or sabich (battered and fried eggplant — which, admittedly, is far from common). But El Chami has brought the keen imagination and first-rate ingredients that fired his pop-ups to everything served here. Meats are beautifully seasoned, and imbued with the crunch and smoke that only come from proper grilling (mercifully, the chicken is flavourful thigh only). The interiors of the falafel are stunningly green and herbaceous, thanks to plenty of parsley and cilantro, and they’re never dropped into the fryer until your order is called. Sabich, whether in a bowl or a wrap, is simply gastronomic nirvana: Japanese eggplant encased in a proprietary tempura batter that renders the humble tuber an object of intense craving. Dip it in the accompanying cup of tahini and zhug (a Yemenite cilantro-based hot sauce) and curse yourself for not having ordered an additional four-piece side ($5).

There are grace notes of care, inventiveness and generosity everywhere, from the fries — fries! — tucked into the chicken and steak wraps, to pitas baked in house, to the perfect six-minute egg (its circumference rendered pink from the same brine used to make their pickled radish) and three harmonious sauces that top the sabich bowl. As for the halva-cornflake cookie ($3.15): package and sell these at 7-Eleven, please.

It must be noted that while Superbaba’s prices are, at most, a few dollars higher than their menu counterparts at a typical Middle Eastern spot, the quality here is incomparable and portions are beyond generous — we had leftovers of everything and we’re by no means restrained eaters.

The first Superbaba opened in Victoria in 2017, and I’d like to think its Vancouver debut points toward ongoing expansion. Café Medina is testament to Kane’s ability to amass a crew that can knock out hundreds of plates daily with stunning consistency, while Tacofino is a model for duplicating (and subtly tweaking) a successful formula across multiple locations. Between those forces and El Chami’s creativity, Superbaba could set a new standard for Middle Eastern food at a chain level. It would be no less than what this much-loved but oft-mistreated cuisine has long deserved. In the meantime, I’ll happily go out of my way, again and again, for more of this.

2419 Main St.
eatsuperbaba.com / Instagram: @eatsuperbaba
Take-out only; order in person, by phone or via the website

(Photo: Kley Klemens)

Indonesian Cuisine

Review: Bakmie Amei

Watch the video review here!

By Michael White

Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, scores of articles have been published — in the New York Times, Eater, and elsewhere — about the sudden proliferation of ghost kitchens, largely due to restaurateurs who have had to “pivot” (surely an overlooked contender for 2020’s Word of the Year) to a delivery- or takeout-only model, to compensate for dining rooms that were forced to close.

But the ghost-kitchen model is by no means new, and it isn’t exclusively an outgrowth of previously existing eateries (nor of the pandemic). For years, ghost kitchens have provided a solution to the increasingly prohibitive costs of building and operating a restaurant, and to home-based cooks of modest ambition who want nothing more than to share their culinary labours with the public. (See also: underground supper clubs — now, like so much else this past year, a distant memory from Before All This Shit Happened.)

The ghost-kitchen concept has been especially valuable to ethnic populations whose cuisine can’t easily be found at bricks-and-mortar establishments. In Jewkarta’s first review, I pointed out that Bali Thai, in the International Village food court, is one of the only places in Greater Vancouver (if not all of British Columbia) to find classic Indonesian dishes such as beef rendang and nasi goreng. Which is why this region’s small, close-knit Indonesian community has long made a practice of selling its cooking to one another via invitation-only social-media groups and other under-the-radar means. Some of the most pleasurable meals I’ve eaten in the past year have come from private citizens I’ve never met, prepared in houses and apartments whose locations I don’t know.

Bakmie Amei, which launched in November 2020, is very much in the ghost-kitchen mold. But there are some key differences here that distinguish it from the clandestine operations of its Indonesian neighbours. The owners — a husband-and-wife team, originally from Jakarta — share years of experience in the restaurant industry. They sought out and acquired all the legal approvals needed for a domestic kitchen engaged in commercial activity, including FoodSafe Level 1 certification. And, most noteworthy of all, they want everyone — not just fellow Indonesians — to discover them.

And let me tell you: You should. Oh, my god, you should.

The star of Bakmie Amei’s menu is, appropriately, bakmie (also spelled bakmi). Bakmie, if you don’t know (I certainly didn’t until Kley, the Jakarta-born half of Jewkarta, schooled me), is a beloved Indonesian dish in which noodles are topped with meat and vegetables, and accompanied with broth. (So — soup? Sure. But what a soup!) In Muslim-majority Indonesia, chicken is usually the featured protein, in accordance with halal. Historically, “bakmie” — as opposed to simply “mie” — was code for noodles that contain either pork meat or pork grease, but nowadays it merely indicates that the dish’s broth is served on the side for the diner to pour over top at his or her discretion.

Bakmie Amei’s menu is tightly focused, to say the least: four variations of bakmie (each $12 regular; $15 large), plus pangsit, which even I was able to immediately recognize as fried wontons ($5 regular; $8 large). True to its name, pork plays a starring role in each of them, and broth comes alongside. Thanks to the skills they honed while working at a ramen restaurant, Bakmie Amei make all of their noodles by hand, and allows them to rest for one day before serving them to customers. Somehow, they seem to have arrived at a perfect formula for ensuring the noodles remain at optimal texture after travelling to their destination. Ours were exemplary — yielding exactly enough to the bite, and subtly imbued with the flavours of their companions in the sturdy reusable soup bowls in which they were delivered.

Every ingredient in each of the bakmie was the obvious result of great skill and attention to detail. Pork was outstandingly seasoned wherever it appeared, whether in Bakmie Laksa with shrimp, hard-boiled egg and a senses-filling coconut curry broth, or affectionately assaulting your palate with lord knows how many chiles in the showstopping Bakmie Rica-Rica. We could have easily destroyed twice as many of the pangsit — which maintained epic crunch hours after arriving — without blinking. Altogether, this was the sort of meal for which you become nostalgic while it’s still happening, and we’ve been craving more of it regularly throughout the days since. (In fact, right now as I write this.)

The couple behind Bakmie Amei would like to open a storefront eventually, when restaurants in general have ceased to be an unwitting reminder of the all-embracing fucked-upness of life on Planet Earth. In the meantime, the only means of bringing their food to your face is to visit their Instagram or Facebook page, text your order, and arrange a pick-up day and location. (Locations rotate weekly.) Payment is by Interac e-transfer only. Of course this isn’t the most convenient way to acquire sustenance, especially at a time when countless restaurants are bending over backward to deliver directly to you home. But Bakmie Amei is worth going out of your way. This is some of the most wildly delicious food I’ve eaten in recent memory, and it must be pointed out that the prices are far below what quality and quantity justify. This humble ghost kitchen will haunt your appetite in the best possible way from here forward.

Bakmie Amei
No address; pick-up only at designated locations
Text or WhatsApp: 778-233-1975
Instagram: @bakmieamei / Facebook: facebook.com/bakmieamei

(Photo: Kley Klemens)

American, Barbecue, Southern

Review: Slim’s BBQ (formerly Dixie’s BBQ)

Watch the video review here!

By Michael White

The gutted, dark, seemingly unmanned former dining room onto which I open the door of Dixie’s BBQ suggests this is yet one more Vancouver restaurant in its death throes as a result of COVID-19. A table strategically positioned across the threshold prevents me from entering, and so I stand on the sidewalk and curiously survey this unexpected scene. At first glance, I can’t determine where the sombre desolation of East Hastings ends and the storefront from which I’ve been instructed to fetch dinner begins.

But this isn’t at all what it appears to be. A happy dude trots out from the rear kitchen — where, as if providing a metaphor for the business, light still shines — and greets me with all the warmth our surroundings lack. The premises are undergoing extensive renovations, he explains, but takeout and delivery are operating as normal; the masses are confined to their homes, and they want heaping containers of Texas-style barbecue meat transported directly to their mouths. He thanks me sincerely for collecting my order personally — it means a delivery platform isn’t taking a cut of their profits — and showers me with news. Dixie’s, he explains, is expanding its kitchen into what was once the dining room in order to provide commissary space for other local restauranteurs — a much-needed utility at a time when the “ghost kitchen” concept has never been more popular, owing to the impracticality of paying rent for a public seating area that won’t be fully populated again anytime soon. Despite being, at most, a two-minute conversation, I leave in a better mood than when I’d arrived, and I had already been in a good mood. Whereas so many restaurant proprietors and servers can’t help but (perhaps unconsciously) spray their understandable anger and exhaustion into innocent customers’ faces nowadays, this Dixie’s delegate made me feel genuinely welcome and appreciated. That appreciation was reciprocal.

As it happens, Dixie’s closed its front of house long before the pandemic began, in July 2019. Owners Christina Cottell and Shoel Davidson determined that the majority of their business was coming from takeout, delivery and catering, so eliminating the overheads and headaches of a dining room wasn’t a terribly difficult decision. Although they couldn’t have foreseen the events that would swallow the world eight months later, it left them in a favourable position, and now they intend to use that position to lift up others in their industry. So far, so admirable.

My elevated mood continued when Kley and I began tearing into our order at home. We’re admitted latecomers to the party — Dixie’s opened in 2016, and has been the subject of rave reviews and word-of-mouth from the beginning. It’s understandable that it was so warmly received, if for no other reason than Vancouver has long suffered from a dearth of good barbecue. (I’ve never been convinced by a local chainlet, which I won’t name, that has persisted for almost two decades.) This is in part because, despite its reputation as humble blue-collar cuisine, proper barbecue is the result of exacting techniques and no small investment. A wood-fired smoker (as opposed to an electric one) is expensive to acquire and install, and it burns — literally — through an exceptional amount of costly lumber. And once the myriad nuances of smoking animal flesh have been mastered, the fruits of your labour have to be served in a timely manner. Barbecue meat eaten either before or after its time (which can be a matter of as little as an hour) is a tragedy that no amount of sauce can disguise.

Although our bounty of exactingly prepared beast had to travel from the Downtown Eastside to the West End and was then reheated in a garden-variety apartment oven, we immediately understood the fuss about Dixie’s. Our smoked brisket had lost some of its juices in transit but none of its flavour and tenderness, while gorgeously crusted pork ribs, imbued down to the bone with a subtle peach-chipotle glaze (in accordance with Central Texas tradition, Dixie’s doesn’t slather its meats in sauce), left us grasping for superlatives and second helpings. Smoked hot links, made with both brisket and pork, surprised us with their senses-filling melange of spices, dominated by curry powder that led these sausages far astray from the Southern U.S. and into Middle Eastern territory. Is this typical? Is it correct? Don’t know, don’t care.

We would have loved to also try the twice-fried chicken and the smoked pork and the cornbread and the mac & cheese and perhaps one of the sandwiches, but we’re only two people, and at least one of us lives in fear of a metabolism that hasn’t so much slowed with age as laid down and pressed its Life Alert button.

That cordial guy who rung up my order also disclosed during our brief transaction that Dixie’s would soon be consolidating somehow with Main Street’s perennially popular Rumpus Room, and that a rebranding might be imminent. And so it proved: Less than 24 hours before this review was to be published, it was announced that Dixie’s is soon becoming Slim’s BBQ, which will in fact outright replace the Rumpus Room beginning the week of January 25; a weeklong soft opening precedes the official launch on February 1. Much, if not all, of the Dixie’s menu will live on at Slim’s, as will many of the interior fixtures from the original dining room. No matter what the location or what it calls itself, I’ll pursue these smoke signals wherever they come from.

Slim’s BBQ
2301 Main St.
Instagram: @meatatslimsbbq (Website coming soon)
Delivery and takeout info forthcoming

(Photo: Kley Klemens)

American, Brunch, Canadian, West Coast

Mini Review: brunch at Cactus Club Cafe

By Michael White

Jewkarta was founded upon two key criterion: (1) we highlight independent Greater Vancouver restaurants; (2) we pay for our meals, and our favour can’t be bought.

Which isn’t to say we’re above being whores if an offer appeals to us, so long as we confess to having accepted it. So, when Cactus Club Cafe offered us an opportunity to try its new weekend brunch menu at the English Bay location, we replied, “Is this Saturday soon enough?”

Some people turn their noses up at Cactus, but the Vancouver-spawned “casual fine” chain achieved its multi-million-dollar success (and has repeatedly claimed Gold in the Best Chain category of the Vancouver Magazine Restaurant Awards) for a reason. From Victoria to Toronto, it always punches above its weight, delivering accessible but expertly balanced flavours and presentation with stunning consistency. (Side note: Jewkarta’s first date was at the Coal Harbour location, and our experience was good enough to nullify a somewhat disastrous post-meal first kiss.)  

At first glance, Cactus’s brunch menu is surprising in its brevity and simplicity, suggesting none of the subtle but inventive flourishes for which longtime advising chef Rob Feenie is renowned: three different eggs benny (traditional, avocado, and prawn); two brunch bowls that riff on their dinner/lunch menu’s hugely popular Modern Bowl; an eggs-bacon-potatoes plate; a fried-egg sandwich; and little Belgian-style waffles. The End. (Of course, various espresso drinks and daytime-appropriate cocktails are also available.)

Fortunately, while the menu itself lacks surprises, what did surprise us was the extent to which the deliciousness of everything makes up for that. Avocado Benny ($15.75), served on good multigrain bread rather than the time-honoured English muffin, was exemplary, the eggs perfectly poached and accompanied with the most ethereal hollandaise either of us can recall having anywhere in Vancouver. The “smashed” potatoes alongside were what all diner potatoes aspire to be: crunchy exteriors yielding to tender innards, showered with enough salt that we didn’t need to reach for the shaker.

Meanwhile, the Brunch Power Bowl ($15), which sounds annoyingly virtuous (it’s vegetarian; a vegan variation is also offered), was dynamite: an artfully presented, perfectly calibrated jumble of those same poached eggs in the company of quinoa, diced avocado and roasted yam, corn, bell pepper, shredded kale, and halved grape tomatoes. The contrasting acidity of house-made salsa, chipotle aioli and pickled red onion brought everything together like the stereotypical chef’s kiss. This is a dish that is more than the sum of its parts.

Despite being so clearly inspired by nearby Café Medina they should pay royalties, the Belgian waffles ($4.50 each) were the sort of thing you find yourself craving again later in the day — hot, betraying the explosive crunch of pearl sugar, and with a sidecar of real whipped cream. Choose from one of three toppings: salted caramel, berry compote, or maple syrup ($1.25).

At the time of this writing, Cactus is offering brunch at two locations only — English Bay and Burnaby’s Station Square — but the aim is to expand to other outlets if it proves popular enough. Despite the pandemic, brunch remains a competitive sport in Vancouver for which the masses are willing to wait a long time in the rain. Cactus is a welcome new addition to the landscape — so much so that we’d happily pay with our own money next time. We may be part-time whores, but we have principles.

Cactus Club Cafe
various locations
cactusclubcafe.com / Instagram: @cactusclubcafe

(Photo: Kley Klemens)

Mexican, Mexican American, Tacos

Review: The Pawn Shop YVR

Watch the video review here!

By Michael White

Arguably no Vancouver street betrays the local economic and social impacts of the pandemic as nakedly as the Granville Strip. The five blocks between Robson and Drake streets — especially south of Nelson — have been cosmically ugly for as long as most of us can remember. Not as existentially depressing as, say, Main and Hastings, but a top-rank urban eyesore nevertheless — dirty and charmless and seemingly disgusted with itself. To my knowledge, the City has never initiated any meaningful attempts to beautify it, presumably because there is no point: every weekend, hundreds of suburban dipshits swarm the Strip, to drink and to fight and to projectible vomit across its sidewalks and onto its storefronts. Or at least they did, until COVID-19 put the brakes to that, as it did to so much other human activity. (Of course, it didn’t stop all of them. Some dipshits can never be stopped their dipshitting.) And so, what was once merely unattractive is now both unattractive and barren — a debauched party from which everyone went home after trashing the house.

This is the ailing environment in which The Pawn Shop exists and, similar to countless other restaurants here and worldwide, is currently struggling to hold on. The Pawn Shop (or, to use its full unwieldy name, The Pawn Shop YVR) is doubly cursed in that it was purpose-built for the Strip and those who frequent it: young club-hoppers and nearby office workers seeking uncomplicated tacos, burritos, and tequila-based cocktails with which to either stoke the celebratory fires of a wild night out or to cushion the blow of workday drudgery. The room — heavily graffitied walls, high-top tables, dim lighting, not a single soft surface to absorb the din — is of a piece with the food. It isn’t most people’s idea of a destination eatery, but if you happen to be in the neighbourhood for the reasons most people come to this neighbourhood, in all probability it’s exactly what you want.

The Pawn Shop bills itself as “East L.A. inspired,” which is a bold claim — some of the most authentic and savagely delicious Mexican food to be found outside of Mexico is in Los Angeles communities such as El Sereno and nearby Boyle Heights. This isn’t that. (The Mexican, one block north, is closer to the mark.) What The Pawn Shop is, however, is a very good — occasionally excellent —purveyor of the sort of Mexican-American go-tos that make white people (this one included) very happy when alcohol is flowing and the day’s miseries are soon to be forgotten. The dining room, so crucial to the full Pawn Shop experience, is quieter nowadays, of course, due to reduced capacity and social-distancing measures — a stark contrast to the shoulder-to-shoulder atmosphere of the Before Times. But our takeout experience (we tried both pick-up and delivery) revealed that their fare travels well, and is a great complement to yet another evening on the sofa watching whatever Netflix drivel best soothes your frazzled pandemic nerves.

The Pawn Shop offers 10 different tacos, five of which are “O.G.” (meaning traditional; three for $10.95) and the rest “bougee” (presumably meaning they have ideas above their station; three for $13.95). Carnita, Al Pastor and Chicken Tinga deliver what you expect and likely want: tender marinated meats; acidic counterpoints (cilantro, grilled pineapple, raw onion); small, pliable flour tortillas. We wish the salsa had delivered more heat (or that we’d been offered jalapenos to compensate), but the flavours were harmonious and the textural contrasts on point. Best of the lot was Crispy Avocado (one of two vegetarian tacos), in which the millennially beloved fruit is panko-crusted and deep-fried, its mild unctuousness melding beautifully with shredded white cabbage, pico de gallo, and salsa verde.

We were especially enthusiastic about our quesadilla ($15.95), an oversized land mine of starch and fat stuffed with beef brisket (one of six options) and, crucially, an immobilizing bog of melted cheese. Were we meant to receive sour cream alongside the (we repeat, too mild) salsa? We didn’t. But no matter, because we found enough additional ballast in the Big Bird Burrito ($15.95), the star ingredient of which is breaded buffalo chicken. This is roughly as near to bona fide Mexican cuisine as the Doritos Locos Taco — but fuck it. This, again, isn’t the point.

The Pawn Shop is probably best experienced as part of a large group, the better to explore the extensive selection of shareables from the appetizer list, which includes sundry other deep-fried things (cheese tots, jalapeno poppers, tempura wings, vegan cauliflower florets for that one virtuous person who tagged along; $9.95 and up) and, naturally, a nachos platter the size of a postmature baby ($14.95-$24.95). Half a dozen flavours of margarita, fishbowl drinks and “spiked slushes” do what they’re meant to do, as are an array of tall-boy cans from independent breweries. The Pawn Shop is doing its best to draw you in, including a generous Happy Hour featuring $4.95 drinks and $1.99 tacos (after a minimum initial order). If you have a trusted bubble to accompany you, this might be just the place to enjoyably kill a few hours before returning to the safety of your home. Or do what we did: Bring home a heaving bag of much too much, and assault your already abused digestive system with the leftovers at breakfast time. To quote a very wise song out of context: It’s not right, but it’s OK.

The Pawn Shop YVR
117 Granville St.
thepawnshopyvr.com / Instagram: thepawnshopyvr
Delivery platforms: DoorDash, Uber Eats

(Photo: Kley Klemens)

Asian Fusion, Chinese Cuisine, Taiwanese Cuisine

Review: Jingle Bao

Watch the video review here!

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.

Jingle Bao
774 Denman St.
jinglebao.com / Instagram: @jinglebao_restaurant
Delivery platforms: Ritual, Skip the Dishes, Uber Eats

(Photo: Kley Klemens)  

Italian, Pizza

Review: Anthem Pizza

Watch the video review here!

By Michael White

Is pizza something to be taken seriously? You may not think so, and fair enough.

Pizza, after all, is one of the most democratic, easily accessible foodstuffs we have. Whether you have billions of dollars to your name or are one lapsed paycheque from eviction, you probably have the means to acquire some. Not even “expensive” pizza is expensive in the grand scheme. (I don’t count the sort of three- and four-figure stunt pies that come bedecked with gold leaf or a forest’s worth of black truffle. Those exist only for bragging rights, not the pleasure of eating.) What could be serious about something available to everyone, virtually everywhere? Pizza is so lacking in seriousness that Pizza Hut exists — the physical manifestation of a joke, albeit a cruel one. (And before you accuse me of snobbery, know that I’m a Domino’s apologist.)

And yet…. If pizza isn’t serious, consider how you feel when you take a bite of disappointing pizza. The heartbreak. The indignation! The betrayal! How could so ostensibly reliable a comfort breaks its promise? It doesn’t matter where you are or how much you paid — a large $12 delivery pie, ordered in a drunken haze at half past midnight, owes itself to you to be delicious because this is pizza’s one job. Pizza is serious, you see, because we love it like few other things, and love is serious. Vegans love pizza so much they’ve bent over backward to reengineer it to keep it in their lives. (Acknowledge yourselves, Virtuous Pie.) Pizza is so serious a non-profit association exists in Italy solely to define and uphold the hyper-specific traditions of Neapolitan pizza-making. (Vancouver’s own Nicli Antica Pizzeria and Via Tevere, and Cotto, in both North Burnaby and Surrey, meet their criteria. Prior to 10 years ago, no Greater Vancouver pizzerias did.)

Walking a tightrope between serious and its polar opposite is Anthem Pizza, which launched not long ago, in the middle of November. There is no storefront; instead, takeout and delivery are conducted from the kitchens of The Five Point and Park Drive, two of Anthem owner Matt Thompson’s other establishments. (His burgeoning empire also includes Alphabet City and The Cannibal Café.)

Anthem arrives wrapped in a three-pronged concept so novel, amusing and kind-hearted, it threatens to eclipse their food. Prong one: In keeping with The Cannibal Café’s defining rock ’n’ roll aesthetic (it’s named after a song by Canadian punk trailblazers SNFU, and the walls are papered with vintage gig flyers), each of Anthem’s 14-inch pies is a tribute — in name, if not in spirit — to a band, album or song. Peruse the menu and find nods to Iggy Pop (the “Blah Blah Blah”; Alfredo sauce, mozzarella, fior di latte, Grana Padano, provolone, and gorgonzola), Beastie Boys (the “Sabotage”; mozzarella, chorizo, pepperoni, roasted chicken, and prosciutto) and the Clash (the “Stay Free”; tomato sauce and mozzarella). How a vegetarian pie came to be named after Suicidal Tendencies’ hardcore perennial “Institutionalized” presumably involved a late-night drinking game and a droll sense of humour.

Prong two: Partial proceeds from every pizza go to charitable causes, which rotate every three months. (At the time of this writing, the BC Children’s Hospital Foundation and the musician-focused Unison Benevolent Fund are the beneficiaries.) Prong three: Every pizza box wears a pasted-on graphic created by a local artist; those artworks are available as posters and T-shirts from Anthem’s online shop, where proceeds also go to charity.

Fortunately, Anthem’s wares aren’t a mere afterthought to clever marketing. Their pizzas aren’t about to unseat the likes of Via Tevere or Pizzeria Farina from the mountaintop where they so long ago planted their flags, but they aren’t trying to. These are populist pizzas — better than they have to be and more than good enough. You won’t find the seductive charred blisters of a wood-fired oven, nor a sauce made with the unmistakable tang of San Marzano tomatoes. What you will find is a lovely, appropriately uncomplicated Margherita pie (named after Motorhead’s “Ace of Spades,” because why not), topped with good-quality fior di latte and fresh basil leaves; and the David Bowie-acknowledging “Hunky Dory,” essentially a hifalutin interpretation of the always-controversial Hawaiian pizza, elevated by the addition of banana pepper, mildly funky prosciutto, and a bright pineapple jam that isn’t as cloyingly sweet as the Del Monte chunks typically used for this purpose. (Kley, incidentally, lost his mind over this one.)

Anthem also offers a variety of wings — the very same that have accompanied so many pitchers of beer at The Five Point (I recommend the Black Dragon flavour, basted with a mix of soy and Sriracha; $14) — and a pair of salads ($14 each), one of which earns extra points for being named J.J. Kale. Frankly, J.J. Cale isn’t the least bit punk rock, but then neither is salad.

Anthem’s pizzas currently cost $18 to $24 each, which is notably more than you would pay for some of the city’s most revered pies. But in the comfort of your home, with or without your bubble, and alongside a sympathetic adult libation (we murdered a bottle of this bargain Okanagan red blend), these pizzas are very easy to love. And all the more for the good they seek to inject back into the community. In times like these, could such a goal be any more serious?

Anthem Pizza
Take-out only at 3124 Main St.
and 1815 Commercial Dr., 3–10pm
anthempizza.ca / Instagram: @anthempizza
Delivery platforms: DoorDash, Skip the Dishes, Uber Eats

(Photo: Kley Klemens)

Indonesian Cuisine, Southeast Asian Cuisine

Review: Bali Thai Indonesian Cuisine

Watch the video review here!

By Michael White
No matter how much the city of Vancouver continues to change beyond the recognition of those who have lived here long enough to have a fixed idea of it, there are some things that, for better or worse, are always exactly as we remember them.

Case in point: International Village Mall.

Opened in 1999 (the year I moved to Vancouver from Ontario), this two-level, 195,000-square-foot shopping centre at the border of “the Stadium District” and Chinatown is — and seemingly forever will be — a defiantly changeless monument to failure. It remains as strange and terrible and depressing a place today as when I first walked through its doors 20-plus years ago. Tenants may come and go, but its occupancy rate holds steadfast below 50 percent. Those tenants reliably appear marked for death from day one: makeshift operations peddling phone accessories, womenswear, home furnishings — most of them bearing brand names you’ve never heard of. Almost no one buys these things, because almost no one who comes here has any money. Right now, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, International Village’s one reliable draw — a multiplex theatre — is closed, and so everything is quieter, eerier, sadder than ever.

And this is where, upstairs in the food court, where so many patrons aren’t eating or doing much of anything but trying to pass the time, you’ll find Bali Thai Indonesian Cuisine.

I’d been successfully ignoring Bali Thai for years, until Kley — the other half of Jewkarta, who lived for 20 years in his native Indonesia before settling in Vancouver — told me I had to try it. If I hadn’t already been in love with him, my gratitude for his introducing me to this unassuming stall and its ridiculously delicious food would’ve sealed it.

Bali Thai opened at International Village in 2014, after a short tenancy at nearby Harbour Centre. Owners Linda and Tommy (their shared surname is none of our business) took over from its founding proprietors in 2011. Originally Southeast Asian-themed when they acquired it, Linda and Tommy narrowed the menu concept to strictly Indonesian; they kept the name Bali Thai, however, so as not to confuse their already dedicated clientele (and because registering a new name seemed more trouble than it was worth). When Harbour Centre’s management redeveloped the food court and insisted the couple convert their stall into a popular national Thai chain, they decided to move instead. Despite the volatility of International Village’s never-busy corridors (the only food-court tenant I know to have consistently survived is Taco Time), Bali Thai has hung on for more than six years — an apparent testament to Vancouver’s precious few Indonesian dining options and the excellence with which Bali Thai fills the gap. (That said, Linda estimates the pandemic has reduced their business by at least 80 percent.)

I won’t pretend to be an authority about Indonesian cuisine, but as an authority about my own equal-opportunity palate, I can say with absolute authority that Bali Thai’s flavour and texture combinations push more buttons than a 1940s switchboard operator.

Indonesia is home to more than 600 recognized ethnic groups, and each of its indigenous culinary traditions seems to have absorbed some degree of foreign influence, whether Chinese or Middle Eastern or Dutch (the latter the result of centuries of colonization). So, in a single Indonesian dish — say, beef rendang (named “World’s Most Delicious Food” in a 2011 CNN poll) — the symphony in your mouth might seem to play notes of Madras curry, or one of the more memorable Szechuan dishes you’ve had, or a traditional British stew given an ugly-duckling makeover to reveal the hot, brash, head-turning swan that was hiding within. Bali Thai’s rendition of beef rendang honours the dish’s inherent complexity, its falling-apart-tender beef simmered for hours in an immodest amount of coconut milk with the likes of ginger, lemongrass, garlic, turmeric, and however many chilis the cook sees fit. Linda and Tommy elect to make their rendang’s heat level acceptable to their many discerning expat-Indonesian customers, but not so much as to alienate the white and curious.

You can order beef rendang as part of the “Create Your Own” combo plate, the best course of action for discovering as much of the menu as possible for the least outlay. Two proteins and one vegetable dish are yours alongside rice — plain steamed or turmeric-coconut (don’t be an idiot; get the turmeric-coconut) — for $11.95, which, given the portion size, is a price as frozen in the past as International Village. I urge you to also opt for the Balinese chicken, a pleasantly smouldering riot of chilis, garlic, ginger, lime leaf, fish sauce, and whatever else Linda and Tommy have invited to the party. My favourite of the vegetable options is simply grilled Japanese eggplant, imbued with subtle smoke and — should you choose it — a stripe of house-made green chili sauce I’d slather onto everything in sight if I didn’t fear being judged. Vegans won’t feel slighted by fried tempeh or fried tofu, and certainly not by the corn fritters, which are essentially a great bar snack in search of a bar. Should you like, Linda will finish your plate with a scattering of cilantro and fried shallots. Say yes.

Elsewhere on the menu, mee ayam (essentially Indonesia’s answer to cure-all chicken soup; $11.95), satay, nasi goreng (fried rice generously heaped with shrimp, chicken, beef, vegetables, and scrambled egg; $12.50), and the self-explanatory Chicken Nugget Crunch (with the above-mentioned coconut-turmeric rice and tempeh; $12.50) check off a list of Indonesian cuisine’s greatest hits and do all of them justice.

Having been blissfully ignorant of Bali Thai for so long, obviously I don’t have the moral high ground to wag a shaming finger at the countless others who have failed to help make its owners wealthy and in need of additional staff. (If Linda isn’t behind the counter, if Tommy isn’t out back in the kitchen, they aren’t open.) Typical of so many under-the-radar eateries in this and other cities where diners are spoiled for choice, Bali Thai is better than it knows and too modest for its own good. Linda and Tommy should be getting up in your face — in everyone’s face — about how good their unobtrusive little enterprise is. But in all likelihood, this isn’t a part of their skill set and not in their nature. They just make the food.

So, let them just make the food. And just listen to me when I say: Go there.

Bali Thai Indonesian Cuisine
International Village Mall
88 West Pender, 2nd Floor
(no website) / Instagram: @balithaivancouver
Delivery platforms: Skip the Dishes, Uber Eats
Take-out available