Happy Hour Quickie: Getting Lost in a Pan-Asian Fog at Bao Down Snack Bar

[ UPDATE – MAY 22, 2018: Looks like this entire chain has imploded. Must’ve spread themselves way too thin with so many locations and spinoffs. Hope everyone involved lands on their feet with more well-received ventures in the future. ]

I never tried the old menu at Bao Down Snack Bar. I guess I was waiting for word-of-mouth to get better before trying it. When a prominent local blogger gives a middling 3.5 beakers out of 5, that’s not exactly a reason to rush out and try it. Now Bao Down Snack Bar have a totally new menu and I can only imagine what their first round of nu-Filipino food was like. Maybe it’s unfair for me to make them the torchbearer of modern Filipino food…

Going by what a friend and I tried during a Friday happy hour, the new menu has morphed into a pan-Asian/Mexican pub food thing where the Filipino spirit got buried by trend-driven blandness.

There was lots of Kanye on the sound system.

The server told us that the original Bao Down just a block away was being shut down and amalgamated into this location. As a distant observer, it seems like they’ve been focussing on expansion rather than making their food the best it can be. They have two locations in Gastown, one on Commercial Drive, another at UBC, one in Olympic Village, and another in San Francisco (which is now closed).

Side note: Their plans for opening a Thai restaurant called “Kanchanaburi” in Olympic Village got nixed so that’s why we have Bao Down Gastropub + Raw Bar. The Thai concept was supposed to be something licensed from Toronto chef Nuit Regular (Khao San Road, Nana, etc), so I was really looking forward to that because Vancouver needs more interesting, well-executed Thai food that isn’t the same old southern Thai “rainbow curries”. But of course the Bao Down people wanted to insert baos and Hawaiian brunch onto the menu for no apparent reason, and NOT stay true to the Thai concept, so the restaurant never happened. That’s too bad because the food at Nana is killer.

Their taplist is serviceable but frankly boring. 15 taps of lost opportunity. Whoever wrote up this list doesn’t really care about beer cuz 33 Acres of Ocean is a pale ale (not an IPA), and Heineken is a skunky pale lager (not a pilsner).

Generously timed happy hour from 3-6pm.

Happy hour menu. Admittedly great prices for happy hour. Name a trend — it’s in here. Truffle parmesan fries, check. Crispy cauliflower, check. Brussel sprouts, check. Gluten-free truffle kale dip with quinoa? Four trends in one!

The new menu. Baos are still here. Still no proper Taiwanese gua bao, but that was never their intention to do traditional anything. Keep it mashed up and confused. Pick ‘n choose from the pantheon of Asian cultures and reap the benefits. This isn’t the considered and tasteful merging of cuisines like how Kissa Tanto or Crowbar does. Nor is it the spirited, grew-up-on-anime food that Le Tigre food truck or Torafuku does. This is more like fusion cuisine of yesteryear mashed up with a deep need to be accepted (hence the kowtowing to gluten-free, vegan, and truffle trends).

There’s a section on the menu called “Gringas”. You wouldn’t know it from reading the menu but they’re actually tacos. It’s taking their pan-asian bao concept and applying it to tacos.

I dunno whether to laugh along with “Fly Rice” or what. Does that mean that I, as a Chinese-Canadian, can joke about SBC Packers?

Filipino Spring Rolls (aka lumpia, $5 during happy hour) with pork and water chestnuts. Comes with a pumpkin & plum sauce (couldn’t taste any pumpkin), and a sweet chili sauce (similar to Thai sweet chili sauce).

Plenty of pork inside but I could not detect any water chestnut at all. Usually water chestnuts in Asian cuisine really makes their presence known with it’s watery, woody crunchiness. Not here. Don’t know how pumpkin figures in the plum sauce either.

The lumpia were ok overall but the filling seemed a bit too overworked, approaching a sausage roll-type filling rather than a ground pork spring roll filling.

Adobo Brussel Sprouts ($6 during happy hour) with lemon lemon (so good they listed it twice on the happy hour menu) and adobo glaze. Couldn’t taste any sort of adobo, vinegar, garlic, or soy anything. Crowbar’s brussel sprouts with smoked tonnato blows this out of the water.

Luau ($6 during happy hour), slow roasted crisped pork belly with garlic and/or lemongrass, and sweet & sour sauce. The sauce looked like a version of the Filipino “all around sarsa” liver sauce, but a very mild version — literally weak sauce. Couldn’t get any lemongrass. The pork belly wasn’t particularly tender, not that crispy, not more enjoyable than any roast pork I could get from literally any Chinese BBQ place in Vancouver, Burnaby, or Richmond. If they bought premade lechon kawali, cut it up, and threw it into the deep fryer (like we did), it would be way better than this.

The slaw part with bean sprouts, cabbage, and carrots was good though. Crunchy and well-dressed.

Lemon butter hot sauce “chicken tendies”.

Infamous Gluten-Free Chicken Wings aka Infamous Boneless Wings ($6 during happy hour). We tried two flavours. Lemon butter hot sauce (above) and fish sauce & garlic (below).

Fish sauce & garlic “chicken tendies”.

Holy shit these fish sauce wings stank when they hit the table. Your nose gets used to it fast though. The balance was way off. Too salty upfront, and too salty in the finish. Needed sweetness to balance it out. We cook with fish sauce regularly cuz Wicca is Vietnamese, and balancing out the saltiness of fish sauce is really important. You never use straight fish sauce in anything really, and usually balance it with sour, spicy, and sweet.

The lemon butter hot sauce wings were basically like a buffalo wing, which was better balanced than the fish sauce ones. But my main problem with these wings is the same problem I have with Juke’s gluten-free fried chicken: they go really thick with the coating, creating a thick crunchy coating that breaks in your mouth like crunchy cardboard or gravel. Some people love that, and that’s cool. Plenty of people fill Juke. It’s just not for me. I prefer a somewhat thinner crispy/crunchy coating rather than a thick, tough, crunchy one. The best rendition of gluten-free fried chicken I’ve had were from Freebird in New West where they go light on the GF coating to create an actual thin and crispy coating that really works.

These technically aren’t wings either. It’s boneless chicken meat that’s formed into wing-like pieces. It’s nothing like the labour-intensive Thai boneless chicken wings. It’s more like chicken fingers.

Sorbetes aka Filipino ice cream ($6) is not a sorbet. It’s still ice cream. We got the ube (purple yam). This was the best and most problem-free dish I had. A very nice housemade ice cream that’s barely sweet on the palate, plenty of purple yam flavour, and a finish that quickly fades to a refreshing nothingness. Light, fluffy texture.

Bill helpfully split between two people. Good happy hour prices.

Service is cheerful but knowledge of the new menu (which was 2 weeks old at that point) was lacking. It’s been a while since I’ve been so unimpressed by a restaurant. I searched for a reason to return but found none.

Bao Down Snack Bar Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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