Saturday, May 23, 2009

Eating Vancouver '09: The Battle of the Baos!

I've made no secret of my pining ways when it comes to missing the awesome Chinese food we had last fall on our trip to Shanghai and Hong Kong (hit the archive tab on the right for late October/early November 2008 for details). Holding an especially warm place in my hungry heart are the perfectly satisfying xiao long bao (Chinese soup dumplings) we had. Impossible to find in Portland, we hide high hopes on our Vancouver trip. We were tipped off to a couple of spots in the Richmond suburb on this local 'Couv blog that are reputed to know the way of the dumpling. So on our way out of town we made the stops at both for The Battle of the Baos.

Our first stop was Shanghai Wonderful, a fairly small spot in one of the innumerable strip malls that dot this suburban landscape. I had been anticipating this moment ever since we left Portland, so with breath held and hopes high we placed our order. w also added on an order of veggie hum bao (steamed veggie buns), because apparently the Chinese restaurants in Portland have also found these seemingly simple items to be the food equivalent of nano physics. Our two bamboo steamers were placed on the table alongside the requisite ginger-soy dipping sauce. Now the thing with xiao long bao is that the wrapper is everything. It should be tender, almost translucent, barely holding in the soup and meat within, yet sturdy enough to be picked up with chopsticks. So we gently picked up the steaming delicacies, dipped them, bit holes in the edge to suck out the soup without splattering ourselves (which is one of those learned skills)....and both our eyes went wide. THIS is what we had been missing. The wrapper was perfectly tender, a little bit of tooth, the soup broth rich, the ground pork mixture inside not too dense (although slightly too bulky we thought). I immediately wanted to order another half dozen, but w reminded me we had one more stop. I wanted to remind her we ate three dozen in Shanghai in one sitting, but that seemed best not mentioned. Besides we were both still slightly stuffed from the previous night's extravagance at Tojo's. Still, it's nice to know excellent xiao long bao are available without a trip to China. Of course there is that pesky 5-1/2 drive to contend with, but dinner at Vij's and lunch the next day at Shanghai Wonderful as motivation? Totally worth it! Oh, and the hum bao were also spot on (pic above right), the bun light and fluffy holding in the fresh, bright green chopped veggie/nut mix.

We left Shanghai Wonderful blissed out and hopped in the car for the maybe half mile ride to Chen's Shanghai Kitchen, the other bao stop. Where Shanghai Wonderful is clean, bright, and modern with a slightly upscale clientele (although still with cheap prices), Chen's Shanghai is a rundown strip mall, the formica topped tables jammed together, the customers more blue collar that buttoned up. Slightly more my comfort zone. Our bao were soon to arrive at the table, and while quite good, they didn't hit the bar of Shanghai Wonderful. The dipping sauce wasn't quite as flavorful, the skin slightly thicker and a little dry right at the peak. The broth was good and the meat actually slightly smaller, which we preferred. If you could transfer the Chen's ground pork filling into the SW wrapper, you'd have the perfect xiao long bao. Chen's was worth the visit, but for the better expression of bao-ness I absolutely recommend Shanghai Wonderful.
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To wrap up the Vancouver trip, here's a couple of other places we liked and are worthy of your stomach real estate....

For dim sum we hit Sun Sui Wah on Main Street, a short drive from our hotel. The classic large, brightly lit room that when we arrived not long after they opened wasn't that busy, but quickly filled up. The choices were plentiful (you order off their dim sum menus, not off of rolling carts) and for the most part everything was delicious. Here's some things we were particularly smitten with....
Steamed bbq pork buns
Delicious siu mai dumplings
The find of the day was their house special fresh mango "pancakes". The women at the next table were most inistent that we try them. Egg crepe wrapped around fresh mango and whipped cream. Yeah, they were that good! Not heavy at all or too sweet, very pretty to look at, better to eat! Something I'd love to make at home.

Also just kitty corner from our hotel, and recommended by my friend in malted beverages ChuckB, was the Railway Club downtown, a very cool old beer bar originally built in the early 1930s, where the selections are numerous and esoteric. A passion for craft beer clearly shows through here. They also have live music most nights, friendly beertenders, and a cozy feel. Check it out!
Then as I mentioned in the Vij's post, a great place to hang while you're waiting for your table at that temple of sub-continent sublimity is Bin 942 right down Granville Street. The sister restaurant of...and how original is this...Bin 941, they have excellent tapas (that's the goat cheese croquette and clams with chorizo above; both 5$ for a small plate) and VERY generous wine pours in a cozy-cool space. A good spot to try the local BC juice!


The Guilty Carnivore said...

Been loving your Vancouver updates.

One note - you can get XLB in Portland at Asian Station food cart:

They are actually a pretty decent rendition, though I haven't had them in some time.

bb said...

Thanks GC...for the kind words and the tip on Asian Station. I'll go for the updated take on XLB's this week. I can only hope.......

peter said...

Gah, I picked the wrong time to read this; I could murder a table of dim sum right now.

bb said...

dude, tell me about it. I'm sitting at work, didn't have time for breakfast before I left home. A few steaming baskets of dim sum would be amazing. AND about a dozen xiao long baos!