WHAT’S CHOMPING: BAO UP AT BAO DOWN
Beautifully barbecued pork skewers, crispy beef tapa and a side of lumpia all served over a bowl of steaming white rice. When I think of Filipino food, I think of the excitement I felt when I was invited over to have dinner with my Filipino friend’s family. The good vibes that come with sharing conversation with 12 other people over platefuls of homemade comfort food… something I’m sure those with Pinoy friends can relate to. Now imagine how cool it would be to have a restaurant change the game by blending the pride of Filipino food with techniques in brunch and fusion-style cuisine. This is exactly what Matthew Adolfo and Greg Edwards of Bao Down SnackBar have done and I must say, it has altered my perception of what Filipino food can look like.
Bao Down SnackBar is actually one of the locations adopting the “Bao Down” name coined by owners Matt Adolfo and Greg Edwards. No two locations are the same as each offers its own unique menu and serves their own individual purpose. Bao Down Gastown is located in the heart of Gastown on Powell Street – with a menu reminiscent of the funky, cool comfort food you might find at a foodtruck festival. Bao Down Gastropub on West 2nd is their second location and offers a diverse menu with plenty of variety from a delectable raw bar to fan favourites such as charcoal grilled meat. Bao Down Snackbar delivers a menu full of recognizable brunch and Filipino ingredients with intricate additions that scream “try me.”
Upon entering Bao Down SnackBar, the painted brick walls, eye-catching artwork and wood-top tables immediately jumped out at me – not your typical Filipino restaurant for sure. To add to that, the upbeat hiphop music and extremely friendly staff paved the way to a warm, comfortable ambiance with good vibes. It was one of those joints that could make you feel it had been established for many years based on the interaction and flow between the staff and customers.
While we were there, Matt, one of the owners, actually sat down with us and we had a chance to get to know him. He explained to us that his restaurants were never meant to be traditionally Filipino but more of a fresh twist on Filipino fusion. This was highlighted in the dishes we tried because they actually look nothing like what I picture when I think Filipino food. So what made it so different? Well, every dish had such a bright, vibrant colour from the unique blend of veggies and seasoning – a definite change-up from the typical golden brown you get with traditional Filipino food. I would say the flavour of the food was almost as colourful as the presentation. Each bite was packed with a flavour punch that sent me back for another and I could tell that the chefs knew what they were doing. Remember how I mentioned Bao Down adopts techniques in brunch? For you brunch lovers, the majority of their menu items are actually served with a pair of fluffy poached eggs – how eggstatic are you?
Breakfast Lumpia… “Whaaaaat? You mean mini breakfast burritos?” No. I do not. This dish offers tocino, langonisa, cheese, taro hash, salsa and a lumpia roll laid out on a leafy lettuce bed. I just had to highlight this because my mind was blown when I saw this dish. I could not decide whether it was weird or cool because I had never seen a spring roll wrapped in a salad roll before – which was essentially what this dish was (a delicious roll-ception). Top that off with a poached egg and some g-mayo and the most important meal of the day just became the most delicious one. If you were to show this dish to your tita, she would probably tell you it’s not real Filipino food. If you talked to a Vancouver foodie, they might say it’s not really brunch. The thing is, they’re not really wrong, but they’re not right either. It’s whatever you want it to be, but let me tell you, it is refreshingly delicious.
The T.L.T.A. Wrap is a dish where I asked, “Where’s the meat?” To my surprise, I found out this was actually a vegetarian, gluten-free dish catered towards those who choose to get their veggie on. Something that is unheard of when it comes to Filipino food. With fried baos on the side, a stack of crisp lettuce in the middle and a colourful bowl of tomato, avocado, onion and taro hash, this dish could definitely have been named the B.Y.O.B. (Build Your Own Bao). I did have one issue with this dish in that the ratio of bao to toppings was a little off. After we all built our baos, there was still quite a bit of “topping” left in the bowl and no bao left on the side. I would have liked to have an extra bao or 2 just to balance things out, but now I’m just being picky. Unlike my past experiences with Filipino food (heavy food coma, anyone?), I was actually quite refreshed and comfortable after the meal and I suspect that it had to do with the strategic addition of veggies and acidity in each dish. It was almost like the veggies were there to balance out the heaviness of the fried meat that Filipino food is typically known for.
In the midst of all the great things said about the Breakfast Lumpia and T.L.T.A. Wrap, the dish of the day was hands down the Fried Chicken and Waffles. I mean, the fact that there was a generous portion of spicy adobo fried chicken on top of a gluten free ube waffle already got my head turning. But delving into the flavour of the actual dish, it was far off from any other chicken and waffles I had, in a good way. The chicken was crispy, tender and juicy with every bite. The ube waffle… I would say the texture was not very waffle-like, but it was probably an improvement on the typical waffle batter because I didn’t end up with a mouthful of soggy starch while I chewed my chicken. To top it off for you folks, each fork-ful (do people say that..?) can be dipped into either the crispy garlic and scallion infused rum syrup or the yolk of a good ol’ poached egg.
If you’re looking to wash down your meal with something from the bar, might I recommend one of the many non-alcoholic drinking vinegars (similar to shrubs) they have on their menu. The drinking vinegars brought an extra dimension to my dining experience because the colours were super cool to look at and the acid really cut any grease I had lingering in my mouth. I personally liked the blood orange flavour because the tangy kick really resets my pallet for the next bite. Heads up though, blood orange is naturally a bit bitter so if you want something sweet it’s best to explore other variations.
One of the main things that I find very appealing about Bao Down SnackBar is the fact that nothing about the restaurant is without a unique twist. This joint speaks culture and history whilst drawing in a very diverse demographic looking for their own unique dining experience. That in combination with the menu’s home style comfort food and fresh fusion is an experience I have which is unlike any other. Bao Down SnackBar does well in finding a balance between thinking outside the box while maintaining attractive, good quality dishes. If the food does not entice you, Matt also told us about Cypher Thursdays – a weekly event where local MC’s come in to talk about hiphop trivia and jam to some fresh beats. For those in touch with hiphop culture, it would be worth checking this out. Get your grub on while listening to some good beats. In essence, Bao Down Snackbar gets a respectable 9 CHOMPS out of 10. Matt’s passion for his craft is inspiring and I can’t wait to hit up my friends go try more of the dishes on the menu – or perhaps hit up Cypher Thursdays to brush up on my hiphop trivia.
Bao Down Snack Bar
221 Carrall St
Photography by: Nathan Dong