Hometown: Vancouver, B.C.
Occupation: Owner, Bao Bei
Years lived in Vancouver: 17
Accolades: Best in Chinatown/Gastown, Vancouver Magazine (2013-present)
Best Casual Chinese, Vancouver Magazine (2015)
50 Best Restaurants in Canada, Maclean’s (2012)
Best Modern Chinese, HSBC Chinese Restaurant Awards (2011)
Best New Restaurant, Best Small Plates, Best Design, Vancouver Magazine (2011)
Canada’s Best New Restaurants, enRoute (2010)
What is your earliest memory about food?
Being in Tokyo on an overnight layover with my mother and brother on the way to Taiwan when I was 10 or so. My mother, intent on finding some real food, took us out of the hotel to wander until we came across a street stall surrounded by people, selling unagi don. I have a very clear memory of a man grabbing a live eel from a barrel of hundreds, nailing the head down on a board, and slicing it all the way down to the tail in one quick motion. It was placed on a charcoal grill where it got basted periodically with a rich-looking sauce, dripping from a thick brush. Quickly enough, it was cut into segments and placed onto a bed of steaming rice and treated to another drizzle of the sauce. I cannot forget the taste and texture of the eel freshly grilled, smoke from the charcoal, sweetness of the sauce and pearly chewiness of the rice. My brother and I fought for every last grain and to this day, I have never found an unagi don to be as good as it was in that memory.
What do you love best about Vancouver’s food scene?
The sheer number of ethnic eateries that I have yet to even discover. We have the best Chinese, Vietnamese, Filipino, Korean and Japanese food in the world and it usually gets served up in these unassuming hole in the walls. Discovering one of these gems makes my day.
Name the top restaurants and dishes that you think every visitor to Vancouver should try.
Long’s Noodle House on Main for xiao long bao (soup dumplings) and drunken chicken; don’t get anything else. This is what they do best.
Lucky Noodle House for stir-fried white chilis with chicken gizzards, fish soup, and shredded potatoes with dried chili.
Kingyo: Tantan noodles – I cannot express how good this is. It remains one of my favorites dishes in the world to eat.
Laksa King on E Hastings for laksa and fermented tea leaf salad. Apparently, it’s impossible to find fermented tea leaf in Vancouver and the proprietor keeps his source highly guarded.
Hoang Yen on Victoria Drive for Vietnamese fish soup with noodles (bún cha cá) and crab noodle soup (bún riêu). On top of the usual basil and bean sprouts, they load up their herb plate with lemon verbena, culantro and shaved water spinach, as well. The fish soup is clean, fresh and fragrant, and the crab soup is rich and textural with squares of silky pork blood cake.
Pho Tan: special off-menu items like beer crab, lamb chops, oxtail stew, charred eggplant. A family friend just revealed this place to me recently. You have to call 24 hours ahead to order these items and you have to ask specifically for them.
Editor’s note: Since publication of this interview, Lucky Noodle House has closed.
Describe your “perfect dining out day” in Vancouver.
Le Marché St. George in the morning for great coffee, crèpes and quiche.
Ask For Luigi for brunch … most likely would order the creamy polenta with crispy pork belly and pesto and banana bread with white chocolate and salted whipped butter.
Chambar for lunch on their beautiful patio. Moules frites, maybe steak with chimichurri (no one can cook steak like Nico), glass of wine.
Ajisai, my favorite sushi place in Vancouver. It’s another hole in the wall stuck in a narrow passageway between a London Drugs and a walk-in medical clinic. I would eat surf shell clam in sweet and sour miso sauce, seafood salad (they use Corn Flakes for crunch because they can’t have a fryer), negitoro don, hamachi fish collar, and if uni is in season I would stuff myself silly with uni gunkan with quail egg yolks and mountain potato.
Rain or Shine for ice cream or Dragon Ball Tea House for taro bubble tea.
What’s your favorite neighborhood to dine out in?
East Vancouver: Kingsway, Hastings, Victoria for all the ethnic variety.
If you had to pick one personal favorite dish at Bao Bei, which would it be and why?
Beef tartare. I can still remember the day Joël and I discussed on our research trip to Taipei, how interesting it would be to have a tartare on the menu at a “Chinese” restaurant, as raw meat is rarely consumed in Chinese cuisine. It exemplifies what we’re trying to do, which is to take classic dishes and spin it with traditional Asian ingredients or vice versa, take traditional Chinese dishes and spin it with ingredients that are local and seasonal.
What other cuisines do you enjoy eating and cooking most?
For food other than ethnic cuisine, I usually go to Chambar for their moules frites, Farmer’s Apprentice for their ever-changing farm to table menu, and Dock Lunch which serves up simple soul food right by my house in a cozy familial room that literally looks like someone is living there. And I LOVE pizza, especially at Pizzeria Farina or Via Tevere.
What’s one dish in Vancouver that blew you away and left you wishing you came up with the recipe yourself?
At Ask for Luigi, I had a mind-blowing risotto with nori and matsutake mushroom thinly shaved in. It was delicate and pungent at the same time.
What watering holes do you like to frequent?
Keefer Bar is exceptional for cocktails and where we usually all end up after work almost nightly. Ironically, I rarely drink cocktails other than Negronis. I’m a wine and beer gal.
What food is your guilty pleasure, and where do you go to get it?
Pizza is my weakness. Pizzeria Farina is where I get my weekly fix.
Are there any foods native to Vancouver or B.C. that you particularly like?
Oysters are great out here.
What would you say every visitor must see or do before leaving Vancouver?
As a person who takes great pleasure from eating, in order to get a feel for the city, I would simply recommend trying as many different restaurants as you can. Also, sitting at the bar and talking to the bartenders is the best way to experience a new place.
Bao Bei has often been credited for revitalizing Vancouver’s Chinatown and its nightlife scene. What do you hope Chinatown will be like in the next 5-10 years?
What I hope it won’t be is a collection of characterless condos with mindless corporate franchises on the ground floor. I understand the need for development but there has to be some control in order to preserve the cultural heritage of the neighborhood. I’m hoping that somehow the smaller groceries, butchers, herbal shops, and homeware stores will survive and exist alongside a collection of independent businesses that don’t necessarily have to be Chinese focused as long as they have put some real thought into how they will contribute positively to Chinatown.
Tannis Ling’s Shortlist:
Bao Bei, 163 Keefer Street (Chinatown); Chinese, dinner only Tuesday-Sunday, closed Monday.
Long’s Noodle House, 4853 Main Street (Riley Park); Chinese, lunch and dinner Wednesday-Monday, closed Tuesday.
Lucky Noodle Chinese Restaurant, 3377 Kingsway (Renfrew-Collingwood); Chinese, lunch and dinner Wednesday-Monday, closed Tuesday.
Kingyo, 871 Denman Street (West End); Japanese, lunch and dinner daily.
Laksa King, 2546 E Hastings Street (Hastings-Sunrise); Burmese/Southeast Asian, lunch Tuesday-Sunday, dinner Tuesday-Saturday, closed Monday.
Hoang Yen, 5083 Victoria Drive (Kensington-Cedar Cottage); Vietnamese, lunch and dinner daily.
Pho Tan, 4598 Main Street (Riley Park); Vietnamese, lunch and dinner daily.
Le Marché St. George, 4393 St George Street (Riley Park); café, open daily.
Ask for Luigi, 305 Alexander Street (Downtown Eastside); Italian, lunch Wednesday-Friday, dinner Wednesday-Sunday, brunch Saturday-Sunday, closed Monday-Tuesday.
Chambar, 568 Beatty Street (Downtown); Belgian, breakfast and lunch Monday-Friday, dinner daily, brunch Saturday-Sunday.
Ajisai, 2081 W 42nd Avenue (Kerrisdale); Japanese, lunch Tuesday-Saturday, dinner daily, closed Monday.
Rain or Shine, 1926 W 4th Avenue (Kitsilano); ice cream, open daily.
Second location: 3382 Cambie Street (Riley Park); open daily.
Dragon Ball Tea House, 1007 W King Edward Avenue (Shaughnessy); bubble tea, open daily.
Farmer’s Apprentice, 1535 West 6th Avenue (Fairview); farm to table, lunch Tuesday-Friday, dinner Tuesday-Sunday, brunch Saturday-Sunday, closed Monday.
Dock Lunch, 152 E 11th Avenue (Mount Pleasant); Southern, lunch Tuesday-Sunday, dinner Friday, closed Monday.
Pizzeria Farina, 915 Main Street (Strathcona); pizza, dinner only daily.
Via Tevere, 1190 Victoria Drive (Grandview); Italian, dinner only Tuesday-Sunday, closed Monday.
The Keefer Bar, 135 Keefer Street (Chinatown); bar, open daily.
About the Chef: As a child, Tannis Ling was nicknamed “bao bei” by her mother. It translates to “precious,” and it was a name that Ling found fitting for her first restaurant. Her concept for a modern Chinese brasserie serving small plates was new for Vancouver at the time, and it attracted the talents of Chef Joël Watanabe. After Bao Bei opened in January 2010, the restaurant received numerous awards, developed a loyal following and helped breathe new life to a historic Chinatown that had been on the decline.
The dishes at Bao Bei weren’t the only things given careful consideration. Ling also made sure the cocktail menu would shine, which made sense, as she had previously worked at Chambar as a bartender. As a result, Bao Bei has become a popular dining and drinking destination for many people in Vancouver.
“I very much wanted to keep things simple and accessible. Over the years, cocktail making was, to me, becoming too convoluted and confusing, and it was starting to feel like the weirder the drink sounded, the better it tasted, which wasn’t always the case. We wanted to do classics with a Chinese twist as well as indulge in the frivolous, fun side of cocktails and do things like a piña colada and a boozy root beer float.”