Ten years ago, Vancouver’s Chinatown was not on most people’s destination lists. But over the last few years, more than a dozen new restaurants, bars, and shops have opened—without evoking the “G” word. Many are ushering in a modern take without sacrificing the culture. Tannis Ling, a young local who grew up spending lots of time in Chinatown, was one of the first to do so when she opened her Chinese brasserie, Bao Bei to international acclaim. We asked Ling for a peek at her favorite go-tos in Chinatown, here’s what she had to say.
San Francisco: What inspired you to open Bao Bei in Chinatown?
Tannis Ling: It seemed natural to open a Chinese restaurant in Chinatown, despite its reputation as a risky neighborhood. With its proximity to trendy neighborhoods like Gastown, Strathcona, Mount Pleasant and Downtown, it wasn’t a stretch of the imagination to think that people would find their way to Chinatown. Especially because of the charm here. I hoped that it would bring a new energy into the neighborhood without sacrificing too much of what people's notion of what Chinatown should be.
Where do you go for a comfort food fix?
Phnom Penh. This is a Vancouver institution that has been in Chinatown forever and is always packed with a line. My dad used to take us back in the day when Chinatown was no man’s land at night. The street would be dark and empty but the restaurant was full of patrons. Get the chicken wings! They’re famous a thousand times over and always on every table. Also, try the butter beef—a raw beef dish laced with butter, piles of chopped cilantro, fried garlic, and some kind of dark secret sauce.
What’s your favorite hole in the wall?
Pazzo Chow. This tiny place down the street from Bao Bei has only one table inside and two outdoor tables and is owned by a woman with an Italian background who grew up in Chinatown. Her menu changes every day and consists of two salads, one pasta, and an entrée of some kind—usually with a little twist that incorporates Chinese ingredients. Everything is made in house, including the pasta and focaccia and she uses only the freshest ingredients.
What’s your favorite watering hole in Chinatown?
Keefer Bar. The atmosphere is exactly what you would want in a bar in Chinatown: dark, loud and so packed that everyone is right up against each other. It gets crazy on the weekends but they keep it classy, using mostly Chinese medicinal ingredients, in a subtle not too heavy-handed way. I had an interesting Old Fashioned using Pei Pa Kao, a traditional Chinese herbal remedy for coughs and sore throats. There’s also a great patio that gets sun into the late evening during the height of summer—extremely rare in Vancouver.
Sounds like you might need a hangover remedy the next morning. Where do you go for that?
Bestie. It’s run by two of the nicest guys you will ever meet. This sweet spot specializes in currywurst but has a tight list of local craft beers on tap and a local cider. There’s also a daily Chinatow iced tea made from tea bought from their neighbors. The last time I was there, I had a touch of a hangover, so I ordered a cheese currywurst, a Mom salad and one of the owners poorer me a cheeky beer.
Where is your favorite area to wander?
Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Garden is stunning and a calm place in what can be a hectic neighborhood sometimes. There’s a section of the garden where you don’t have to pay so it’s nice to grab a bun from New Town bakery, check out the pond, and catch sight of the koi and turtles.
Editor's pick: If you're going, the Shangri-La Hotel is a stone's throw from the Chinatown gates and offers contemporary Asian design, with views of Vancouver's skyline.