Vancouver-based Bao Down's rapid expansion aims to help Filipino food crossover to the mainstream

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      With the proliferation of Asian food in this city, it's quite easy to forget that it took many years—decades, in fact—for such menu items to become palatable to local diners.

      Unfathomable as it may seem, there was a time when many Vancouverites would recoil at the idea of eating dim sum, sashimi and sushi, ramen, pho, pad Thai, or other Asian dishes.

      In the '60s, '70s, and '80s, as each cuisine found support within their own cultural communities and as populations grew, they eventually crossed over to the mainstream and found acceptance and popularity outside of their own ethnic groups.

      Nonetheless, one Asian cuisine that has had remained underrepresented in Vancouver has been Filipino food. While there have been a handful of Filipino establishments, such as Josephine's or Pin Pin, most of them have remained popular primarily within Filipino Canadian communities.

      The co-owner of Bao Down, however, aspires to change that.

      Bao Down co-owner Matt Adolfo
      Craig Takeuchi

      Matt Adolfo partnered with his Vancouver brother-in-law Gregory Edwards, who is their executive chef, to launch their Bao Down restaurants, which are designed to help Filipino dishes get the attention they deserve.

      Adolfo, who moved here from Toronto a few years ago, explained in an interview with the Georgia Straight at their Carrall Street location that he was originally planning to open a Northern Thai restaurant in Vancouver called Kanchanaburi, licensed from Toronto chef Nuit Regular. When he asked if he could add bao (steamed buns, also known as siapao in Filipino cuisine) and Hawaiian brunch to the menu, he found out he wasn't allowed to.

      Consequently, Adolfo decided to go his own way, pursuing his bao craving by opening Bao Down's first location in Gastown (12 Powell Street) in March 2015.

      While this spot focusses on a wide range of bao—with everything from lemongrass fried chicken to coconut-crusted catfish—there are also poké bowls and a variety of Asian-fusion fries.

      Next came a gastropub and raw bar in Olympic Village (at 115 West 2nd Avenue), which opened in January 2016. With a wide-roaming Asian fusion menu, this location incorporates Thai, Hawaiian, Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, and other Asian influences in rice and noodle dishes, rolls and lettuce wraps, seafood, grilled meat, and bao.

      This location also serves a Hawaiian-style brunch, with island dishes such as loco moco, panko-fried Spam, banana pancakes with macadamia nuts, and Filipino items like tocino (pork belly bacon) or longanisa (Filipino sausage) .

      Just around the corner from their first spot, they now have their third location: Bao Down Snack Bar, which opened in November at 221 Carrall Street (in a location previously occupied by the short-lived 'ONO Raw Bar, which was the Cork and Fin before that).

      The focus here is on Filipino fusion. There's everything from barbecue skewers and rice or noodle bowls to  adobo fried chicken, paksiw (pulled pork lechon, or roasted pig), and kare kare (braised oxtail with tempura bok choy, pickled papaya, and eggplant).

      There's also a Filipino-style brunch menu with items like breakfast lumpia (egg, tocino, longanisa, cheese, taro hash, and more), spicy adobo fried chicken with ube (purple yam) waffles and poached eggs, and sisig 'n' grits (crispy pork jowl, white corn grits, cheese, and eggs).

      Bao Down Snack Bar in Gastown
      Craig Takeuchi

      As if that's not enough, they're launching a foray into the U.S. market with a location in San Francisco's Union Square opening this month. In a 3,200-square-foot space that'll seat from 90 to 100 diners, the menu will amalgamate items from their various Vancouver locations.

      For this location, Adolfo said they're partnering with a Filipino movie and TV star Marvin Agustin (who has starred in TV series such as Wansapanataym and films like Patikul and Kutob). During a visit to Vancouver, Agustin (who is a trained chef) ate at a bao at Adolfo's restaurant and the rest is history.

      Filipino star Marvin Agustin

      But that's not all.

      Back in Vancouver, yet another location will open in early March in a 1,200-square-foot space at 1408 Commercial Drive. Adolfo said this 40-seater will feature a dive-bar concept, and focus more on steam buns, appies, wings, and brunch.

      And because apparently this food empire is unstoppable—yes, there's another location even further down the road that'll open up in May or June out at UBC. It'll be one of 12 new eateries opening in the U Boulevard area.

      Adolfo said the UBC location is about 1,700 square feet with 30-feet-high ceilings, an 800-square-foot patio, and a seating capacity of about 60 people. This spot will take things back to the original concept, with a primary focus on bao. Since it'll be student-oriented, there'll be cheap beer and bao, and very party- and event-based.

      Fried bao buns and crispy lumpia-style eggrolls
      Craig Takeuchi

      While the sheer number of locations will be enough to expose more people to Filipino cuisine, Adolfo said he's also trying to bridge the gap between North American and Filipino tastes and flavours.

      "What we're trying to do with Filipino cuisine is…add a little fusion into some dishes to make it more familiar to other palates therefore it'll be easier to accept it."

      He admits his dishes aren't traditional but that's intentional and part of his strategy.

      "We've been called out," he said with a laugh. "People are saying, 'This is not sisig.' Hey, wait a minute [laughs]. We're getting the concept through. Just give us a minute. Me and my brother are thinking...[that] this summer, we're going to bring it [sisig] out, the way it's supposed to [be]."

      While the term fusion is one that some restauranteurs attempt to avoid, Adolfo doesn't shy away from using it. It would be, after all, be hypocritical for him to do so since, as he explains, the cuisine he is trying to champion is in the product itself of numerous cultural influences merging together in his family's motherland.

      "The thing is that people don't know that Filipino food is heavily influenced by Chinese and Spanish," he says. "That's a fusion itself."

      You can follow Craig Takeuchi on Twitter at @cinecraig or on Facebook