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Filipino food has been slow to pick up in Vancouver, despite its popularity elsewhere

At Hapag Ihaw-Ihaw, the BBQ pork skewers, front, are not to be missed, nor is the chicken inasal, seen in background.

Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

Vancouver is a city bursting with Asian flavours. From sushi and ramen to pad thai and pho, it would be hard to walk a major block in almost any neighbourhood and not stumble across several options to choose from.

But when was the last time you said to yourself, "Hmm, I feel like picking up a big, satisfying noodle bowl of Filipino pancit tonight," or, "Gee, I'm really craving a sizzling plate of pork-face sisig"?

All across North America, Filipino food has long been one of the least celebrated culinary traditions from Asia. It's odd when you consider everything that the cuisine has on its side: a jumble of influences (Chinese, Spanish, Mexican, Tamil, Malay and postwar U.S.); the regional diversity of 7,000-plus islands to draw upon; a far-flung diaspora of international workers; plus the big flavours and funky combinations spiked with sweet-and-sour sauces, shrimp-paste pong, blood and offcuts, all of which seem such a natural fit with current trends.

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In other major food cities, the tide has begun to turn.

The watershed moment occurred last year when Bon Appetit chose Bad Saint in Washington as the second-best new restaurant in the United States. Then, Anthony Bourdain took his Parts Unknown television series to Manila and drooled all over a street vendor's coal-roasted pork lechon, declaring it the "best pig ever." By January, when food-trend forecasts are published, everyone from Forbes to National Geographic was predicting that Filipino cuisine was on the cusp of a blockbuster breakout.

Yet here in Metro Vancouver, where Filipinos represent the third-largest visible minority group from Asia (behind the Chinese and South Asians) and the second-largest Filipino community in Canada, the trend has been slow to pick up.

Hapag Ihaw-Ihaw

5432 Victoria Dr., Vancouver

604-428-0097; Open Monday to Friday, 3:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m.;

Saturday, 11 a.m. to 8:30 p.m.; Sunday, 11 a.m to 7:30 p.m.

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A Cheap Eats pick, where you can dine well for under $30 before alcohol, tax and tip.

Hapag Ihaw-Ihaw, like most local Pinoy restaurants (and there are only a handful), is a friendly mom-and-pop shop that primarily caters to Filipino families, although there was one table of non-Filipino cool-kid food adventurers there the night I went. Opened three years ago by Alfonso Namujhe, a former citrus farmer from the Philippines' northern highlands, it's an unlicensed eatery with bare wooden tables, bars on the windows and a washroom that doubles as a storage closet in the back of the kitchen.

Grilled pork is the specialty here, and it's really the only thing you need to order. The BBQ pork skewers are tender morsels of thigh marinated in soy sauce, lime, sugar and garlic, served with a traditionally tangy vinegar-and-soy dipping sauce on the side. Even better is the juicy and sweetly aromatic chicken inasal (also grilled thigh meat, but portioned in full pieces), marinated in lemongrass, achuete (annatto oil) and coconut vinegar. I could pick at these lightly charred, mouth-watering thighs all day.

Take a look inside Hapag Ihaw-Ihaw

The crispy pata? Not so thrilling, even though this is what everyone comes for. The deep-fried pork hock, with bone-toed trotter attached, comes in small, medium or large, according to weight. It's boiled for hours, to tenderize the meat and clean the impurities, then oven-baked before frying to dry out the skin so it crisps up crackly and golden. The gnarly bits and bones are sloppily impressive when the platter lands with a heavy thud on the table, but in the end, it's just pork, fairly bland and overdone so the inner red flesh is dry and stringy rather than melting and fatty.

Rubbery squid, also served by weight, is simply thrown on the grill with a sprinkling of salt. Lumpia spring rolls are double-wrapped and ploddingly thick. Kare kare, a peanut butter curry that is traditionally as unctuous as melting candles, from the collagen of slow-roasted oxtail, is here served with less expensive cuts of short rib. It's as thin as soupy water and pretty much flavourless until you stir in the house-made shrimp fortified with caramelized onions.

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Hapag Ihaw-Ihaw's decent home-style cooking makes for a nice introduction to the flavours of the Philippines, but it certainly doesn't push any culinary envelopes and isn't exactly poised to flip Filipino food into the mainstream.

Bao Down Snackbar

221 Carrall St., Vancouver


Tuesday to Friday, noon to midnight; Saturday, 11 a.m. to midnight; Sunday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.

A Cheap Eats pick, where you can dine well for under $30 before alcohol, tax and tip.

For that next-generation style of fusion cooking, we must turn to Bao Down Snackbar, the most Filipino-focused location in the fast-growing mini empire of Baodom owned by Matt Adolfo and his brother-in-law, chef Gregory Edwards.

Their first location was a small counter-service eatery in Gastown specializing in messy stuffed baos and kimchi fries. The second was a Hawaiian-inspired raw bar in Olympic Village. In addition to this third, full-service Gastown outlet, they also have a restaurant that just opened in San Francisco, plus two more locations opening soon on Commercial Drive and at UBC.

Loud and energetic with graffiti-style murals splattered across the walls and old-school hip hop blaring out of the sound system, Bao Down Snackbar is a fun place to unwind on a Friday night, toss back a few rum-heavy cocktails and explore some creative dishes that change frequently. So frequently, in fact, the online website is completely out of date and the prices on your menu might be different from those of your tablemates.

Mr. Edwards is a fine-dining chef who has previously worked in almost every restaurant owned by Umberto Menghi. His skill is apparent in the fried emapanda-style bao buns stuffed with fall-apart pork belly slowly braised in tangy sweet-and-sour spices, or the shatteringly crisp spring rolls tightly wrapped around a riotous garden of fresh veggies. The menu, mostly served tapas-style, is laden with explosive flavours culled from the chef's childhood memories and imagination.

The Kamayan Platter, served family-style on banana leaves for $100, is good value. While it does contain a lot of filler – a mountain of sweet-potato fries, acidic slaw and a huge spread of fried chicken glazed in sour adobo sauce – there is also very tender squid lightly fried in a gluten-free batter, zesty pickled green papaya and a thickly rich caldereta stew elevated with wagyu beef, San Marzano tomatoes and melting lobes of foie gras (the latter in place of the more traditional gamey-tasting pork liver).

"I consider each restaurant a test kitchen," Mr. Edwards said by phone. Unfortunately, trial runs (which is how this restaurant visit felt) are not a great way to serve customers. Although initially friendly and attentive, our server disappeared for at least half an hour after dropping off the platter, later reappearing contrite and acting oddly.

In the meantime, we were at loose ends as to which sauce went with which dish. At least one, the pork-liver gastrique that goes with the baked pork lechon, was missing.

"What do you mean, they didn't serve the sauce?" the chef later bemoaned, just before catching one of his weekly flights to San Francisco. "That makes the whole dish." I guess that's why the pork tasted so dry and unexciting.

Bao Down Snackbar is a laudable concept. There is definitely room in Vancouver for an excellent full-service restaurant that gives the Filipino flavour range its moment in the sun. But for now, we're still waiting.

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About the Author
Vancouver restaurant critic

Alexandra Gill has been The Globe and Mail’s Vancouver restaurant critic since 2005. She joined the paper as a summer intern in 1997 and was hired full-time as an entertainment columnist the following year. In 2001, she moved to Vancouver as the Western Arts Correspondent, a position she held until 2007. More


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