It was 2017, and a culinary supergroup of sorts was forming. On figurative lead guitar was Robbie Kane, proprietor of Café Medina, one of the busiest, most successful spots in town. On drums was Jason Sussman, one of the founders who helped turn a casual Tofino taco truck into Tacofino, one of B.C.’s defining restaurant groups of the decade. Bass was Ryan Spong, CEO of food.ee and a Tacofino co-founder. And lead vocals was a largely unknown Abdallah “Dallah” El Chami, (below) who would be doing a lot of the heavy lifting for the new group: Superbaba.
They launched in Victoria near the old Tacofino location with the help of some Tacofino alumni as partners, with a thought that once they were a tight working unit, they’d sail across the Salish Sea to take on Vancouver. It started perfectly—Dallah had already moved to Victoria, Superbaba was slammed and adored, and the big time was just around the corner.
Dallah had spent months in Victoria fine-tuning the operation—costing, service—but by the time he returned to Vancouver the city was in one of its frequent commercial land rushes, with the spaces they viewed getting snapped up by overzealous competitors at a dizzying rate.
So instead of overpaying for a less-than-perfect spot (there’s a reason behind the financial success of Medina and Tacofino) they came up with solution: Tacofino already had a food truck licence for Vancouver and the team found a second-hand vehicle on the Island, so Dallah would open Superbaba first on wheels, transitioning into bricks and mortar when the right slot availed itself. Not exactly the debut everyone had imagined, but at least they had momentum. “It turned out to be a blessing," recalls Dallah now. "It was a year of valuable non-stop problem solving and fine tuning all the key elements.”
And then COVID. Awesome. The truck shut down (it’s actually being used by the Le Tigre team now); Victoria shut down. But a silver lining emerged—commercial space suitable for a restaurant became a whole lot more available. Ultimately, the old Kam’s Bakery on Main Street just north of Broadway was chosen and the team fine-tuned their vision of what the Vancouver Superbaba would be: smart but efficient (read: not expensive) design with an emphasis on ingredients, and an atmosphere that might make a visit to Superbaba part of the average diner’s routine with a frequency that’s above the industry standard. All great ideas. And all challenging to achieve.
But several visits to the new spot have made it obvious that they haven’t just cleared that bar, they’ve soared. Notwithstanding its broadly casual aspirations, it’s one of the most exciting spots to open in the last year. There’s a moment in a first visit to a special restaurant—whether it has three Michelin stars or serves takeout—where you experience something that tells you that you’ve crossed the culinary Rubicon into a place that you just know you’re falling in love with. For me, it was opening a takeout container of Superbaba’s steak bowl and seeing, well, steak (a term that’s used very loosely in the casual restaurant realm). Real chunks of actual steak. A lot of them. They were so tender that for a brief moment I wondered if they might be a lower grade of tenderloin—in a $13.95 steak bowl. It turns out they’re sirloin, but sourced from Legend’s Haul and lavished with a secret procedure that brings them, and you, closer to God.
The meat was so good that my enjoyment was immediately tempered by a fear that the rest of the meal wouldn’t live up to it. But the baba ganoush in the same bowl was uncommonly rich, creamy and with a touch of smoke; the tahini bold; the sumac-pickled onions providing steadying acidic balance. The chicken in my wife’s bowl was all flavourful thigh meat; the tempura eggplant in the sabich bowl was light and not leaded in the least with oil residue; the soft-boiled egg that comes with it managed to travel 25 blocks in a takeout container without losing its spot yolk with a perfect level of runny. And the fried cauliflower—a bookending revelation of crispness as well (the “secret” Dallah confides is seasoning it before frying it).
And that’s pretty much the entire menu—each bowl can come wrapped in house-made pita for a lower price. Middle Eastern food lends itself more than most to emphasizing clean, healthy flavours, but this menu is in a class of its own.
And the cost? It’s a tricky area in COVID, because even a value-oriented person/skinflint like me has come to grips with the fact that, with the industry holding on by its fingertips, it’s probably not the best time to go around sniffing for “deals.” The corollary is, of course, that a lot of us have been slapped hard in the wallet by the pandemic, so being a patron without limits is usually not an option. But here a family of four can eat a magnificent meal—easily one of the best takeout options in the city—prepared by good people, with healthy ingredients from local suppliers, for under $50. It’s a flipping godsend of a spot in these times.
The downside? Er... the fries are simply good (but why are you ordering fries here?). The turmeric cookie is very floral and the cornflake halvah cookie always sells out. And if you want delivery, well, tough. Ironically, Dallah, who in his pre-industry days was shortlisted to be the GM of Doordash Vancouver, was one of the first to take a rather public stand about quitting the delivery companies on the basis that they couldn’t make a go of doing their thing and paying the delivery fees on top (plus you can’t control the customer experience). Also, once you go, you’re likely to make it part of your routine—so factor that in as well. You’ve been warned.
Superbaba, 2419 Main St., 604-423-5578