Who doesn’t love ice cream? The Vancouverite sat down with Mike Wong, co-owner of Tangram Creamery, an independent ice cream shop that opened in early January in Kitsilano. Wong and his partner, Tinn Chan, are hoping their artisan approach to ice cream and sorbets - everything is made in house - even their signature cookie cone - will make Tangram a neighbourhood gem and city destination for a sweet treat.
Tangram also features in-house roasted coffee by Wong, who started CooCoo Coffee in Yaletown back in 1999 and is quite the roasting connoisseur after years of apprenticeship following his sale of CooCoo. Bags of their Tangram Roasts are also available for purchase. In addition to coffee, they also sell ice cream macarons that were made famous by Chan’s pastry cafe on Robson Street, Chicco Cafe.
Wong, who is soft spoken yet clearly enthusiastic and passionate about his new shop, has discovered that one of the perks - and drawbacks - of owning an ice cream shop is the change in waistline. Yet he and his partner, Chan, are constantly striving for a better ice cream - so listening to their customers and making adjustments to form a delicate balance of flavour, profile and structure is everything. I had an opportunity to sample various testers to determine whether one tasted better following minor to significant changes to the ingredients - and Wong was listening and observing every expression of mine like a ten year old listening to their favourite story. Ice cream making is both an art and a science; and Wong is set out to make the best ice cream in Vancouver and also making Tangram stand out above the rest by packing in the flavour. Their signature is the cookie cone, made by their in-house pastry chef; a flaky cookie formed into the shape of a cone.
While it’s a limited number of flavours, making the decision of what to have becomes much simpler. Each week they offer a different collection of flavours, for both ice cream and sorbet. You’ll find some traditional flavours like Double Chocolate, which packs a punch of deep, rich chocolate and crunchy chunks of chocolate between bites. There’s the more adventurous Black Sesame, which is modeled after the famous Chinese dessert - that’s my personal favourite. Tangram’s Earl Grey is also interesting - much lighter and less creamier than Earnest Ice Cream’s version but also yields much more flavour and literally tastes like you’ve frozen a cup of Earl Grey tea in the freezer. The Guatemala Coffee, similar to their Double Chocolate, is rich and flavourful - but again on the lighter side if you’re used to ice cream from most of the other shops around town. On a whole, Tangram’s focus is on the flavour - and therefore less filler (cream) which can sometimes mask flavours. They don't use any ready-to-serve mixtures like some other shops might. A commitment to using all natural ingredients help maintain a clean palate and gives a nice, clean aftertaste. For me, their lychee and raspberry sorbets are clear winners - I have yet to find another shop in town that can match their flavours. You can tell they don’t skimp on ingredients. The taste is quite overwhelmingly satisfying and mouthwatering.
we don't use any (ready to serve mixture) like others. We only use all natural ingredients. It maintains a clean palate and gives a nice clean after taste
Why an ice cream shop?
We’ve always thought that coffee and ice cream always go hand-in-hand. I’ve been involved in coffee since 1999 and then eventually went into roasting. My partner, Tinn Chan, a restauranteur who owns a Japanese pastry cafe on Robson where he serves ice cream and also house-made ice cream macarons. He eventually began to offer ice cream macarons wholesale to other restaurants. So when we started talking about what we wanted to start building together we originally wanted to have a warehouse of central production for roasting and baking and ice cream.
How is this venture different than CooCoo Coffee?
Running a coffee shop is nice - you see a lot of repeat customers everyday. You get walk-to-work, morning traffic; however, people can be pretty grumpy in the morning. In an ice cream place, on the other hand, customers are simply happy. People come in here for sweet treats and it’s just a happy business. It’s also very relaxed too.
How did you learn how to roast coffee?
When I moved on from CooCoo, I worked for William from West End Coffee Roasters, my mentor who taught me how to roast; after which I became his roaster for his business for three years. I was doing shopfront roasting on Robson and then eventually setting up a warehouse on Kent Avenue in South Vancouver. I roasted for a few years and then moved on. Tinn and I actually built a coffee shop exactly ten years ago along the CanadaLine called Cafe Alto but only operated for eight months due to the messiness of construction for the Olympics in 2005. So it was nice for us to join forces again.
Did you always know you wanted to open an ice cream shop?
For Tinn, it was a natural fit since he was already doing ice cream macarons and for me I was able to continue something related to coffee, so it was a perfect marriage.
Is everything made from scratch, on premise?
Yes - including the lychee, matcha, earl grey, etc., are all made from scratch. Our chef - Kazushi Terakawa - who was originally Tinn’s pastry chef at Chicco, is responsible for everything from scratch including creating the cookie cone. Everything has been developed here on premise.
What’s your favourite ice cream?
When we looked at other major independent ice cream shops in the city, they already had their own established territories so we knew it would be challenging to set up somewhere close to them. It just so happened this location was available, and there’s a big population around Kits; townhouses, condos, schools, senior homes, work traffic - it’s all around us. It reminds me of Yaletown in its earlier days when I first set up CooCoo. The walk-in traffic isn’t quite there yet but I hope this is a good distance to draw people out.
When did you open?
We opened second week of January.
What’s been your biggest learning moment so far since you opened?
I would say the DIY of the renovation; we learned a lot. We did the interiors all ourselves to save money - we never contracted it out to anyone else to design. Thanks to the current trend of industrial and raw interiors, the DIYs can be more forgiving as it’s less polished.
So where does the name “Tangram” come from?
Tangram is actually an old 200-year-old Chinese puzzle. We liked it as our vision because it implies that the combination and creativity is limitless.
What’s your best selling ice cream?
Surprisingly it’s raspberry sorbet! A lot of really young kids - toddlers - they just finish the whole single scoop by themselves and come back for more! It’s very fruity and very refreshing. They really love it. And it’s made from scratch so it’s very seedy. By summer, lychee will be the “it” flavour and we’ll also have lime as well.
2729 Arbutus Street, Vancouver