This might be the most excited I have been about a restaurant in a long time. The Bao is a new Chinese restaurant in East Village. It’s so new it doesn’t even have a website or Yelp review yet (someone please get on it!). I was lucky enough to be invited (okay, forced to go because I was already so full at this point) by N.T. because her aunt’s friend opened the place. And let me tell you guys, it has, HANDS DOWN, the BEST 小笼包 xiao long bao (aka. soup dumplings) I have had in the United States. Thanks, N.T. and Auntie Judy for bringing it into my life!
The restaurant sits in the middle of the craziness on St. Marks, yet offers a peaceful, spacious space with pretty great modern design. We literally just had a huge barbecue meal and ice cream before this, so only came to show support for the restaurant. We said we’d just try one soup dumpling each and would be on our way. One led to two, three, four, five…
The restaurant serves up a combination of Shanghai, Hunan, Sichuan, and Guangdong dishes – all the owner Richard and his wife’s favorite foods. This here is a glass of sour plum juice, which tastes slightly medicinal but is super refreshing. I love that they have some of the lesser found things like this on the menu.
TURNIP PUFF PASTRY (萝卜丝饼). I friggin LOVE this and have only ever had it in Beijing where I get it at every restaurant I go to that has it. I’ve never seen it on the menu over here and was so excited when I saw it at The Bao. Unlike the traditional kind that are a bit bigger, about 2 inches in diameter, these little guys are bite size. The filling is typically freshly shredded turnip, scallions, some ginger (I believe), and a little bit of Chinese smoked ham (fattier the better). Not sure exactly what The Bao uses, but the filling tastes very similar to what I get in Beijing, maybe even less greasy.
There are a number of different kinds of soup dumplings on the menu. Off the top of my head, I remember regular pork, crab meat, spicy pork, and chocolate. The latter two were invented by Richard and his wife as they want this restaurant to have both traditional and modern dishes. I got to speak with Richard for a while. Super nice guy who is clearly so passionate about food he needed to make it his way of living.
We sampled the regular pork, crab, and spicy pork. The crab one is marked by a bit of roe on the top of one while the spicy one is marked with a bit of spicy sauce (below). The dumplings are not too big nor small, and are filled with the most tasty, light, and delicate soup. Richard says the soup takes 6 hours to make, and that he spent a long time taste testing with his chef to figure out the exact flavor he wanted. He also wouldn’t tell me what goes in the soup. Proprietary information. If I managed to make that soup I wouldn’t tell anyone the recipe either. It reminds of the soup that Ding Tai Fung’s dumplings have (interestingly enough, Richard flew over to LA to try the Ding Tai Fung there for some market research. He says he decided to add more soup per dumpling than DTF). The soup is very different from the kind at Joe’s Shanghai, which is thicker and greasier. The Joe’s version also has soy sauce in it (I’m guessing), which makes the soup brown. The soup at The Bao, is light, almost clear, yet so flavorful. Definitely some seriously delicate broth.
Close up of the soup dumpling. The skin is so thin that it’s translucent. Richard was telling me that you can tell if the skin is well made if you lift the dumpling from the top “nipple” and let it bounce (HEH HEH HEH) a few times. If it stretches and does not break, you know you’re in for the good stuff. Joe’s version is way thicker (definitely opaque), and more doughy than chewy.
Look at how thin that skin is!!!! And the meaaaaat. Oh man. You know it is made fresh because the meat just melts in your mouth. Frozen dumplings tend to have that dense, hard filling. This meat is also super light. The combination of the thin, chewy skin, with the soft-melt-in-your-mouth pork filling, and the delicate and flavorful soup produce dumplings that are like pockets of happiness bursting in your mouth. Seriously. So. Good.
I’ll be back again soon for a full meal. Richard encouraged me to try their other dishes as well as he says he is just as proud of them as he is of his soup dumplings (though the dumplings are definitely the star). He employs a chef to especially do the cold dishes, another chef to manage the hot dishes, and another chef with three other staff to make the soup dumplings. The specialization in labor shows how much thought and care goes into the food at this restaurant. CAN’T WAIT TO BECOME A REGULAR HERE.