Last week I was in New York en route to Asia. A couple of Manhattan friends, novelist Monique Truong and restaurateur/chef Pichet Ong, suggested that I check out BaoHaus, a new Lower East Side snack joint serving up Taiwanese stuffed buns called gua bao. BaoHaus’s buns are not round, filled buns like the ones you get dim sum or the ones I made using refrigerated biscuit dough. Rather, they are mini sandwiches called gua bao.
The leavened bao dough is shaped into clamshells and steamed. Open up the resulting plain steamed rolls and slide a little morsel inside, such as red cooked pork belly or deep fried duck. (Cantonese roast duck is often served with steamed buns for you to make your own mini concoction.
Some describe gua bao as a hamburger, but I’m not sure. I suppose you could say that bao are Chinese buns so these are Chinese hamburgers. Any thoughts on whether gua bao are hamburgers or not?
The version at BaoHaus is Taiwanese, stuffed with a satisfying amount of pork belly, braised beef, or deep-fried tofu. Pichet and I like the pork belly best, though we also ate up the other two versions too!
Don’t expect a David Chang/Momofuku-esque pork belly bun here. Owner and chef Eddie Huang was born in the U.S. and raised by food savvy Taiwanese parents. His father ran a steakhouse and made Eddie work every job, though he never intended for his son to go into the restaurant business.
Eddie wanted the buns to taste like Taiwanese street food he’s had. “There’s good porky flavor in my buns because with Chinese food, you need to taste the pork,” Eddie said. “We balance the flavors, not too salty, not too sweet.” He’s got uppity Asian pride and love of food and cooking. His enthusiasm for running restaurant and Asian American foodways is honest.
BaoHaus stays true to its Asian roots but steps things up for the slightly edgy Lower East Side, which is next door to Chinatown and being gentrified. Go down the stairs into the small bao joint and there’s hip hop playing and wi-fi. Eddie’s brother will greet you with the blue and white menu. BaoHaus not ghetto, but rather cool and clever ghetto.
BaoHaus’s bao have quirky, clever names: Haus Bao (hanger steak), Chairman Bao (pork belly), Uncle Jesse (tofu). The buns are stuffed with the protein of choice, a lick of sauce, and crushed roasted peanuts, and cilantro. There may be some Haus relish which I couldn’t quite decipher. It’s a tasty mouthful and I could totally eat 2 gua bao in 1 sitting. Three BaoHaus bao was a stretch with my can of sasparilla.
Then there are the bao fries that are pieces of deep-fried bao dough finished with a light sweet sauce: black sesame, purple taro, durian, pandan or sesame butter and jelly. The fries are a nice afternoon sweet snack with tea.
Eddie knows his hipster crowd and dials in the Asian American cultural bent. For the “Straight Frush” combo, you select 3 baos and a free drink (Calpico is $1 extra). “Royal Frush” is for 6 bao and bao fries. Getting all of BaoHaus’s jokes – here it’s Asians people’s love of gambling and poor consonant pronunciation (some people can’t say the letters R and L) – gives you a certain sense of being an insider, part of a club.
The BaoHaus tagline is “Fresh off the Boat.” Don’t steal that. Eddie’s a former attorney (good Asian kid) and he’s trademarked his tagline.
New Yorkers are smart and open minded to new interpretations and presentations of food. BaoHaus is a cultural and culinary bridge that I hope many people will cross.
Note: Eddie Huang is coming to San Francisco for a Chairman Bao smackdown in late August. It's BaoHaus vs. Chairman Bao truck. Eddie's pissed that the Chairman truck took his Chairman Bao name.
He's also opening a new restaurant dedicated to Taiwanese street food called Xiao Ye. (See preview per erious Eats.)