When Bao Bao opened a couple years ago on Spring St., I was pretty excited. I love dumplings, and knowing that the owner’s other restaurant was winning high marks from just about everyone, I thought the dumpling house would be a steady draw in the area. Like many new restaurants, they received a lot of attention initially, but then just went about their business with a few less eyes watching. I decided to pay them a visit recently to guage how they were holding up.
I hadn’t been to the restaurant in probably close to a year, but the menu seemed to be the same as it had been since they first opened. It’s possible there were some subtle changes, but I didn’t notice any. The menu focused on dumplings – always served by the half-dozen – and offered a few of both hot and cold items. The dumplings themselves offered various preparations – boiled, pan fried, and steamed, depending on the type.
We decided to start with a cold item, the Asian Slaw – cabbage, pea pods, carrots, shallots, peanuts. Then she wanted the Tofu, Shitake, Carrot, and Cilantro Dumplings. I ordered the Chicken Cashew and Kung Pao Chicken and Peanut versions. She asked for them steamed and I requested boiled. I like the texture of the outer dough better when it’s not fried.
With my first look at the slaw, I was pleased with the large portion. The colorful, fresh veggie mix had some extra crunch from the peanuts and crunchy noodles. It was doused with a beautifully made Asian dressing which included all the typical flavors. The slaw was tasty and worked as a nice starter. By the time we were done, I knew dumplings were on the horizon.
In preparation for my doughy chicken coffins, I added some soy sauce and a touch of black vinegar to my little bowl and also dumped some chili oil onto my small plate. Before long, they all came out. The cashew chicken type came with a small cup of sauce and the others sat alone. Hers were in a double-decker metal steam pot of some sort that reminded me of a trolley driving through San Francisco.
The cashew chicken dumplings were up to try first. The pockets of palate paraphernalia were stuffed with the minced cashew chicken filling, nice and soft on the outside from being boiled, and had just a smidgen of nut crunch. A foray into the sauce added a relatively typical sweet taste associated with the Chinese restaurant staple, but with a slightly more concentrated flavor since the dip was straight up. I enjoyed them with both the sauce and the soy/vinegar combo and even an occasional swipe through the oil.
After the cashew bird baskets were done, I quickly moved on to the Kung Pao packets. One bite in, I easily recalled why those were my favorite. Like the others, they were doughy outside and slightly nutty inside, but the stellar Kung Pao flavor inside the dumpling just added something that wrapped it together in a well balanced mix of all the ingredients. Not too sweet, but hearty and wonderfully flavorful, they were great alone and even better with the soy mix and a little chili oil.
In between eating my dumplings, I traded one with my wife. I was impressed by hers. It wasn’t that I thought they were as good as mine. They weren’t. But I wasn’t so sure a tofu dumpling would work and, in reality, it wasn’t bad. Some soy helped, but they even had some merit without. Mrs. Portlandeater enjoyed them. I probably wouldn’t order them for myself, but they were certainly a step up from what I expected.
There was no room for dessert once the dumplings were done. We had consumed plenty. Our food came to about $35 before tip…umm…after tip. Bao Bao no longer allows tipping and builds it in to the prices of their food. I think it’s the first restaurant of the type that that I’ve ever been to and I’ll say it now – as a consumer, it’s magnificent. It makes the final transaction much easier – no need to calculate the tip and no need to guess the total final cost. I know some staff have left due to the change, but the service was good – maybe better? – and the staff that are there seemed genuinely happy.
Bao Bao is another restaurant that I like more every time I go. Even though they don’t change much and their menu is primarily one type of food, it’s one that I really like and they clearly have a solid grasp of how to do it. The service is excellent, the food is consistent, and it’s got kind of a cool, minimalist atmosphere. Dumplings are tailor-made for food fights too, but you won’t want to waste them by angrily throwing them to hit someone in the eye. They’re just too good. Instead, order a variety and share them with the table as an act of love. Enjoy and let me know which ones you like best.
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