If you've ever had traditional Chinese dim sum, chances are you are familiar with bao, or steamed buns typically filled with barbecue pork, shrimp or even sesame paste. But a bao hamburger? That's a new one.
RJ Xu is hoping to change that. With his new restaurant, the BAO (14 North Central Avenue, Clayton; 314-899-9098), Xu wants to expand diners' perceptions of what is possible with the Asian staple. He's taking flavors that are already familiar to the American palate but presenting them in a different way — namely, tucked inside a delicious bun. Think lobster rolls or bacon-and-egg breakfast sandwiches, only instead of being served on a crusty deli roll or English muffin, they are paired with a fluffy, sticky and slightly crunchy Asian-style bun.
Xu, who formerly owned Sushi Station in Webster Groves, tapped his longtime family friend Nisa York to help him develop the BAO's menu. York brings with her a wealth of experience honed over the years working at her family's Thai eatery, the Blue Elephant.
The pair, who are both Thai, explain that bao
is everywhere in their native country, and though they have noticed the dish growing in popularity throughout Asia and Europe, they have yet to see the concept in the American heartland. They wanted to change that, and in the process, to create a new kind of fusion. In that spirit, they settled on a menu of what could be described as classic American daytime comfort fare — biscuits and gravy, avocado toast, burgers — to pair with their homemade bao
As general manager Ben Bauer, a longtime friend of Xu, explains, "Nobody is doing this style. They are putting American twists on the dishes. Really, it's classic flavors and sandwiches, just presented differently."
But it's not just Americana. The restaurant also honors classic bao
flavors such as char siu, or Cantonese-style barbecue pork, and kakuni, or pork belly with pickled greens, peanut and cilantro.
Xu and York are particularly proud of their housemade bao
recipe. The buns are made daily from flour flown in from Thailand. Fresh from the oven, the buns are pleasantly spongy, slightly airy and have a soft, almost sweet taste. And they are not only steamed; Xu and York griddle and fry their bao as well. They even stuff a fried version with green tea ice cream for a fun twist on an ice cream sandwich.
Currently, the BAO is open for breakfast and lunch only, though that will expand in the coming weeks. Next week, the restaurant will add a happy hour that will run until 7 p.m. and feature drink specials and additional small plates. Not too far down the road, the plan is to expand the hours throughout the evening, transitioning from a fast-casual daytime eatery into an Izakaya-style dining concept by night.
"We didn't want to do it all at once," Bauer explains. "We wanted to focus on the Clayton lunch crowd first, then add to it. We want to be a place you can pop into for lunch, have some evening cocktails and small plates, or even somewhere to grab breakfast in the morning. We serve our full menu all day, so if someone wants a burger at 7 a.m., I'll get it for them."
Bauer, who has garnered acclaim as a bartender, will also be putting those skills to work at the BAO as its concept expands. Look for an ambitious cocktail menu, a wine list focused on really good whites and an extensive sake selection. By day, he is focused on the restaurant's coffee and tea offerings, serving a variety of options from the city's premier roasters as well as tea from Chicago-based Spirit Tea.
Currently, the BAO is open Monday through Saturday from 7 a.m.-3 p.m.
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