Fat Bao: Bao Wow
Check out a behind-the-scenes look at Fat Bao in this week's slideshow.
First things first: The bao at Fat Bao are indeed fat. The puffy, oval-shaped steamed pancakes — the type that fold over, not the type of bao that contain hot soup or char siu pork — are nearly as good as my go-to favorites at Yummy Kitchen in Chinatown, whose popular gua bao I hold as the gold standard here in Houston. The yeasty dough at Fat Bao never gets gummy, but stays fine and fluffy to the last bite.
They're fat in fillings, too. Sometimes so much so that they're unwieldy, but more on that in a second.
In their best iterations at Fat Bao, the plump pancakes are filled with Memphis-style pork belly and a creamy coleslaw tinged with the flavors of ginger and fish sauce. They're stuffed full of Japanese-style karaage fried chicken in a tangy-sweet sauce with bright pops of basil. They're spilling over with tempura-battered fish that rests on a bed of pickled slices of apple, coated with jalapeño-warmed mayonnaise. They're overflowing with spiky, spindly legs of fried soft-shell crab that's warm and crisp against the soft exterior.
The ingredients and influences in the bao span a wide swath of the East Asian spectrum, from Taiwan to Korean, from Japan to mainland China, with a little Tennessee and New York thrown in for good measure. But not every blend of cuisines or flavors works well together, and this is something that Fat Bao is still figuring out.
And that's okay. The utterly adorable little bao shop in Upper Kirby only opened in January and has already shown drastic improvement in the few months it's been operating, so I have no doubts its industrious crew will continue to refine and hone its already impressive menu.
The first thing that Chinatown devotees will probably notice about Fat Bao — aside from its beautifully decorated dining room done up in cool shades of mint green and stainless steel against warm, inviting wooden tables and a visually captivating wood block sculpture fastened to one wall — is a significant price differential.
Let's take Yummy Kitchen as an example. The gua bao, which are a uniquely Taiwanese creation of pork belly in hoisin sauce sprinkled with crushed peanuts and garnished with cilantro, cost $3.50 for two. You'll only need two, trust me. At Fat Bao, however, the prices start at $3.50 for one bao and rocket all the way up to $5 apiece for the more labor-intensive creations like Peking duck and that deep-fried soft-shell crab.
But here's the thing: Rent's more expensive over here. And if you live close into town — as I imagine most of Fat Bao's patrons do — you're not paying for the gas required to get to Chinatown and back (or the tolls if you're using Westpark). And if a craving for gua bao strikes during your lunch hour, as it has often done during mine, it's not always feasible to get out to Chinatown and back in 60 minutes. You're paying a convenience fee here, and that's just what it is.
All that said, Fat Bao has actually lowered its prices since opening in January after complaints that its offerings were a wee bit too high at lunch. These days, the restaurant smartly offers two lunch specials: two bao with your choice of fries, chips or salad and a fountain drink for $9.25 or three bao plus the sides for $12.50. Considering that I paid $20 for two bao, a side and a drink on my first visit in January, I'd say this is a huge improvement.
Moreover, Fat Bao offers additional conveniences and extras that set it apart from both Chinatown restaurants and food trucks — its other closest competition. There's the whole seating and a/c bit that food trucks aren't able to offer in Houston. Plus, its beer selection is more ample than necessary, including adjunct lagers like Bud and Michelob Ultra as well as local craft brews from Saint Arnold and Karbach. You can mix and match six bottles and/or cans for only $20, which is sure to be a happy-hour draw for the post-work crowd or weekenders.
Where Fat Bao reminds me of the city's current wave of ghetto gourmet/fancy fusion food trucks is in the exuberant construction of its bao, for better or worse. They're often better in theory than in execution, as with the New Yorker bao that begs for the crunch of red onions or the acidic punch of capers against fatty, creamy layers inside. Between the smoked salmon, the cream cheese sauce and the avocado, it's all too soft — texturally speaking — to be palatable, despite the flavors working in harmony.
The curry beef bao smacks too much of the weird Japanese curry that's been worked into that country's cuisine by way of Britain by way of India and has been deflated to a flat, mealy mess along the way. (I know there are people who love Japanese curry, however, so to each his own.) The bulgogi bao on one visit contained beef marinated for so long that it tasted rancid, although I know it was just the sugary fermented marinade overpowering the meat.
The pork belly bao — the most basic of the bao on the menu and the most strongly reminiscent of classic gua bao — contains far too much hoisin sauce, which makes the sandwich too sweet and causes the bun to tear apart like a wet paper towel. And this latter issue crops up far too often on the overdressed bao. Far superior are the ones that balance the ingredients more carefully, such as the fried fish with its graceful topping of apples and its barely-there spread of spicy mayo, or the fried sticks of tofu with pickled cucumbers and more of that tangy mayonnaise.
The sides can suffer from this, too, as with the FAT fries that are absolutely coated with cilantro, onions, kimchi-infused mayonnaise and your choice of bulgogi or pork belly. Don't do this to yourself. The twiggy little fries at Fat Bao are so impeccable on their own that the FAT version is a nearly offensive gilding of the lily. Over the course of a few visits, they've quickly become some of my favorite frites in town, right up there with those at Bernie's Burger Bus and The Burger Guys.
Ditto the chips, which are also house-cut and homemade and are mandolined into such paper-thin slices that it's a wonder they never burn in the fryer but always emerge perfectly crispy and with just the right touch of rough sea salt. I recommend dipping both in Fat Bao's "kimcheenaise" dip, which is one of the instances in which the restaurant gets over-the-top wonderfully right.
I also appreciate the fact that you can order other sides here that aren't potato-based, whether it be a curry-laced plate of fried cauliflower that's arresting in both scent and flavor or panko-crusted avocado slices deep-fried and served with jalapeño mayonnaise. There are also two versions of edamame (steamed or sautéed in spices) and two different salads for the truly health-conscious.
But you're not eating here to be health-conscious. You're eating here because you want some delicious Chinese dough wrapped around some fun, silly ingredients. So don't forget dessert: You'll be kicking yourself if you don't save room for the Nutella- and banana-stuffed bao.
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