I am an admitted, established sucker for fried avocado, roasted cauliflower and gua bao. So one would think that I'd be a sucker for Fat Bao, too, the new fusion restaurant specializing in bao -- steamed buns folded like half-moons into what are essentially the Chinese version of finger sandwiches -- and an assortment of interesting side items, such as fried avocado sticks and curry-dusted roasted cauliflower.
Yet for as excited as I was to try the new restaurant out for the first time, my meal left me -- unexpectedly -- a smidge unenthusiastic.
"Maybe we overordered," my friend Cathy said as we took our numbered yellow cones to a table to await our bao. "But if we didn't, that was just a lot to spend on lunch."
Our orders had both come to just under $20 (after tip) for two bao, one side and a fountain drink each. We were both unclear at first whether or not the $3.50 to $5 cost was for one or two bao, but that question was answered when the plastic boats of bao were delivered to our table (in record time, I might add; Fat Bao has its system down when it comes to expediting food). One Peking duck-filled bao is $5. A less expensive pork belly bao is $3.50.
It's a far cry from the $3.95 you'll pay for two enormous, pork belly-filled bao at my favorite spot: Yummy Kitchen.
That said, I completely understand why Fat Bao charges a premium for its bao: rent. Monthly rent at a visible spot along Richmond at Kirby isn't cheap. Yummy Kitchen has a far lower rent at its strip mall in Chinatown. And you don't have to burn a bunch of expensive gas to get to Fat Bao if you live in town. Driving out to Chinatown every time you get a bao craving can get expensive, even if the bao themselves are cheap.
So while I'll mostly excuse the prices at Fat Bao (especially in light of its cute, chic build-out and cozy, well-lit dining room that's perfect for a relaxing lunch break), I'll say that the bao themselves need a little bit more work. All four of ours came out room temperature to slightly cool. For as quickly as they arrived, it was either surprising ("Shouldn't they be hot off the line?") or expected ("Did they just grab these out of a warming tray?") -- I'm not exactly sure how Fat Bao has its expediting system set up, so I'm not sure how to feel. All I know is that the ingredients themselves, including nicely rendered pork belly and well-battered soft-shell crab on top of a crisp Asian-style coleslaw, deserve a bit better treatment.
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I could find no fault at all with the fried avocado (especially the portion size; this is best shared with a group), but was chagrined to find the cauliflower oddly seasoned. I noticed big, beautiful flakes of salt on the avocado, but there was none to be found on the curry-saturated cauliflower. The curry powder gave the vegetables a fragrant lift, but it wasn't enough to make up for the lack of salt. That said, the cauliflower was roasted perfectly, with broad, dark strokes of oven browning across the beige surfaces.
For right now, I'm reserving judgment on Fat Bao. It's only in its soft opening period and that's too soon to cast too critical an eye on a place. But I will say that I like the idea of Fat Bao for the same reason I enjoyed Nabi: It's nice to have a closer option for the type of food that normally requires a road trip out to Bellaire. And I'm happy to see more intriguing side items on menus instead of the typical french fries. I'm also looking forward to getting back and trying Fat Bao's dessert bao -- one stuffed with S'Mores is calling my name -- and its more fusion-y offerings, like a bao stuffed with cream cheese and smoked salmon. There's nothing that's not made better by the application of smoked salmon.