I was in the middle of microwaving a sad desk lunch in my office breakroom when my coworker dropped two phrases that caught my immediate attention. They were “xiao long bao” and “Midtown.”
There is no shortage of moments in which dumpling cravings hit me, but there is a woefully limited selection of dumpling shops within the inner loop. To find xiao long bao, the elite soup dumplings somewhere within a ten-minute drive from my house would be positively unheard of. Upon investigation of the menu, I found few pescatarian dumpling options to fit my personal dining preference (per usual, all of the soup dumplings contained meat fillings), but there were enough other offerings to pique my interest, like green tea shrimp, duck yolk-coated pumpkin, or stuffed lotus with floral honey.
Like many of the other recent additions to the Chinese dining scene that have settled inside the loop, the interior was far more polished than the typical Chinatown establishment—lots of sleek wooden furniture and wood trim, exposed brick and open ceilings, gleaming light fixtures and eclectic artwork. And a dedicated parking lot!
Basically, the ambiance was nice enough that I took note despite my ever-impending hanger that was closing in as we entered the restaurant around 7:30 p.m. on a Wednesday. Between the long column of “Wanna Bao Signatures,” featuring the xiao long bao, baos and other dishes, street food offerings of dumplings, more entrees and a lengthy list of vegetable offerings, my dining partner and I quickly ordered enough food to overwhelm our small square table.
Our waitress, courteous but perfunctory in a manner that reminded me of most Chinatown hospitality, took our order without batting an eye. The dishes began to pour in after a minimal wait, to my relief: first the Eggplant Loves Green Beans, followed by a bamboo basket of vegetable dumplings with a skin the color of brightly blanched snow peas, a basket of xiao long bao, a big vat of rice and lastly, a sizeable bowl of mapo tofu.
As servers attempted to cram more and more dishes onto our small table, we quickly solved the problem by consolidating all of the dumplings into one basket.
The first thing we noticed about the dumplings was the precise pleats on the green vegetable dumplings—a big contrast to the inconsistently folded, messily fried dumplings we had recently consumed in Bellaire the weekend prior. Inside each supple skin, there was a mild, mushroom-forward mix of tofu, carrot, mushroom and spinach: a solid, fresh-tasting vegetable dumpling, accompanied with a soy and chili sauce mixture to add a necessary tang.
Though less precisely folded, the xiao long bao looked perfectly plump, the flat bottoms sagging slightly with the weight of the fragrant broth. The dumpling skin was acceptably thin and delicate, housing a juicy filling that my dining partner noted was tasty, though it fell short compared to others he’d had. These came with a lighter rice vinegar-based sauce accented by a few slices of ginger.
I think the convenience of Wanna Bao’s location could have helped us get over these slight dings in taste had it not been for the prices: $9.50 for six pork and shrimp xiao long bao and $7 for six vegetable dumplings felt a bit steep—especially coming off the relatively recent consumption of dumplings of a similar quality for nearly half the price in Bellaire.
But the eggplant dish was a table-pleaser, combining two of my favorite vegetables in Chinese cooking—eggplant and long beans. This dish came denoted with a red pepper, and sure enough, the chopped bits of red pepper sprinkled throughout the chunks of custardy eggplant and glazed, tender green beans was enough to make me continually reach for my water glass (which was attentively refilled). The dish was actually spicier than the more alarming looking mapo tofu, with chunks of silken tofu swimming in a richly hued sauce. But somehow, although the vegetables were fresh and well-cooked with just a bit of crunch in the green beans, and the mapo tofu sauce was appropriately gelatinous, both dishes seemed to be missing some flavor. We theorized that tjhe more aggressive funk that often comes from fermented black beans or the numbing heat from Sichuan peppercorns had been toned down in the tofu to cater to slightly more Americanized palates.
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Between Spicy Girl, Pepper Twins, Mala Sichuan, there feels a disproportionate wealth of options when it comes to Sichuan food inside the loop, and while eating at Wanna Bao, I wrestled with the question of which I would choose to visit next. The obvious advantage of Wanna Bao is the wide selection of dumplings and specialties like the crispy-bottom baos—and even though they command a premium for serving these delicacies inside the loop, it’s a premium most inner loopers will likely be willing to pay given the upscale ambiance and convenience. And when you compare Wanna Bao’s prices to non-Chinatown establishments, the prices are really quite fair. But when it comes to the dishes themselves, our initial impression that Wanna Bao may fall a bit short.
However, as we left the restaurant, I noticed the shiny “Soft Opening” banner was still displayed out front. When I later called to ask what this meant, the man who answered the phone explained that they consider themselves still in the soft opening phase of testing out different dishes and ingredients and gathering customer feedback with no set date for a grand opening in the future yet (though they are currently operating at full business hours). While I didn’t encounter any opportunities to pass along feedback (besides our waitress) during our visit, it sounds like there is still much potential for Wanna Bao to grow and improve—with a few tweaks, I’d certainly be glad to add them to my regular dining routine.
Wanna Bao is located at 2708 Bagby, and is open Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays from 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., and from 5:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m; Fridays and weekends, from 11:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. (closed Tuesdays).