Take Out Reviews: Fat Bao

Full take-out spread from Fat Bao
Full take-out spread from Fat Bao Photo by Carlos Brandon
You may find, during these difficult times, that you miss not only your daily routine but also the spontaneous, "once in while" type things you inadvertently took for granted. For me, this has meant certain restaurants and their associated experiences — the intimacy and pleasure of sushi from the counter, the smell of barbecue on a Saturday morning, gas station shawarma for lunch.

Among my favorite occasional haunts is Fat Bao, one of the first restaurants outside of Chinatown to introduce Houstonians to the wonderful world of gua bao, or Chinese steamed bun sandwiches. Luckily for me, I was relieved to find the Kirby location is still open and taking to-go orders over the phone (the Sugar Land location appears to be temporarily closed).

click to enlarge Beef Bulgogi Fat Fries from Fat Bao - PHOTO BY CARLOS BRANDON
Beef Bulgogi Fat Fries from Fat Bao
Photo by Carlos Brandon
Despite being colloquially referred to as "bao", gua bao is not to be confused with baozi (stuffed steamed buns) or any variety of steamed dumplings sometimes also called bao. Fat Bao specifically sells gua bao, along with an intersecting menu of Asian casual dishes like the bulgogi-topped Fat Fries and tonkotsu ramen.

I used to frequent the Sugar Land outpost while working nearby, but it had been well over a year since my last visit. Per instructions in the company's recent Instagram posts, I called ahead to order and was told to come in, where my order would be placed a safe distance from the register and my transaction could be completed under extra precautions. While the ease and safety of online ordering and curbside pick up at other restaurants has been a comfort, I was relieved, at least, to find the employee at the register wore gloves and stepped back a safe distance to allow me to complete the transaction on the touch-screen (I was assured that the screen gets sanitized after each customer).

click to enlarge Memphis and Pork Belly Baos - PHOTO BY CARLOS BRANDON
Memphis and Pork Belly Baos
Photo by Carlos Brandon
I ordered my usual favorites and then some — because quarantine. The more traditional Pork Belly Bao, the barbecue-inspired Memphis (also featuring pork belly) and my personal favorite, the sweet and tangy Big Byrd with sauce-slathered fried chicken. I threw in an order of bulgogi beef Fat Fries for good measure, which I shared with two grateful dogs upon realizing I couldn't fit another bite of food in my over-ambitious stomach.

I had forgotten how spicy the Memphis is. It's Asian slaw with spicy mayo are no joke, out-matching the savory braised pork belly. For a spice lover it is perhaps a flagship order. For my admittedly weaker constitution, I prefer the gentle sweetness of the classic Pork Belly — its cucumbers and hoisin sauce paired so well against the salty pork.

The Big Byrd, which I saved for last, was a slice of pure nostalgia. A throwback to a time before pandemics, before food writing even, when Fat Bao was just a place I'd get lunch at a few times a month. As in those days, I was left wanting more, wishing I'd ordered another for later. Few meals can leave you craving them the moment they're gone. That feeling, more than any flowery arrangement of words or thorough high brow analysis, is the baseline standard for good food. In the midst of this terrible and frightening pandemic, it is a feeling I desperately needed.
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Houston Press contributor Carlos Brandon is a freelance writer, blogger, and self proclaimed Houston hip hop historian. He contributes to various publications and can usually be found haggling with food truck cooks or talking politics on the METRO Rail.
Contact: Carlos Brandon