Chinese New Year starts just a few days after Mardi Gras this year on Friday, February 16, kicking off the year of the brown dog, hence my snarky title. Growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area, I am no stranger to the festivities, which include elaborate red and gold dragons dancing through the streets of Chinatown with fireworks popping at their feet, twanging drums and clashing symbols, the consumption of noodles (for longevity) and egg rolls (for wealth), and my favorite “hongbao,” the little red envelopes meant to symbolize good luck. Every year, the Wons, a Chinese family across the street who practically became part of our family over the years, would hand out hongbao to all the kids—a gift that would often enclose a shiny silver dollar.
Though they aren't a typical Chinese New Year dish, I am nevertheless reminded of my first taste of char siu bao—standing in the Wons' kitchen, grasping the sweet, fluffy bun in my hands, discovering the hidden pocket of deliciously sweet and savory pork in my first bite; it is an experience not easily forgotten. Thankfully, it is an experience I can relive again and again, even though I no longer live in the Bay Area, since over the past several years, there has been a literal proliferation of bao on local menus.
Vietnamese restaurant Le's Baguette Banh Mi Café, which recently opened Uptown on Dryades, features pho, egg rolls, banh mi, and vermicelli bowls, plus a good selection of bao, like their signature five-spice pork belly, lemongrass chicken, fried oyster, and tofu all wrapped with cilantro and julianned vegetables. At only $7 for two bao, feel free to try a couple of different flavors and throw in a café sua da while you're at it.
Over at Pho Bistreaux on the corner of S. Carrollton and Oak, they have a pretty good selection of bao. Though I can't seem to resist their grilled shrimp com, I usually also grab an order of their grilled pork “sliders,” a.k.a. bao … not only because they're tasty, but also because they're less than $6 an order!
Another wonderful Vietnamese spot, Pho Cam Ly down on Magazine Street, offers “steamed sliders” at less than $6 per order, but they have a couple more interesting options. Along with grilled pork, tofu, and shrimp, they have spicy Chinese sausage and grilled pork patties.
On Maple Street, Ba Chi Canteen calls their bao “bacos” (bao + taco) and offers a huge selection, from coconut curry and katsu chicken to ponzu shrimp and sweet chili tofu. With almost 30 different bao to choose from at around $3.50 each, you could easily sample several different flavors in one sitting and settle on your favorite … that is, unless you love them all.
Down in the Bywater, you can score a more traditional version of char siu bao from the neighborhood Chinese spot dubbed Bao & Noodle, owned and operated by Herbsaint alum Chef Doug Crowell. Along with delectable scallion pancakes and tea-smoked duck, Bao & Noodle features a “Rousong Bao” stuffed with scallions, mayo, and pork; and fried steamed bao that combine the best of both worlds (both crispy and fluffy) and are filled with ground pork, ginger Chinkiang vinegar, and soy sauce. He even offers a vegan version with mung beans and mock duck in a yellow curry. At only $5 for an order of two, this is your best bet yet.
Up on Magazine Street near Napoleon Avenue, recently opened ramen shop Nomiya also offers bao. Though their menu is simple and mostly ramen, they do offer buns stuffed with pork, thick-sliced cucumber, and Japanese mayo at $7 for an order of two.
As you can see, there are many restaurants offering bao in the Greater New Orleans Area—far more than the few I mentioned. Where do you find the best bao for your buck?
Gung Hay Fat Choy (a.k.a. Happy New Year)!