Metro Phoenix doesn't have a lot in the way of gua bao, the irresistible Asian street snack that's sometimes described as a "Taiwanese hamburger."
"Normally you can only find bao during dim sum, but those are kind of brunch hours. I wanted people to be able to get a bao in Phoenix at any hour," chef and restaurateur Corey Barnes says.
Barnes hopes that her new culinary concept, Bao Chow, will introduce more Phoenicians to the pleasures of crave-worthy, flavorful bao. Bao Chow is the new kitchen concept located inside Tempe's beloved Yucca Tap Room. The new restaurant, which opened on April 30, is a collaboration between Barnes and her partner, Yucca Tap Room owner Rodney Hu.
Barnes is no stranger to the Phoenix food scene. Before Bao Chow, she worked as a pastry chef and catering event manager at well-known local outfits such as The Market by Jennifer and Atlasta Catering.
She says she became bao-obsessed after a visit to Tokyo, a city where Japanese, Chinese, and Korean flavors often come together in innovative ways.
"My husband and I traveled to Tokyo for our honeymoon and there were bao everywhere. I fell in love with that style of street food. Then I came back to Arizona and there's not a whole lot of that here. So I definitely found a gap in the market," she says.
As luck would have it, she heard that Hu was looking to bring a new culinary concept to the Yucca Tap Room.
Both Barnes and Hu are admirers of David Chang's Momofuku and Eddie Huang's Baohaus, two New York restaurants that have propelled the humble bao to culinary stardom stateside.
Partnering with Hu was a natural fit, she says.
For folks who aren't very familiar with bao, Barnes likes to put the food in terms that any Phoenician will understand.
"Gua bao is the style of bao we make. It's considered kind of a hamburger in Taiwan. But the way that I would describe it here to Phoenicians would be that it's basically an Asian taco," she says, laughing.
It's a succinct description that captures the essence of bao. Like a taco, skillfully made bao has a reputation as a simple yet exquisite flavor bomb.
"Traditionally, gua bao is made with straight-up pork," Barnes says. "But on any bao menu, there's usually a pork, a chicken, a beef, and a vegetarian option."
There are five bao on Barnes' menu, including pork belly, fried chicken, bulgogi beef, and two vegetarian options — shiitake mushroom and agedashi tofu. On Tuesdays, as part of the kitchen's Beers and Baos night, Bao Chow offers a rotating option and two-for-one specials.
Barnes' favorite bao on the menu is the fried chicken bao. The lemon-brined fried chicken, folded inside its pillowy, steamed bun, is juicy and crisp. It's touched with a lovely and creamy homemade lemon sambal aioli.
Along with bao, Bao Chow also serves other fun, mashup dishes, including bulgogi poutine, dashi-simmered shiitake poutine made with soy sauce, Thai-style chicken wings, and fries and tater tots seasoned with a homemade "Chinese takeout" seasoning mix.
Right now, Barnes says she's keeping the menu tight and focused to ensure quality. Along with helping get Bao Chow off the ground, Barnes also has a day job as an edible brand developer for local Arizona cannabis businesses, lending her culinary training in the development of new products.
"This is kind of a weird situation for me, developing a menu and kind of managing a restaurant from afar," Barnes says. "Obviously, quality is pretty much my top priority at this point."
To that end, she's hired an experienced kitchen manager, Tim Callaway, formerly of Upward Projects' Joyride Taco House, to ensure that everything runs smoothly when she's not at the restaurant.
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So far, Barnes says, the feedback has been positive. She hopes that Bao Chow will attract more foodie types to the Yucca Tap Room, and maybe even convert some of the bar's burger-and-chicken-wing-loving regulars into bao fanatics.
Barnes says the menu will gradually expand over the next few months. Two dessert options, plus a new breakfast menu, are currently in the works.
For now, though, there's much to love about the Bao Chow menu. To learn more about Bao Chow and see the full menu, check out the restaurant's website.
Bao Chow. 31 West Southern Avenue, Tempe (inside Yucca Tap Room); 480-336-4298.
10 a.m. to midnight daily; Breakfast served 7 a.m. to 10 a.m. Saturdays and Sundays.