Just about every country in the East has a food that features pillowy steamed bread stuffed with meat. The Chinese begat the original, bao. The Japanese call theirs nikuman, while the Koreans have wang mandoo and the Filipinos siopao. Even Indonesia–which is as far south as you can go and still call it Asia–has a version. The Vietnamese variant, bánh bao, is not unlike the others–fluffy starch, filling meat, a whole meal in a compact hemisphere you can hold in one hand. But as good as they are, bánh baos aren't that easy to find in OC.
If you managed to locate some in Little Saigon, you probably weren't at a restaurant or pho joint. Around these parts, bánh baos are typically sold individually in cellophane-wrapped pieces and almost exclusively at food-to-go shops and bakeries. I usually buy them as a side order with the bánh mì at Bánh Mì Chè Cali–that is, if Bánh Mì Chè Cali happens to have any that day. And when they're available, there's usually only one kind: pork.
Garden Grove's T.P. Bánh Bao #2 has emerged as the county's first bánh bao specialist. In the mornings, three ladies–who are presumably daughter, mother and auntie–come out from the kitchen bearing plastic clamshell boxes, each filled with nine steamed buns. They line the boxes end-to-end behind a glass display case, stacking one on top of another and arranging them in no particular order as to what fillings are inside. I get the impression the ritual is just to show passersby that bánh baos are, indeed, for sale here. When I've ordered a bun or two, it always came from the back, reheated from an unseen steamer. (And if you're wondering what's up with the #2 in the name, it's because the original T.P. Bánh Bao is in Houston.)
But for now, no one seems to know about it. I saw not more than three customers on the first Saturday morning I visited. The next week, there were only two–and I'm counting myself. Aside from the endless rows of these snowy white domes and the unusual lack of people, the place very much resembles every other food-to-go joint in the area. A modest selection of goi cuon, plastic-wrapped with its own dipping sauce, sits next to the cash register. The fried cha gio is sold for 50 cents apiece. Xôi gâc, sweet sticky rice in multicolored neon mounds, catches your eye here just as it would anywhere else. And when you buy something, you don't eat any of it in the store; instead, you take it home. The only people I've seen sticking around longer than five minutes were some middle-aged Vietnamese men in flip-flops who sat together around a fold-out table on the sidewalk, smoking, talking and sipping iced coffee they probably ordered here hours earlier.
If the shop hasn't yet caught on, it might be because bánh baos don't seem to be inherently exciting. They all look the same and are quite literally "white bread" despite the fact that T.P. Bánh Bao #2 offers 10 different fillings–the most of any place in Little Saigon. The combo that has pork and chicken mixed into a meatball-like consistency is better and moister than the one with just the chicken. With either one, you should get the quail egg add-on, always a worthwhile upgrade. Also offered: two kinds of barbecue-pork bun. There's the Chinese kind, with the ruddy pieces of lean char siu chopped up so fine they're almost pulled pork. And the thit nuong bánh baos–filled with julienned strips of smoky Vietnamese charbroiled barbecue pork–will remind you of the last time you had a broken-rice combo plate. The most expensive bánh bao, at $2.25 each, is the seafood, stuffed with chewy bits of fish cake and the occasional shrimp in a compacted mousse that has red flecks from crab. There's a vegetarian and a few dessert options, too, including taro paste and a coconut custard filling called ca dé that tastes milky and not overly sugary.
Perhaps the most exciting thing about T.P. Bánh Bao #2–aside from it existing at all–is that it can and will deep-fry these steamed buns to order. The process transforms them into bánh bao chiên giòn–greaseless, golden-brown orbs with the sweet outer crust of an old-fashioned cake doughnut. This is what put the original T.P. Bánh Bao on the map in Texas and proves, yet again, that anything good can be made better by deep-frying.
T.P. Bánh Bao #2, 13067 Euclid Ave., Garden Grove, (714) 539-4119. Open daily, 7 a.m.-7 p.m. Bánh baos, $1.50-$2.25 each; box of nine, $8.50-$15. Cash only. No alcohol.