Have you had a bao sandwich? No, I’m not talking about the cha siu bao at dim sum; I’m talking about the relatively new style of bao that has the clamshell of a Chinese-style steamed bun wrapped around meat that’s usually pork. I had one at David Chang’s Momofuku in New York three years ago, when Chang’s pork belly buns were already world famous, and they were everything I heard they would be. Meanwhile, across town, there was chef Eddie Huang’s BaoHaus—Chang’s pork bun rival—a restaurant that actually specializes in baos. BaoHaus offered steamed buns with fillings that ranged from pork belly to broccolini. And for dessert, there were fried slices of steamed bread that Huang trademarked as Sweet Bao Fries.
Last summer, Baos Hog—Orange County’s first bao sandwich specialist—opened in Garden Grove. Even if it’s more Vietnamese than Taiwanese, Baos Hog has the same DNA as Chang and Huang’s outposts. Baos Hog stuffs the same kind of steamed bun with different meats, including two kinds of pork belly. It even made a dessert out of strips of fried bao and called it CinnaBao Fries. They’re amazing, tasting as though a doughnut had a ménage à trois with a churro and a French toast stick at the county fair.
The best bao sandwich you could have at Baos Hog is the Bolsa, for which a slice of roasted pork belly as thick as a ream of paper comes with the crackle of skin still attached. The Vietnamese call it heo quay; the Filipinos will say it’s lechon kawali; Mexicans call it chicharrón. But all you need to know is that it’s soft, fatty and crispy—everything you expect and hope a piece of pork belly could be. In the sandwich, it’s embraced by the warm hug of that bun and flanked by a litany of toppings, including cucumbers, pickled red onions, pickled carrots, fried shallots, curls of scallions, smears of hoisin and a really good Sriracha garlic mayo.
Other than the Bolsa, the only other bao I recommend is the one with the fish. Into the stock steamed bread, the chefs tuck a tender, deep-fried filet of basa, but also a wonton chip, a slather of tangy honey mustard and some sort of slaw. It’s easily Baos Hog’s most interesting and inventive bao sandwich. The duck bao, on the other hand, is tough. The braised pork belly bao tends to be stringy. And the cha siu bao—which isn’t at all like the stuff you see at dim sum—can be dry and chewy. There’s even a fried chicken bao and a bao with rib-eye, but I would skip them in favor of having the same proteins with rice. In fact, though it may be counter to the entire concept of the restaurant, what you really want to eat at Baos Hog are the rice dishes. They’re about twice the price of the baos, but you get three times the meat. Added to that, you don’t have to deal with the inevitable mess that happens when a steamed bun falls apart halfway in.
One of the most cost-effective rice dishes you can order is the rib-eye and egg, a massive serving of stir-fried beef and scallions, served fuming and aromatic, topped with a perfect sunny-side-up egg. But if there’s one dish I’d get above all else, it would be the Hainan chicken rice. Since it’s easily one of the best plates of its kind in Orange County, I would argue the Hainan chicken rice is Baos Hog’s true, unspoken specialty. The chicken-broth-cooked rice is, of course, scrumptious. But the steamed chicken is also immaculate and the ginger sauce wondrous—both so close to the Hainan chicken I had at a Singapore hawker stand a few years ago, it’s almost uncanny. Perhaps the most convincing sign this dish is made for connoisseurs is that the dark meat option is more expensive than the white meat—and trust me, when it comes to Hainan chicken, you always want dark meat.
That thigh is preferred over breast might also have something to do with the location. Baos Hog is situated in a particularly hectic corner of Little Saigon that attracts a young Asian customer base fluent in food. Baos Hog’s owners and operators are about the same age as their clients. If they had conceived the concept a few years earlier, they might have gone the food-truck route. The menu is scribbled on a big chalkboard, and ancillary items such as salt-and-pepper wings and deep-fried cauliflower are served in paper baskets. What makes me more convinced are the two flavored lemonades that are not unlike what I’ve seen at the Lime Truck. My favorite is the Watermelon Chiller, and yes, it tastes as though an agua fresca had sex with a slushy at a food-truck meet-up.
Baos Hog, 13918 Brookhurst St., Garden Grove, (714) 600-3311; www.mkt.com/baoshog. Open Mon.-Thurs., 9 a.m.-9:30 p.m.; Fri.-Sun., 9 a.m.-10:30 p.m. Baos, $3.50-$4; rice dishes, $6.50-$7.50. No alcohol.
Before becoming an award-winning restaurant critic for OC Weekly in 2007, Edwin Goei went by the alias “elmomonster” on his blog Monster Munching, in which he once wrote a whole review in haiku.