Banh Mi Girl
292 Dalhousie St.
Open: Monday 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., Tuesday to Sunday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.
380 Elgin St. eatdatsun.ca
Open: Monday to Saturday from 5:30 p.m. till late, closed Sunday
365 Bank St., gongfu.ca
Open: Wednesday to Friday 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 5 to 9 p.m., Saturday and Sunday 5 to 9 p.m., closed Monday and Tuesday
I find it hard to believe there aren’t more bao purveyors in Ottawa.
For a decade at least, Chinese steamed buns with fillings of stewed and braised meats have been practically fetishized by the world’s foodies, after Momofuku Noodle Bar in New York — riffing on food that its star chef David Chang ate in Beijing and Manhattan’s Chinatown — sparked the craze in the mid-2000s with its pork belly bao. The British newspaper The Guardian asked Chang in 2010 if his restaurant empire owed its remarkable success to that humble edible. “Oh, yes. I wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for pork belly,” Chang replied.
But in late 2018, there seem to be just three bao-makers in Ottawa, all of which are downtown. Forgive me if I’m missing someone, but my bao count includes just Banh Mi Girl in the ByWard Market, Datsun on Elgin Street, and Gongfu Bao, now on Bank Street but formerly in food-cart form, located downtown, at the Ottawa Farmers’ Market in Westboro and beyond. Have they saturated the market (with pork fat)?
I’ve listed these three places in alphabetical order, but that also happens to be my order of preference.
Banh Mi Girl, a tiny place where four of us almost filled the only table, opened in late summer where the much-loved Mellos diner had been.
When we popped by this fall, the eatery’s pork belly bao and braised beef bao were adequate ($10 for two), but somewhat underwhelming, made with fresh fixings and tender, if too-mild, meats. Here, the buns were of the pre-packaged and nothing-special kind, and they tended to split down their spines before we could finish out bao, making for some potentially messy eating.
Maybe I should cut it some slack bao-wise, as its name — which resembles the Toronto-based Asian sandwich shop chain Banh Mi Boys — gives priority to Vietnamese subs. Indeed, I preferred my Saigon banh at Banh Mi Girl to the bao.
During visits in the last week to Datsun, the hip, pan-Asian restaurant that opened in the fall of 2015 at the south end of Elgin Street, I had better bao. A post-Momofuku place that refines its spins on everything from ramen to dan dan noodles to papaya salad to bao, Datsun made us more distinctive, filling-forward buns. But the Datsun buns also had their problems.
The fried chicken in one of Datsun’s steamed buns ($6.50) was admirably crisp and un-oily, but the meat could have been more juicy and flavourful. The massively portioned beef brisket bao ($6.50) is a good choice for heat-lovers, given the heavy seam of fermented chili running through it. But if you had wanted succulent, tasty beef to be the star of the bun, you would have been let down. A pork belly bun ($6.50) was reasonably stuffed, but not that exciting flavour-wise, and worst of all, it was sadly split along its back. Fillings aside, the Datsun buns themselves could have been softer and fluffier.
For buns that are fresh and fluffy on the outside and well-crafted on the inside, Gongfu Bao in Centretown is the place.
Its founder and chef, Tarek Hassan, was first to market in Ottawa with bao when he began selling buns from a food cart beside Confederation Park in the summer of 2013. With the support of an Indiegogo campaign that last year raised more than $21,000, Hassan in August opened his bricks-and-mortar Gongfu Bao shop where the Aziz and Company store had been.
Here, the made-each-day-in-house buns are fresher and fluffier, although Hassan told me after my last meal at Gongfu Bao that he’s had to tweak the recipe as the weather changes so the buns emerge from the steamer with the texture he wants. (Disclosure: Hassan recognized me when I visited because I was a regular years ago when he sold bao on summer Saturday mornings in Westboro.)
Hassan’s attention to not just texture, but also to succulence and flavour profiles were all winningly apparent with the bao (typically $11 for two) that I’ve tried this fall at his Bank Street shop. His fried chicken bao ($12 for two) delivered not just that audible crunch that foreshadows enjoyment but also moist, seasoned meat, bolstered by pepper-salt mayo and a beguiling relish. Well-sauced beef and Shaoxing roast pork buns featured shredded meats with cooked-in flavour. Hassan told me that the cooking process for his beef brisket involves a “master stock” — a carefully maintained stock that is replenished and reused — that imparts extra depth of flavour and complexity over its many uses.
No less than my carnivorous son was pleasantly surprised by the tofu “belly” bao, which riffed flavourfully, if not texturally, on the iconic Momofuku pork belly bao.
Over all, Hassan’s bao have felt like the best designed, best executed and most balanced to me. They’ve been well-calibrated and even thoughtful, and foodies with nut allergies will appreciate that Hassan substitutes soy nuts for the garnish of crushed peanuts that are a danger for so many people.
Hassan also sources his ingredients from small Ontario and Quebec producers, including vegetables from farms such as Roots and Shoots and Jambican Studio Gardens, duck and chicken from Mariposa Farms, pork from Haanover View Farms near Prince Edward County and beef from Wallace Beef Co-op near Kingston.
Other Gongfu Bao items have also won us over. “Turducken” siu mai ($8 for three, available only at dinner) were a playful, tri-poultry take on dim sum dumplings that gained almost pork-y succulence from the addition of ground chicken skin into the stuffing. Other winners included crisp, un-oily taro chips ($5), a refreshing slaw ($5) and “golden mantou” ($4 for four), which made a convincing dessert of deep-fried morsels of bao buns, topped with a coconut dulce de leche sauce.
Hassan told me this week that Gongfu Bao has applied for a liquor licence, and he plans to offer local craft beers and ciders, and to even spike house-made sodas with liquor from craft distilleries.
On second thought, maybe Ottawa doesn’t need more bao purveyors — just more outposts of Gongfu Bao.