Trying My Hand at Making Bao Burgers

After a long while, I finally had the opportunity to try making my own Chinese-style bao burgers. The verdict? Pretty tasty and easier than I expected!

One of my favorite restaurants in the word is Little Bao in Hong Kong. (Read my review of it.) They are one in a crowd of restaurants doing more modern twists on the Chinese (specifically, Taiwanese) gua bao, steamed flour buns folded in half around pork belly, braised chicken, or other fillings.

P1280602A spicy fried chicken with garlic black bean mayo and scallion coleslaw bao from Little Bao in Hong Kong.

The conceit at Little Bao is that instead of a folded bun, they make their bao more like hamburger buns. This makes it possible to include more tasty fillings, offering a better balance of bread to filling. It was that hamburger-like quality that I wanted to achieve.

Day One

I worked with my friend Chow (aka the Bangkok Glutton), my frequent co-conspirator in the kitchen. The basic recipe for the bao is simple: flour, water, yeast, a bit of baking powder and a bit of salt. Some versions have some milk added for softness – I didn’t try that this time. You let the dough rise a few times, punching it down between rises but trying to avoid over-working it, because bao are meant to be soft, not chewy.

IMG_4867The first day, we made bao the traditional way, rolling them out into an oblong shape and them folding them in half over a piece of wax paper. This allows them to be opened and stuffed more easily. They are then steamed for about 8-10 minutes and can either be served warm or kept covered and reheated if necessary.

As for the red decoration, I found that trick in one online recipe. You use red food coloring and the tip of a chopstick to decorate the buns just before steaming. Looks pretty professional! Our kitchen assistants became more creative and so we ended up with all sorts of designs on our bao.

IMG_4872For the first day’s bao, we used some braised pork belly, homemade radish pickles, some braised cabbage, and some Italian parsley. It turned out okay, but the bao were a bit flat, brittle at the fold, and the fillings were underwhelming in flavor. All in all, though, a good first attempt.

Day Two

The second day we let the dough rise more and also shaped it into balls, making it more like a hamburger bun. This worked better although I think we over-worked the dough a bit, as it was tough.

IMG_4928The pictures don’t do justice, but the fillings were a great deal better this time around. We tried a different recipe for the pork belly, which had much more flavor than the original recipe.

IMG_4933We also did a duck breast, which I paired with the seasonings I had used the day before for the pork belly. This, too, was very nice.

IMG_4939The star of the show was a more traditional Taiwanese version with chicken thigh meat braised in Chinese rice wine and soy sauce served with chopped peanuts. This was so tasty, I could have eaten a half-dozen and I will have to try it again soon.

IMG_4937As an added bonus, since I was also teaching two friends’ children to cook, we made a homemade chicken noodle soup with both the broth and the noodles from scratch. I think the noodles came out a bit too “spaetzle-like” but they were tasty and the broth was the first time I’ve made a chicken broth that really wowed me.

Stay tuned for more from the kitchen.

 

Taper Restaurant

In addition to having a spate of restaurants serving “Grandma style” cooking, Bangkok is also seeing a blossoming of brunch restaurants. The trend has been a bit longer in the making, but the rate of new openings seems to be increasing. We recently made two trips to Taper, one of the newest brunch restaurants in the Thong Lor neighborhood.

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Located on Soi Akkaphat, the awkward soi that runs parallel to Thong Lor from Soi 5, across Soi 13, and eventually turns into Soi 17, Taper is neighbors with Little Beast. Located on the bottom two floors of a shop house, Taper has a pleasing design with counter seating around an open kitchen on the ground floor, and a more formal dining areas on the mezzanine.

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The restaurant is a partnership between the two chefs from Le-Du restaurant and a third chef, who was a classmate at the Culinary Institute of America with one of the Le-Du partners. The interior is described as “modern Scandinavian” which would explain why when I first entered, I thought I had walked into a replica¬†of the slightly more elegant Rocket Coffeebar on Sukhumvit Soi 49.

The most outstanding point of Taper is the friendly service. From the wait staff to the cooks to the partners, everyone was welcoming and checked in frequently during both our visits to see how we liked the food. Attentive, friendly service is a welcome thing and came across as most sincere.

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The menu is self-described as “Asian inspired brunch”. One example of this is their “world famous congee” – brown rice, mushroom, belly bacon, a soft boiled egg, and soy sauce reduction with ginger. What came out wasn’t really congee, but rather a thick blended soup, muddy in color, with a distinctly mushroom flavor. There was nothing particularly wrong with it, but at 330 baht, it wasn’t particularly outstanding, either.

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The Taper Benedict is a homemade buttermilk biscuit, so-called “63c” eggs, Hollandaise sauce, “thick cut bacon” (same as the “belly bacon” in the congee), and small rocket salad. The biscuits were nice enough, the sauce was very pleasant (but the surface congealed quickly because of the powerful air conditioner blowing above the kitchen-front counter), but on this visit the eggs had not been poached sufficiently.

Let’s not be nit-picky here, but the entire point of a 63-degree egg is that the proteins in the white are set but the yolk is still runny. (See the link above for more.) The whites in my eggs were still the consistency and color of cloudy mucus. I like soft eggs, but these were simply undercooked.

The thick cut bacon is such a tiny portion (and tough to cut) that it feels rather stingy. I would rather have two or three slices of regular bacon than to feel, at 290 baht a plate, that I’m getting short-changed.

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We tried another Asian-inspired dish, the “squid and salty egg”, which was fresh pasta with a sauce made of salted egg yolk served with grilled squid, chili, and coriander. This was a pretty interesting dish, the salted egg yolk giving a different taste than you might usually expect in a pasta sauce. The sauce was gloppy, though. The squid was tasty but being grilled ever so briefly, the texture offered no appealing counter-point to the pasta. Perhaps if it had been pan-fried and was slightly crispy, it would have contrasted better. At 290 baht, this was probably the best value of the four dishes.

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The fourth dish we tried was the duck and waffle, a crispy duck leg, tom yum mayo, buttermilk waffle, and honey butter. This is such a pretty dish and tasted fine, but bits and pieces were underwhelming. The duck didn’t seem to be a proper confit, so the meat was a bit dry and stringy. The waffle was nicely crisp but the tom yum mayo seemed quite thick, the sort of sauce I would turn out (as an amateur cook) from my kitchen. The flavor combination of the mayo mixed with the honey butter was enjoyable, but seemed a bit unsophisticated. The price for this dish was 390 baht, which was okay given what it was.

Concluding thoughts

So what to make of Taper? On our two visits we enjoyed the space and the pleasant service. It is clear that a lot of thought has gone into the food and when we spoke with the chef, he seemed genuinely interested in our feedback.

The ideas are interesting, but it seems that the execution is still not quite right. The “congee” either needs to be a soup or actually be congee, especially at that price. The sauces need to be a bit more refined. The bacon either needs to be otherworldly or else more generous, portion-wise. The 36-degree eggs need to actually stay in the water long enough to reach 36 degrees.

I like what they are doing and want them to succeed, so will probably make another trip or two in the coming month to see if these rough edges get smoothed off. If so, I think Taper will settle into the neighborhood and last.

 

 

Vanilla Home Cafe

About two years ago, I asked Jarrett Wrisley, the American food writer and proprietor of Soulfood Mahanakorn and two other restaurants in Bangkok, what he thought the next food trend would be here in the City of Angels. His response: home style Thai food cooked by locals with really good quality ingredients and refined technique.

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He was spot on. In 2014, we started to see more and more restaurants here in Bangkok that serve what you might call “Grandma’s food” – dishes that you rarely see most Thai restaurants serve, especially outside of Thailand. There are many places that are doing this trend well, and in this entry I visit Vanilla Home Cafe.

Located in the basement of the recently remodeled Silom Complex, Vanilla Home Cafe comes from the same family-run business that owns the S&P chain of eateries. Interestingly, some of the “Grandma’s food” menu items from Home Cafe are making their way onto the S&P menu, which I count as a good thing.

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Appetizer of Gratong Tong – crispy golden cups with minced chicken and sweet corn. This isn’t the rarest of dishes but is one that be a candidate for the endangered list. Crispy cups with a chicken and corn relish. What’s not to like?

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Yam som-oh – pomelo salad with a dressing of lime, palm sugar, fish sauce, shallots, and chilies. This is also pretty common. The “yam” style salad can be made with countless ingredients but the pomelo version is one of my favorites. Perfect balance of flavors and not too sweet.

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Naamprik mamuang gunghaengbon plaasalidpuu – green mango chilli relish with crispy fish. The “naamprik” is really the dish that set this “Grandma’s food” trend in motion. There are many different versions of this dip, all of which are served with blanched vegetables and other condiments. Some are fiery, others not so much. This version with green mangos has a really nice balance of flavors. Spicy, but with just a small amount with some veggies to cool the fire, it is fantastic and fantastically healthful.

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Gaeng kuahaed paw – Earthstar mushroom curry, a forest mushroom in a rich curry that isn’t as spicy as you might expect. Served with an interesting local green that has the same effect as asparagus on your urine’s smell.

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Kaijiaw gapraw muusap – minced pork with chili and basil omelet. Probably the most common dish but a classic that grandma would be remiss not to serve!

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Muutod plaakhem – deep fried pork patty with salted fish. Yes, at first you think it is just a pork patty. And then you taste the salted fish. And the chilies. And the shallots. And the lime. And the coriander. Wow, there is a lot of flavor going on here!

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Plaahaeng taengmo naamkaengsai – crazy obscure dessert. Perfectly ripe watermelon served over crushed ice with dried fish. Yes, you read that right. Think of it this way: you know how sweet watermelon and salty feta cheese is all the rage these days? This is the non-dairy version of that flavor combination.

Location: Basement of Silom Complex, adjacent to Saladaeng BTS station in Bangkok.