At Bao Bei, the son of a chef embraces his heritage, pillowy pork buns

The story of Bao Bei is still just a draft. Chef and owner Kevin Hsieh has, to date, put together an outline and written the first couple of chapters, but even in its early stages, the story reads like a homecoming, like an embrace of family and identity and culture.

Fresh after graduating from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, in 2017, Hsieh dutifully found a job as an associate financial analyst with Textron Systems, a defense and aerospace manufacturer, hoping to combine his education in finance with his love of engineering. He figured this would be his career path: a white-collar desk jockey trying to help companies squeeze profits from the system. The only problem was, well, he was bored. Worse, he felt like he wasn’t doing anything meaningful. He knew something had to change, but to what?

One day while sitting inside Ginger, the pan-Asian restaurant at MGM National Harbor, Hsieh had a thought. A thought that seemed to appear out of nowhere: “‘I bet I could make the best bao shop in the area, like ever,” the financial analyst said out loud to those around him. A cousin raised immediate doubts, and not without reason: For much of his young life, Hsieh had viewed cooking as little more than a chore, not a life’s pursuit.

“He liked to take things apart and try to put them back together,” said father Peter about his engineering-obsessed son. “He was never interested in cooking.” Dad would certainly know. For much of his professional life, the elder Hsieh, a native of Taipei City in Taiwan, has worked in restaurants. He’s cooked for others at outposts such as the Far East Restaurant in Rockville. He’s managed places such as the Ginger at the MGM. He’s even run his own restaurants in Chantilly, Va., and Louisville

Less than a year after his declaration to the gods inside a casino restaurant, Kevin Hsieh decided to roll the dice. He created a business, Bao Bei (a Mandarin term of endearment, like a cross between “baby” and “treasured object”), and started selling Taiwanese gua bao, the kind of pork-stuffed buns that his father and grandmother used to prepare for the family. The kind that Hsieh used to take for granted as a child. The kind that are increasingly hard to find, even as more Taiwanese bubble tea shops have established footholds along Rockville Pike and in the Eden Center, that hub of Vietnamese culture in Falls Church.

“I understand that the food that my father and my grandma used to cook for me as a child was probably going to disappear for the rest of my life if I never learned it,” Hsieh, now 27, told me one afternoon. “Nobody in my community or in this area, restaurant-wise, had ever seen something like it. So I kind of came to the realization that whenever the generation above me passes away, that the food that I’ve eaten as a child will forever disappear as well, which I really didn’t want to happen.”

In our general vicinity, there are all manner of stuffed buns for the taking. There’s the Korean-style bao at Bun’d Up. There’s the fried chicken steamed bun at Toki Underground. There’s even a mambo-sauced slathered chicken tender bun at the Capitol City stand inside Nationals Park. But what’s increasingly difficult to find is an old-school gua bao, the Taiwanese classic packed with braised pork belly, pickled mustard greens, sweetened ground peanuts and fresh cilantro. This is the tradition that Hsieh decided to mine, a sort of hand-me-down from his father and grandmother.

Over at Farmland Commercial Kitchen, a commissary hidden behind a drab brown door in a Rockville warehouse, Hsieh is a master craftsman in the characterless industrial space that houses his ghost kitchen, available for takeaway and delivery only. With his father as mentor and adviser, Hsieh focuses on only a handful of items, every one handmade, starting with the steam buns. Through a lot of trial and error, Hsieh has learned to hydrate, aerate, knead, roll out, rest and steam his bao until they attain a soft cumulus quality. If you’ve only eaten buns pulled from the freezer and resuscitated in a microwave, you’re in for a surprise. Hsieh’s bao are beyond pillowy. It’s as if these bao, through some alchemy, combine flour, water, yeast and air in a way that erases all boundaries between the elements. It’s sumptuous white bread, an everyday luxury for those without bank.

The pork belly that Hsieh layers into his bao has been braised for at least 90 minutes in a pot with cooking wine, sesame oil, two types of soy sauce and numerous other liquids. Yet the secret to his pork is the bouquet garni, this generous length of cheesecloth that Hsieh packs with more than 20 herbs and spices, including star anise, fennel seeds and cloves, which add a sweet licorice kiss to the savory meat. The same braise is used for the semi-firm tofu, but with one important addition: dried shiitake mushrooms, which give the fried bean curds a kind of umami immediacy. Die-hard carnivores won’t miss a thing with this veg alternative.

Whether you order the traditional pork version (dubbed Bao Bei Bao) or the veg variation (the Tofu-rrific Bao), your chosen protein will be garnished with cilantro, pulverized peanuts (supplemented with sugar) and pickled mustard greens tempered in a hot wok. You can see how the architecture of gua bao would appeal to the engineer in Hsieh. This street food has been designed for comfort, pleasure and portability; remove any one element, and there is loss. Less than a year into his ghost kitchen, Hsieh has already learned how to lock these pieces into place. Which may explain why I prefer his gua bao over his bowls, in which the braised pork or tofu luxuriate atop white rice, a braised egg on the side. With the bowls, the architecture has been destroyed, and the support beam, or bao, replaced. It’s a tasty but lesser experience.

Hsieh also prepares two other dough-based dishes. He sells bread squares, available only on Sundays, that are made by rolling out bao dough, dusting it with five-spice powder and scallions, and then folding it a couple of times before sprinkling sesame seeds over the top. Crackly and sweet, with the sulfurous rattle of scallions just below the surface, the bread makes for superb snacking. Hsieh has a dessert bao, too, his take on mantou, in which he rolls alternating layers of sweetened dough into a cinnamon-bun-like pastry. His swirly bun cannot be separated along its seams, however, because those layers steam into one cushiony mass. You must pull out pieces, as you might with West African fufu, and dunk them into condensed milk, the chewiness of the bun just as sweet as the sugar contained within its folds.

Maybe this goes without saying, but I can’t wait to see what Bao Bei’s second act looks like, once it sheds this warehouse and finds a place where Hsieh can really tell his story of Taiwanese street food.

11910 Parklawn Dr., No. 0, in the back of the warehouse, Rockville, Md., 240-750-5618; baobei.menu. For takeout or delivery through Uber Eats, DoorDash and Grubhub.

Hours: 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday; 11 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday.

Prices: $1 to $45 for all items on the menu.

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