If you love hot, steamy buns, there’s a special 900-number you can call. But, if you’re looking for hot, steamy buns you can eat — you’ve come to the right place. I’m talking baos. Warm, light, and flavorful steamed-bun sandwiches. There are a lot of places to choose from in Boston when looking for baos, but a few restaurants have taken their own unique spin on this Chinese staple.
I’ve eaten at a lot of places in Boston… I mean a lot, but none are quite like Pagu. Tucked neatly into MIT’s sprawling campus, Pagu is a modern place that has all the homey vibes that you crave during winter. Their menu boasts foods from Taipei, Tokyo, and Barcelona. If you’re not sure how these cities are related, go to Pagu, they’ll connect the dots.
Obviously, this article is all about the baos, so let’s dive in (mouth first, obvi). The kitchen at Pagu makes their bao buns from scratch, which is a total labor of love. According to the chef, they sell about 20,000 baos every year, whatever magic is happening in the kneading and proofing process, it’s definitely working. If you’ve never had bao — it’s the bun that makes it special.
There are two baos on the menu at Pagu, and the phrase I use to best describe them would be “unique yet familiar.” The food will push you out of your comfort zone, but you’ll wonder why you haven’t been eating norioli (nori aioli) your entire life.
The squid ink and fried oyster bao is a showstopper. The bun is as black as my soul and the pop of bright purple cabbage slaw is gorgeous. The bread is extremely soft, incredibly light, and has a tiny hint of sweetness. It’s basically the softest King’s Hawaiian roll you can imagine on steroids. Don’t be scared of the squid ink bun — it adds an amazing color, but doesn’t change the flavor of the bun at all.
Remember when I said, “unique yet familiar”? This especially applies to the fried oyster. The crunchy coating takes away any typical oyster sliminess, and the norioli is mayo with a punch of salty goodness from the seaweed. It’s truly impossible to take just one bite.
If you’re partial to pigs — do you know my ex? The second bao has the silkiest, melt-in-your-mouth pork belly, ever. The pork belly is topped with pickled cucumbers that help to cut through all that luscious pork belly and peanuts that add a crunchy element. The real kicker? THE CILANTRO. This was the curveball for me, but it tied all the other ingredients together with its sassy herbaceous flavor. There were so many flavors packed into one little bun and it hit every tastebud — salty, sweet, and sour. I looked at the menu, like, five times to figure out where all those flavors were popping from.
The other must-try
You wouldn’t think a restaurant with such an expansive and thoughtful dinner menu would serve breakfast, but they do and it’s fantastic. Chill out with a dark roast, specialty coffee, or custom brewed tea. What sets their breakfast apart is the BYOC — Build Your Own Congee. This was a first for me. Congee is rice cooked in mushroom broth until it has the consistency of oatmeal. Don’t let the fact that it kind of looks like oatmeal mess with your head and make you think it’s a sweet dish — this baby is all savory. Each bowl comes topped with a 63 degree egg which adds a golden river of egg yolk running through your congee. Are you drooling yet?
There are a few congee toppings to choose from — crispy shallots, green onion, flaky sea salt, and umami oil. Honestly, just live a little and put them all on. If not, you must, must, MUST try the umami oil. It’s a savory oil made with shiitake mushrooms, crispy shallots, and chili oil. Just put that bish on everything.
This is a special breakfast experience for any Boston native or visitor— it’s totally unique, fun, and so tasty. Breakfast is available Monday through Friday 8 a.m. to 11 a.m.
One word comes to mind when I think of the dining experience at Shojo: Sexy. The lighting is sexy, the food is sexy, even the people who eat there are sexy (in my unbiased opinion). Located in Chinatown at the heart of downtown Boston, Shojo is a very hip fusion restaurant that has amazing baos.
Shojo takes their own spin on all their menu items, and I could seriously eat 15 of their baos without thinking twice about calorie consumption. I didn’t because it wasn’t socially acceptable at the time.
I love the cashew shrimp bao. It’s saucy, crunchy, and absolutely addictive. If you’re a veggie lover, there’s the curry cauliflower bao that comes smeared with black bean mayo and topped with an onion ring. YOU HEARD RIGHT, ONION RINGS ON A BAO. Of course, it’s hard to have bao on a menu without including pork belly. Shojo takes a BBQ approach to their pork belly bao, but with the addition of kimchi for a kick of vinegar.
Tom’s Bao Bao
So nice they named it twice. Need a quick bao during your lunch break? Tom’s Bao Bao makes great baos that you can take to-go. Located in Harvard Square next door to Shake Shack, Tom’s is a tiny place, but very alluring.
Tom’s is an extremely popular chain around China, and they brought their hand-made technique to Cambridge. It’s a legit place. There’s only six menu items to guarantee quality and it’s perfect for your indecisive friends.
Myers + Chang
Joanne Chang is a Boston hero. She’s the mastermind behind Flour Bakery (my second home) and adopted the food she grew up on to the menu at Myers + Chang. This is a fun place to grab a bite. They self-describe themselves as an “indie” restaurant which is V cool. There are constantly new things to try, like their “cheap date night” menu on Mondays and Tuesdays that includes a pre-set menu for two priced at $45. You know what, just go ahead and get one full selection for yourself. Do you.
You can try everything from Mama Chang’s favorites to dim sum-y things, but whatever you order make sure to get yourself a lighter-than-air bao. There’s a whole section on the menu dedicated to buns, baos, rolls, and tacos. The braised pork belly bun is topped with hoisin spiked with brandy and house-made pickles. If you want to live your best life, you will get this bao.
With all the amazing baos available in Boston, they might as well re-brand themselves from Beantown to Baotown. With that, I’ll end by taking a “bao” (with extra pork belly).