When the doors of Bao Bao Dumpling House open at 11:30 a.m., it doesn’t take very long for the restaurant to fill up. By noon, every seat is occupied: college students, lunch breakers, out-of-towners, and regulars. Conversations, initially boisterous, quickly fade once plates of dumplings, bowls of salads, and pots of tea arrive. A synthesis of the senses— smell, sound, taste— sweeps over the room and all focus shifts towards the food.
Bao Bao’s instant popularity may have come courtesy of owner and chef Cara Stadler’s burgeoning reputation. Last year, the precocious chef (now 27 years old) was named one of the Best New Chefs by Food and Wine magazine and nominated for the James Beard Foundation’s Rising Star Chef award for her work at the Brunswick restaurant Tao Yuan, which she runs with her mother, Cecile. This was after the pair ran a successful supper club in Beijing, and Stadler worked her way through notable kitchens in France, Berkeley, and Philadelphia.
But Bao Bao is an altogether different endeavor, and it has quickly ascended the ranks under its own steam. Where Tao Yuan highlights technique, flair, and innovation in an upscale setting, Bao Bao is its casual counterpart, emphasizing a focused, unchanging menu of simple but exceptionally well-made dumplings.
The space, which was formerly inhabited by the West End Deli, has been transformed into a charming and inviting 49-seat dining room, including nine seats at the bar. Its walls feature a large copper dragon sculpture custom made by sculptor Jason Hahne, photographs from local photographer Skylar Kelly, and framed Chinese batiks; and overhead, minimalist lantern lighting fixtures conceptualized by Stadler’s mother and also built by Hahne. Warm hues of orange, as well as blues and whites inspired by Chinese porcelain, give the dining room an intimate but laid-back feel.
Stadler admits that Bao Bao was born from a selfish desire to have the kind of food she likes to eat after work more readily available. Coming home from Tao Yuan at 1 a.m. most nights, Stadler craved things like ramen, dumplings, and beer. In other words: tasty Asian comfort food.
“I wanted a fast-casual restaurant that would fill these in-between and late hours. A place where you could come to eat and not break your bank,” says Stadler. “I also wanted to open a place that could serve very simple—and hopefully also very delicious— accessible food.”
True to her mission, every item on the menu is priced between $4 and $8. And if you aren’t just absent-mindedly glancing over the menu, you’ll notice every price ends with an eight. (For example, pork and cabbage dumplings are $6.08, boiled pork wontons are $7.08, and Asian slaw is $5.08.) Stadler explains: “In China, characters that are ‘doubled’ are considered lucky, and ‘8’ has a double circle, so it’s very typical for restaurants there to end their prices in ‘8’ for good luck.”
Not that Stadler needs luck here. The food may not be presented with the same pageantry as her small plates at Tao Yuan, but it is still plenty impressive. Cold salad- course dishes include Beijing black vinegar peanuts (boiled peanuts that are drained and then covered in black vinegar-based pickle solution), chicken skin (gently simmered in chicken stock until tender—surprisingly tender—and then cooled), and celery with wood ear mushrooms. The dumplings— the real stars of the show—are offered in steamed, boiled, and fried preparations. While this allows you to modulate the heaviness or lightness of your meal, it also showcases the breadth of possibility for each dumpling. Hake and burdock dumplings, which are wrapped in thread-cut dumpling wrappers (a Japanese trick introduced by kitchen manager Josh Fratoni), are delicate and exquisite when steamed, and bear a resemblance to sea urchin when fried. The tofu and shitake dumplings are best eaten boiled, while others, like the chicken cashew dumplings, are enhanced by the crispy texture of a fried preparation.
Bao bao means “wrapped treasure” in Chinese, and Stadler’s dumpling house fully lives up to its name. It is bound to be that special place you visit regularly. But you might find it’s not the kind of place that allows for long, lingering visits. There will be plenty of others waiting for your seat.
133 Spring St. | 207.772.8400 | facebook.com/baobaodumplings