Roughly translated from Mandarin, “bao” means treasure or precious little package. You’ll find the term at the end of dim sum staples like xiao long bao (steamed soup dumplings) and char sui bao (barbecue pork buns). For food purposes, all things “bao” are contained, often called buns or dumplings, but always carbohydrate enclosures with a filling treasure. Some bao are folded over like tacos; the ubiquitous dim sum char siu bao are little fluffy enclosures, often referred to as “roast pork buns” (you’ll find them baked, and more golden brown, at Chinese bakeries); Peking Duck bao are basically DIY bao buns, with meat and tableside soft “wrappers” of sorts. Suffice to say in Jersey, as usual, treasures abound. (Note to gluten-sensitive: bao are often made with regular wheat flour.)
Here’s a short list of where to find great bao in New Jersey.
Japanese-Chinese Hybrid: Ani Ramen
Yes, its first love is slurp-able noodles, but Ani Ramen also features bao buns in its Jersey City, Montclair and Summit locations. Their bao are styled Kakuni Bao, which is a Japanese-Chinese hybrid bao with a soft, almost taco-size pocket folded over braised pork belly. At all Ani Ramen locations, you can also get shrimp tempura or fried tofu fillings, all of which are finished with cabbage and a drizzle of Spicy Mayo.
(If you’re not nearby any of the Ani Ramen locations, Ramen Gami in Newark also does a fold-over style bao with pork belly, topped with cabbage, scallions, and spicy mayo, $5 per order.)
Modern Chinese Heritage: Roots
Roots does “Asian Heritage with Modern Flair”—think ultra-traditional flavors with modern aesthetic polish. Tucked into their long but focused menu are char siu bao and kakuni bao. The former is a staple of dim Ssum houses—fluffy, almost white pillowy buns encasing a typically electric red “treasure” of barbecue pork. Their kakuni bao are folded over, taco-style, with slow-braised pork belly finished with hoisin glaze, cucumber, scallion, and peanuts.
3495 Route 1, Princeton; 609-799-8858
Peking Duck Bao: Canton Palace
Canton Palace in Somerville also does fluffy, arguably sufficiently porky char siu bao (it’s called “steamed roast pork bun” on the dim sum menu). But if you’re looking for another iteration you could try their Peking duck. It comes with dark, crackling skin and a side order of fluffy bao-style wrappers, slightly larger than your palm for you to stuff with duck to your heart’s content.
216 West Main Street, Somerville; 908-526-7244
Classic Char Siu Bao: Joe’s Peking Duck House
Joe’s Peking Duck House obviously does the titular whole-bird special, but the bustling, no-gloss restaurant also includes a classic char siu bao on its dim sum menu. They come fluffy and cinched at the top, with a little peek of reddish pork peeking through. Bonus points, Joe’s is a Jersey staple—they’ve been doing business since 1986.
175 Route 73 South, Marlton; 856-985-1551
Breakfast Bao: Aquarius
Aquarius Seafood Restaurant can satisfy bao cravings of all kinds with its hearty dim sum menu. They do classic char siu (roasted pork), both fluffy-steamed and golden-brown-baked, but you can also get things like steamed creamy custard bun, water chestnut custard bun, and baked egg custard bun, closer to breakfast buns than their porky counterparts if you’re in a brunch mood. Bonus points: their bao are often adorable.
230-234 Main Street, Fort Lee; 201-592-8338
Sausage Bao: East Flour
If you want eclectic, funky fusion options (beyond the bao, that is), East Flour in Jersey City might be the place. (They seriously might win for most eclectic menu ever – think pasta Bolognese and dan dan noodle.) The Chinese influences seems to have won out, at least on the “Wake Up Breakfast” menu, where among things like purple rice congee and salty tofu pudding.
103 Christopher Columbus Drive, Jersey City; 201-333-7156