Bao Bao Dumpling House
133 Spring St., Portland
Author’s Note: This column marks the 50th appearance of The Breakfast Serial. I’ve had some fantastic meals since my first review, of The Good Egg, in 2006, and I dare say there’s no more comprehensive view of the Portland breakfast/brunch scene past and present than the Breakfast Serial archives on thebollard.com. Thanks to all my readers for sticking with me all these years, even during my periodic give-me-real-maple-syrup-or-give-me-death rants. And thanks especially to Chris Busby, editor and publisher of The Bollard, for taking a chance on an untested, but opinionated, writer with a penchant for pancakes.
Before moving here in 2002, I lived most of my life in and around larger cities, from Boston to Los Angeles. Common to all these metropolises was a thriving Chinatown. Without the population density to support that type of large ethnic enclave, Maine has been seriously lacking in decent Chinese food until very recently. Relative newcomers like Empire Chinese Kitchen and Golden Lotus have finally raised the bar here in Portland.
But what I miss most of all about urban Chinatowns is dim sum. For those of you who haven’t experienced this “Chinese brunch,” picture dozens of servers pushing metal steam carts around a cavernous banquet hall, navigating between large tables filled with hundreds of hungry diners. When a cart stops at your table, the server offers you several different types of dumplings, steamed buns and other small delicacies. You’ll have no idea what most of them are, but don’t let that stop you — the mystery is part of the fun. The server marks a card to indicate what you’ve taken, so your bill can be calculated when everyone at the table is finally, thoroughly stuffed. It’s loud, chaotic and confusing, and it’s just about the best thing in the world.
Bao Bao Dumpling House, opened by renowned up-and-coming chef Cara Stadler in October 2014, is not a dim sum restaurant. However, they recently began serving a Sunday brunch menu of tasty treats and small plates that just might fool your taste buds.
My wife, 10-year-old daughter and I visited Bao Bao’s cozy, classily decorated West End space earlier this spring. We started with beverages: a piping-hot pot of minty green tea ($4) for my daughter, spicy ginger-peach black tea ($4) for me, and a deliciously sweet/tart, boozy Beet Yuzu Martini ($11) for my wife.
Our first dish (one of the best of the morning) was an incredibly crunchy Asian Slaw ($5.08) piled high with thin slices of snow peas, carrots, red cabbage, crispy fried shallots and toasted sesame seeds. Another favorite, a steamed Brunch Bun ($4.08) with bacon, quail eggs and watercress, was rich, smoky and stunningly beautiful.
We’re big fans of soup dumplings — a broth-filled, traditional-style dumpling that explodes with juicy flavor when you bite into it — and Bao Bao’s Pork Soup Dumpling ($9.08) was very good, though my daughter expressed her preference for Empire’s version. Some finely diced water chestnuts inside added a welcome crunch.
We also enjoyed the Shrimp Har Gao Dumplings ($8.08), which were greatly improved by a drizzle of chili oil. The appealingly named Pork Belly Fun Roll ($2.58) was somewhat less successful; the shredded pork filling had a nice flavor but was a little dry.
My wife’s favorite was the Hong Shao Eggplant ($6.08): tender vegetables in a pungent, sweet-spicy orange sauce, served with white rice ($1.08). I’m not a big fan of eggplant — it’s a texture thing — but that sauce was truly incredible.
Still not completely sated, we ended our meal with a couple desserts. The coconut-milk chocolate mousse ($6.08) was both decadent and elegant, though it didn’t strike us as particularly Chinese. A golf ball–sized, deep-fried Sesame Ball ($1.08), filled with a chewy peanut paste and topped with sesame seeds, could easily be described as amazeballs. But I’m not a 16-year-old girl, so I’ll just say it was delicious.
Many of the offerings at Bao Bao are not particularly authentic, but they’re all good, and a few are downright great. The incredibly friendly waitstaff was happy to explain anything in detail and help us make good choices — service you’re not likely to find at a big-city banquet hall. Until the day when a true dim sum experience becomes available in Portland, Bao Bao will fill that niche admirably.
— Dan Zarin
Bao Bao serves brunch Sundays from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.