Bao Down: Brooklyn’s Best Buns

Photos by Jane Bruce

For a long while, tortillas were the go-to vessel for globally inspired sandwiches, likely spurred by the spate of Mexic-Asian Smorgasburg stands and taco trucks. But little by little, they’ve been overtaken by chewy Chinese steam buns. Also known as bao or mantou, these starchy pockets of steamed yeast dough are as versatile as they are unobtrusive, flavor-wise; they’re essentially a tidy, palm-sized version of American white bread. So from the classic char siu at East Wind Snack Shop, to the brisket pastrami-filled versions at Splitty, we’ve rounded up the best bao in Brooklyn.

eastwind5

East Wind Snack Shop: The offerings are largely traditional at this tiny Windsor Terrace dumpling counter, modeled after old Chinatown tea houses, but the ingredients are a cut above. There’s foie gras in the feathery spheres of steamed bao, and burnished rectangles of Niman Ranch pork belly in the bite-sized gwa bao “Gwaco’s,” speckled with pickles, musky hoisin, and shards of crunchy garlic, and featuring split, irregularly sized envelopes of dough that chef Chris Cheung actually makes himself.
471 16th Street, Windsor Terrace

Cooklyn: While Cooklyn skews largely Italian (chef/owner Anthony Theocaropolous was on the opening team of Eataly’s La Pizza and La Pasta, and Michael White’s Ai Fiori), he pays homage to his Greek roots with this top-selling dish—squashy buns stuffed with bits of roasted lamb, and topped with fresh dill, feta cream, and batons of pickled daikon radish for crunch.
659 Vanderbilt Avenue, Prospect Heights

Talde: You’ll generally find bao during brunch at Park Slope’s Talde, either masquerading as a lobster roll (drizzled with drawn chili butter), or stacked with spears of deep-fried avocado, complete with rivulets of spicy mayo.
369 7th Avenue, Park Slope

chukoshrimp

Chuko: As opposed to its izakaya offshoot, Bar Chuko, this slim Prospect Heights noodle shop continues to specialize in a very small handful of items. There’s Brooklyn’s (arguably best) bowl of ramen, Brooklyn’s (arguably best) kale salad, Brooklyn’s (arguably best) roasted brussels sprouts, and some of the tastiest buns in the borough as well, plump with either pork and chili mayo, or sweet shrimp streaked with garlic tartar sauce.
552 Vanderbilt Avenue, Prospect Heights

Splitty: The owner of Pete’s Candy Store is behind this kitschy Clinton Hill bar, designed to look like the inside of a 60s-era VW bus. Where the menu of Chinese steam buns comes into play, we’re not quite sure, but there’s no denying the appetizing originality of Splitty’s trio of bao, which include brisket pastrami paired with kimchi and Emmental cheese; caramelized mushrooms and onions strewn with spiced candied peanuts; or kale, potato and poblano pepper, with crumbled cotija and smooth chipotle crema.
415 Myrtle Avenue, Clinton Hill

Baoburg: Believe it or not, this Williamsburg spot doesn’t deal exclusively in steam buns. Although you will find Brooklyn’s only Fried Bao Benedict (sandwiching pulled pork and poached egg, engulfed in hollandaise sauce), as well as a slew of other inventive bao-based options, mounded with multi-culti fillings. Think grilled chicken with sauerkraut and cilantro; bulgogi beef with pickled chili and ssamjung sauce; tempura king oyster mushrooms with agave-miso vegan mayonnaise; and braised pork belly with five spice-mole, finished with green apple, raisin salad, queso fresco and sesame seeds.
126 N 6th Street, Williamsburg

UMi Bushwick: A godsend for the famished insomniacs of Bushwick, this summer-long pop-up serves outsized, baked bao sandwiches from 9pm-4am. A delightful, potato chip-crusted marriage between Chinese steam buns and French brioche, the burnished buns cradle pan-Asian fillings, alternately inspired by Thailand, featuring wild red curry shrimp-skate fish cakes, with green mango salad and sweet chili tamarind sauce; Vietnam, a heaping helping of caramel pulled heritage pork with crushed peanuts and fresh herbs; and Hong Kong, boasting shards of BBQ mock duck paired with pickled pineapple and hot mustard aioli.
214 Knickerbocker Avenue, Bushwick

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