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You may not correctly pronounce okonomiyaki, but you find a way to order it because everyone else is eating the crispy cabbage pancake adorned with roasted kale, scallions, carrot, bacon, and a fried egg, too.
Plenty of customers dig into such delights on a regular night at Xiao Bao Biscuit. Patrons line the long rows of stools that snake down both walls, slurping up ramen and tofu, coming up for air with sweat on their brow and fire on their breath. They swill imported Asian beers and selections of creative cocktails by the dozens, and then find that only the sweetened coconut milk over ice will really cut the heat. But a hot mouth is certainly no good reason to avoid a pear- and ginger beer-based “Mapo Mule” or a lime and cucumber-laden “Hanoi 75” once the pain subsides. Or better yet, go early just for these delicious libations. Xiao Bao is as good a cocktail bar as it is a progressive noodle house.
“The Biscuit,” as we now affectionately call it, is easy to find—partly because it’s prominently located on the corner of Rutledge and Spring, partly because following any of the young hipsters walking through the neighborhood will most likely land you at the front door, but mostly because one can smell the place well before entering the spare concrete walls of the former filling station that it inhabits. Filigreed panels of wood cobbled together from old slats filter a roughshod patio full of picnic tables from view, and hints of East Asia waft through the open doors and drift across Spring Street—flavors of ginger, garlic, fish sauce, and lemongrass. Its bare rusticity lends it charm, elegance, and economy, all at the same time. It’s the kind of spot where Willie Nelson might stop to eat if he’d been born in Los Angeles and developed an affinity for creative bánh mì.
Like the décor, the food is cheap, but the price belies its soulful quality. For 12 bucks, you get a large bowl of mapo dofou, a piquant Sichuan-style tofu swimming in a fermented bean broth full of chilies and spice. In case that doesn’t seem down-home enough, the name roughly translates as “pock-mark-faced old crone’s tofu.” This is grandma food from another world.
Options often change, but the delicious housemade lamb and pork dumplings seem to stick around, as does the ramen bowl served up with braised pork belly, kimchi, and greens and topped with a poached egg. A gently seared fish regularly patrols the small menu selection; usually it’s flounder, rudderfish, or some other local catch that floats atop rice noodles and a garlic lemongrass broth. Only 12 choices grace the menu at present, all delicious. Some nights they serve bo tai chanh, which is simply the best beef carpaccio in town, if you like paper-thin raw beef topped with hot chilies, shallots, and Vietnamese nouc mam.
It’s only fitting that such a well-traveled establishment be the outcome of an extended honeymoon for Joshua Walker and Duolan Li. In lieu of elaborate nuptials, they backpacked through the Orient, staying on farms and with friends. This experience, and the addition of co-owner Joey Ryan, brought the concept of Xiao Bao to fruition. Last year they were doing pop-up dinners to test their concept; this year they opened the best new restaurant in town—family-owned and run, creatively envisioned, amply appointed, well-priced, and with food that oozes heartfelt soul.
Xiao Bao Biscuit
224 Rutledge Ave.