I’m not certain of the first time I saw a restaurant in intown Atlanta serve gua bao, but I am fairly certain the menu didn’t call it that.
Maybe it was seven or eight years ago at Miso Izakaya, when chef Guy Wong was beginning to make his name with an Old Fourth Ward restaurant. Back then, Wong’s folded, steamed buns stuffed with pork belly or crispy duck were turning heads on Edgewood Avenue, a street that still had more vacant storefronts than occupied ones.
Flash forward to today: Wong has three successful restaurants, Edgewood Avenue is packed with notable restaurants and gua bao is everywhere.
Well, sort of everywhere. The classic Taiwanese dish of folded, fluffy bun wrapped around tender pork belly (or other stuffing) is available at plenty of restaurants across town, even if most places still don’t call it by that proper name or by the Northern Chinese variant, mantou. I’ve seen the dish described on menus as bao buns, pork buns, steamed buns or even just bao. Somewhere along the line to mainstream popularity, the name gua bao, which describes that fluffy, foldable bun, seems to have been lost.
Name aside, I’m not surprised that gua bao has become so widely popular in Atlanta. Pork belly, that most generously fatty cut of the pig, is one of those divinely delicious ingredients that people south of the Mason-Dixon line love just as much as those in the South China Sea.
Beyond that, gua bao has a flawless, classic structure for food: a folded, hand-held vehicle for stuffing rich, tasty goodness into your mouth. That’s the kind of delicious beauty that transcends language and culture, whether it is a taco, a crepe, or a slice of Wonder Bread loaded with peanut butter and jelly.
The gua bao options across Atlanta include both traditional and innovative styles. These are a few of the best.
Ah-Ma’s Taiwanese Kitchen
This cozy restaurant, which opened in the Midtown Promenade shopping center in 2014, boasts some of the most classic Taiwanese cooking in Atlanta, including a slow-cooked beef noodle soup, a three-cup chicken and a pork belly gua bao that might qualify as the most traditional in town.
A generous slab of pork belly is cooked to gelatinous, fall-apart tenderness and topped with pickled mustard greens, crushed peanuts and cilantro.
But don’t stick just with tradition at Ah Ma. The bao menu includes a variety of delights, including a crisp-fried chicken bao they call the Dirty Bird and a meaty beef shank bao topped with hoisin sauce.
And even carnivores will want to try the veggie bao, which swaps out the pork belly for a crisp, golden brown block of tofu and tender, umami-rich mushrooms.
Ah-Ma’s Taiwanese Kitchen, 931 Monroe Drive, Atlanta. 404-549-9848. Facebook: Ah-Ma’s Taiwanese Kitchen
The soft-shell BLT banh bao served at Guy Wong’s French-Vietnamese westside restaurant, Le Fat, is easily the most visually impressive in town. The golden brown claws of deep-fried, soft-shell crab reach out from the white bun, beckoning you to take a bite and taste bacon, lettuce, tomato and a touch of sambal-spiked mayo.
It is an outlandish mix that also makes perfect sense as soon as you taste the combination of salty, crunchy, smooth and soft textures and flavors.
Le Fat, 935 Marietta St., Atlanta. 404-439-9850, lefatatl.com.
This counter at Ponce City Market, started by local kimchi producer and chef Hannah Chung, puts a fully Korean spin on gua bao. Her beef bulgogi bao takes a generous heaping of thinly shredded beef and tops it with a mince of Chung’s napa cabbage kimchi. Even better, though, is the spicy pork bao, which is loaded with gochujang coated pork shoulder and topped with a bright, crisp pile of white radish kimchi. Order a pint of Buchi Kombucha, served here on tap, and you’ll be in a fermented heaven.
Simply Seoul, 641 Ponce De Leon Ave., Atlanta. simplyseoulkitchen.com.
Suzy Siu’s Baos
Michael Lo and George Yu, also of Taiyo Ramen in Decatur, have recently opened this slick counter at Krog Street Market. It’s a good-looking, polished operation, the kind of thing that makes you think fast-food bao might one day be as common as Chipotle burritos. (A handy sign sits on the counter for people unsure how to pronounce “bao:” Like the rapper Lil Bow Wow, not the actor Scott Baio.) But the food lives up to that fancy branding.
The slabs of pork belly sport a touch of sugary, blackened char and pink pickled onions. But the Korean fried chicken bao, a fried, crisp cut of chicken breast doused in spicy sweet sauce and topped with a couple of pickles, might be the flavor-packed, indulgent standout on the menu.
Suzy Siu’s Baos, 99 Krog St., Atlanta. 404-996-6504, Facebook: Suzy Siu’s Baos.
La Mei Zi
The pork belly bun served at this Taiwanese-Sichuan restaurant on Buford Highway, which is the only one on the menu, holds its own against Ah Ma’s pork belly bun as one of the most traditional options in town. The thick-cut slab of tender pork belly is topped with pickled mustard greens and cilantro. The big difference is portion size: At the price of $6 for two, these gua bao are easily the biggest, most-filling bao deal in town.
La Mei Zi, 5150 Buford Highway, Doraville. 770-676-0225, lameiziga.com.