IS there room in this town for another pork bun?
Baohaus, a tiny spot on the Lower East Side that opened at the end of December, is the latest contender in the pork-bun wars. It serves gua bao, a k a Taiwanese hamburgers.
For $4, you get a lily-white bun — the bao — brimming with Niman Ranch pork belly, glossy with fat and topped with the classic Taiwanese condiments: peanuts pulverized to a powder and tossed with red sugar; suan cai (pickled mustard greens), and a fistful of cilantro.
Dissenters will quibble that you can get gua bao for less in Chinatown. Not with this quality you can't.
God is in the details. The buns are steamed in lotus leaves. The pork is flash-fried, and then simmered in rice wine, soy sauce, rock sugar, ginger and star anise — a technique called "red cooking" in Mandarin — plus cherry Coca-Cola, which adds a hint of caramel. Historical note: red-cooked pork belly is said to have been one of Mao Zedong's favorite dishes. So Baohaus's pork bun is named the Chairman Bao.
Besides the Chairman, there are other buns on the menu that are less traditional. In the haus bao ($4.50), Angus skirt steak is red-cooked with the added jolt of moutai, 100-plus-proof sorghum liquor. The tangy Uncle Jesse ($3.50) is packed with tofu that's been dredged in sweet-potato starch and lightly crisped so that it's still fluffy inside.
Beef noodle soup ($6.50), available only on weekdays, rivals a great pho, the Vietnamese noodle soup. The broth is dark brown and redolent of tomatoes, ginger and star anise. The surprise ingredient is peanut butter. The meat, beef shoulder clod, falls apart at the touch.
For dessert, strips of bao are fried until they take on a brioche-like exterior, and then drizzled with a sauce made of black sesame and condensed milk ($3.50). Also on hand are peanuts that have been boiled for eight hours in a bath of salt and rice vinegar ($3.50). They're billed as "country caviar" and spooned into paper cups. They go down easily.
Baohaus is the creation of Eddie Huang, the 27-year-old son of Taiwanese immigrants who is also a street-wear designer and a former lawyer. He spent years working the front of the house in his father's two restaurants in Orlando, Fla., but apparently inherited his cooking skills from his mother and a grandfather who used to sell gua bao in Taipei.
Old family photos line the wall: Mr. Huang's grandparents playing mah-jongg, his mother's kindergarten class portrait.
The tiny sliver of a space — customers squeeze around a wave-shaped, kitchen-island-style counter — looks as if it were put together overnight. It practically was: Mr. Huang signed the lease on Nov. 10 and opened on Dec. 23.
Warning: this may be street food, but don't expect to dash in and out. Time is taken with each bun.
While you wait, Mr. Huang might make you some spiced peanuts in a heady mix of raw garlic, black vinegar and cilantro.
Mr. Huang cooks everything himself and is prone to whipping up new dishes on the spot. For Chinese New Year, he devised an eight-course menu.
But he says he wants to focus on his gua bao.
After all, less is more.
137 Rivington Street (Norfolk Street), Lower East Side; (646) 684-3835, baohausnyc.com.
BEST DISHES Chairman Bao (Niman Ranch pork belly bun); haus bao (Angus skirt steak bun); Uncle Jesse (pan-fried tofu bun); sweet bao fries; beef noodle soup.
PRICE RANGE $3.50 to $6.50.
CREDIT CARDS Cash only.
HOURS Sunday to Thursday, noon to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, to 2 a.m.
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS Inaccessible.
RESERVATIONS Not accepted except for special events.
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