Looking for Steamed Bao? Head to the SGV

The recent Chinatown opening of Baohaus is in the news, making it timely to take a look at places around town to pick up a longtime Taiwanese favorite, the steamed bao. One can now find bao from downtown to the Westside to the San Fernando Valley.

In case you still aren’t familiar with the exact item we’re talking about, the word bao means "bread" in Mandarin. And, as you might expect, there are a wide range of different bao. Specifically, the item we’re talking about here is the gua bao — steamed, white circular bread folded over a filling to create the look of a small pita sandwich. While there are many options for fillings, the traditional gua bao contains pork belly braised in a mix of soy sauce, rice wine, ginger and spices, most notably star anise. The meat is topped with pickled mustard root, cilantro and ground peanuts.

Some of these bao are chef-driven fusion creations, or use high-quality, intentionally sourced ingredients. While it’s nice to see Taiwanese food making more inroads across the city, especially when done by Taiwanese chefs, there's never been a shortage of bao around Greater Los Angeles. You just need to head to the San Gabriel Valley, where they've been served for many years.

The best place to look for traditional gua bao is at any of the Taiwanese breakfast joints in the San Gabriel Valley. There you’ll find old and young alike ordering large bowls of soy milk, dipping a you tiao (a Chinese cruller) into the bowl. You’ll also find gua bao on many a table — that is, if they haven’t run out, which is a possibility if you arrive later in the day. Four Sea (Si Hai) and Yi Mei Deli have stewed pork or beef (at Four Sea/Si Hai, they are listed as gao bao). Another place to pick one up is Huge Tree Pastry in Monterey Park, which lists them by a nickname for the item, Taiwanese hamburger. Prices at the breakfast spots are usually in the $3.20 to $3.30 range.

CEO (pork belly), chicken curry and Peking duck bao from Night Owl CafeEXPAND
CEO (pork belly), chicken curry and Peking duck bao from Night Owl Cafe
Jim Thurman

For variety and something a bit less traditional, head to Baos by Night Owl Cafe in Arcadia. Located in a fairly new strip mall, the cafe opened as a tea house prior to changing focus to bao earlier this year. In addition to the traditional stewed pork belly, known here as the CEO, and beef shank, bao are available with curry chicken, Peking duck or diced black pepper steak (known as the Cow). Night Owl also has a combo deal of three mixed bao and a drink for $7.95. Prices for the individual bao range from $2.50 to $3.50.

What you won't find on the menus are tofu- or fish-filled versions, let alone fries of any kind. You also won't find details and ingredient sources listed. These breakfast places aren't hip or trendy in the least, they aren't located in an emerging neighborhood and the bao don't come from a chef with a TV series. They simply serve classic Taiwanese food, like gua bao, which is something they've been doing for many years.

Baos by Night Owl Café, 168 Las Tunas Drive, Suite #108, Arcadia. (626) 294-9436.

Four Sea Restaurant (Si Hai), multiple locations, foursearestaurant.com.

Huge Tree Pastry, 423 N. Atlantic Blvd., Suite 106, Monterey Park. (626) 458-8689, facebook.com/HugeTreePastry.

Yi Mei Deli, 18414 Colima Road, Rowland Heights. (626) 854-9246, yimeideli.com. Also at 943 W. Duarte Road, Monrovia. (626) 275-8785.

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