One night about seven years ago, Baohaus chef Eddie Huang found himself tapping out a screed on his computer keyboard that would trigger an East Coast/West Coast bao battle spanning from New York to San Francisco.
The conflict was ignited by one of his menu items: the Chairman Bao. It’s Baohaus' signature bao, the first option listed on the menu. It is an open-faced, steamed bun that resembles a chubby white taco filled with braised Berkshire pork belly, Haus relish, crushed peanuts, Taiwanese red sugar and cilantro — essentially a traditional Taiwanese gua bao.
But it’s not the ingredients comprising Baohaus’ star selection that got the restaurant’s founder, chef, TV personality and Fresh Off the Boat author, Eddie Huang, heated — it was the name itself: Chairman Bao. In 2010, before Baohaus landed in Los Angeles, there existed only the original location in New York, which prided itself on featuring this Taiwanese-style bao. However, another gua bao concept was in the works in San Francisco, and it was called Chairman Bao Bun Truck.
The idea was launched by Mobi Munch, a food truck incubator that also helped bring the Ludo Truck to life. When Josh Tang, who heads Mobi Munch, christened Chairman Bao Bun Truck up in the city by the Bay, UrbanDaddy broke the news. The next day on the East Coast, Huang read the report and unleashed his fury on his personal blog, claiming that the Chairman Bao truck was in trademark violation of his signature product’s name. He accused Tang of blatantly taking the name of his “#1 item” and setting up shop without as much as attempting to google Chairman Bao to check its availability. Huang also called out Tang’s communist panda logo as a “bite” from famed street artist Shepard Fairey’s style and characterized it as “borderline offensive” due to the combined “Japanese-style nuclear/sun rays with a Chinese name and a Taiwanese food.” He titled the blog entry “DO NOT SUPPORT CHAIRMAN BAO TRUCK.”
Mobi Munch and Tang kept a low profile during Huang’s online salvos against them but didn’t budge an inch on the name, though Tang claims to have performed internet searches early on to check for ownership of the Chairman Bao name and couldn't find any. Ultimately, over a year later, this East Coast/West Coast beef over bao concluded without ever stepping foot into court. The resolution came when the Mobi Munch team acquiesced and altered the truck’s name to, simply, the Chairman. An uneasy truce was established, and the two bao purveyors went on about their business on their respective sides of the country.
As time passed, Huang’s star rose as he appeared more frequently on VICE TV with his Huang’s World show and ABC adapted his best-selling memoir into a sitcom. The original Lower East Side Baohaus shuttered and a new East Village location opened.
Meanwhile, Tang and his team set up a brick-and-mortar version of the Chairman in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district while still operating the truck.
Then early last year, the Chairman made its trek down south and established a Los Angeles branch in the Arts District. By November, Huang had set up a second Baohaus location in Chinatown’s Far East Plaza next to Howlin’ Ray’s. No longer were the rivals bicoastal — in fact, now less than two miles separated them.
However, many years have gone by since the brouhaha, and passions have cooled. When asked about the past conflict, Lawrence Tang, manager of the Chairman, said, “I’ve been to Baohaus in New York twice. I’ve recommended it to my friends and girlfriend.”
Aside from the trademark tussle, there are no culinary conflicts between Baohaus and the Chairman. Even the most popular bao on each of their menus differ substantially. Although they both feature braised pork belly as the protein, Baohaus’ Chairman Bao is complemented with a pickled mustard green relish, crushed peanuts and cilantro, making it more traditionally a guo bao, while the version at the Chairman is miso-glazed, with turmeric-pickled daikon.
Other menu items at Baohaus include the fried fish bao: a fluffy steamed bao cradling a fried fish filet slathered with spicy tartar sauce, balanced with crunchy lemon cabbage slaw, fried garlic, crushed peanuts, Taiwanese red sugar and cilantro. The dumpling bao is filled with minced pork and chicken seasoned with Hainan chicken sauce.
The Chairman has cola-braised pork buns, and a fried miso-cured tofu that is delightful. There is a baked bun option, too, which are basically brioche buns, from Rockenwagner Bakery. In addition, many of the options can be ordered with a noodle, rice or salad base. A Hainan chicken dish is in development.
Regarding competition, Tang holds an optimistic position and says, “I think the more people are familiar with the (bao) format, the better it is for all of us. We don’t think of it as a niche where we want to be the only ones doing it.”
Over at Far East Plaza in Chinatown, Baohaus general manager Steven Lau (who was the first person to try Huang's Chairman Bao) said, “A couple of guys have stopped by from the Chairman. It was cool. There are no bad feelings.”
Tang agreed. “There’s no bad blood.”
Interestingly, at the peak of the controversy, someone proposed an East Coast/West Coast bao throwdown with the two restaurants, but it never materialized. Until a bao battle of the eating kind does get organized, you can bounce between Baohaus and the Chairman, grab a few buns and judge for yourself. No plane ticket needed.
Baohaus, 727 N. Broadway, Chinatown. (213) 935-8740, baohausnyc.com.
The Chairman, 1200 E. Fifth St., Arts District. (213) 289-9808, hailthechairman.com.