Greg Richie loves his martial arts. Get into a conversation with him about classic fight flicks and he'll unleash a fury of filmic references that'll have your head reeling like a Tony Jaa skull-crack. And Richie can also hold his own in the culinary arts. At Thornton Park's Soco, he's demonstrated an acute aptitude for fashioning contemporary Southern fare – it's a cuisine that's right in his wheelhouse. But he really seems to gets his kicks at his latest eatery, Baoery Asian Gastropub. The tongue-in-cheek dish names and sake-bomb atmo are a dead giveaway that Richie intends to provide an antidote to Soco's decidedly more serious climate. Even the touches of Zen – a giant Buddha mural, a Chinese gong, and some sort of unfinished wood-beamed op-art thing above the bar – make forceful aesthetic statements.
We've been to Baoery on occasions when it was hard to hear yourself talking and others when you could hear a pin drop, but one consistent aspect has always been the stick-to-your-ribs pan-Asian plates. Bao, those sweet-and-spongy buns currently trending on the city's food index, are the purported specialty here, but with only four offered, it would serve the restaurant well to come up with more. That said, it was hard not getting handsy with the pork belly bao ($8), dubbed the "Jade Emperor," with luscious slabs of belly, hoisin, kimchi and pickled cucumber stuffed inside a soft bun. The "Twin Dragons" bao with Korean fried chicken ($8) won't have you breathing fire, as I'm sure was the intent, but it will light a spark. The same could be said about most dishes here – they all bring a modicum of heat; not too much, not too little.
A blast of umami struck our nostrils when a beautiful bowl of pepper-grilled chicken ramen ($14) graced with a poached egg and nori square was set before us. But it was hard to discern the flavor of the broth, as there was so little poured into the bowl. No flavoring issues with the bulgogi-grilled beef burger ($10) with kimchi, though – it's one of the better burgers I've had the pleasure of sampling, and I quite enjoyed the sides of Asian slaw and peppery togarashi fries. We also got a side of five-spice roasted carrots ($4.50), which were way too sweet to fully enjoy. The dap ($16) – bibimbap with duck – wasn't presented in a traditional stone bowl, but there was enough of the coveted crunchy rice and runny fried egg to qualify it as worthy.
A dessert bao's ($6.50) filling of tempura-fried banana, caramel, and cranberry-kumquat marmalade had us straddling the proverbial fence. We liked the filling, but it didn't quite jibe with the texture of the bun. Ditto with the Thai sticky rice pudding ($5). While I could've indulged in the caramelized Asian pear all night long, eating the coconut rice (which wasn't really sticky) beneath the crunchy fruit became a tedious exercise.
Apart from the cheeky names, some thought was put into Baoery's beverage offerings; there's a handful of intriguing wine and beer options to go along with the requisite sakes and cocktails. As far as service is concerned, it should be noted that on our latest visit, all the dishes we ordered came out practically at once. We've also had servers who've been simultaneously too attentive and forgetful but, for the most part, they're friendly, accommodating and professional.
What Baoery does is take everyday pan-Asian fare and make it fun and playful. It's on our regular rotation, and it certainly wouldn't hurt to put it on yours. Even with pacing and service issues and a few wanted tweaks, we can't help but buy into Richie's kung fu hustle.