The thing with bao, those spongy alabaster buns of Taiwanese origin, is that, like Ethiopian injera, the bread seems to rapidly expand in your stomach – so the sensation of being full hits soon after ingesting just one. But like a Lay's potato chip, you can't eat just one, so I make a conscious choice to be especially famished prior to any visit to King Bao. I'm usually spellbound in a mental fug of steam and saucy meats as I do the zombie walk into the Mills Avenue eatery, but the stark decor never fails to snap me out of it. Many are seated on white stools; others crouch over tables in the posture of the ravenous, but my procedure is to order (preferably beforehand) and enjoy these splendid (and splendidly priced) hot pockets of wondrous bread in the comfort of my home, a mere eight minutes away (lucky me).
When I pop open the Styrofoam container of my three-bao combo ($9), I can't help but think of the threat these scrumptious buggers pose to the almighty taco and burger. Bao are a small, yet persuasive, segment of the revolution and evolution forging a pluralistic culinary landscape across midsized towns in America, and they're here to stay. David Chang and Eddie Huang boosted their popularity in New York years ago and now, they're Orlando's latest food darlings.
Texturally speaking, fluffy, doughy bao are hard to beat when stuffed with crispy, fatty, meaty and crunchy edibles. At first, the kimchi fried chicken ($3.50) appeared too corpulent to be contained by the bao's feeble grasp, but then it was gone – cucumbers, scallions and all – in three bites, save for a dab of sriracha aioli splattered on my upper lip. A bao of marinated Korean short rib ($3.50) was a personal favorite, thanks to an Asian pear salsa and bracing cilantro (and speaking of zombie walks, it's named after Glenn Rhee, the Korean Walking Dead character). Had the grouper ($3.50) been heavier on the flesh and lighter on the tempura batter, it too would've occupied a special place in my mind's bao vault.
And what of the bao that started it all, gua bao? It's called "Hogzilla" ($3.50) here, but the requisite succulence of braised pork belly is nevertheless present in all its fatty glory. Ground honey-roasted peanuts add a bit of sweetness (and crunch) along with pickled carrots and daikon. I was leery of the "Mr. Potato Head" ($3) partly because A) I never cared for the toy of the same name and B) I thought a sweet potato croquette with roasted corn, sour cream and a sesame relish would veer toward cloying. Turns out it is sweet, but pleasantly so, and besides, it really paired well with the fire tots ($2.50).
That's right, if you want a little side bang for your bao, tater tots (talk about culinary pluralism) are your only choice, and these puppies come tossed in togarashi, chives, jalapeños and a drizzle of sriracha aioli. Truffle tots ($3) might lend a fancy air, but the fact is, any meal you have at King Bao will be of the cheap-ass variety, and that goes for desserts ($2) as well: fried bao gorged with ice cream, ground peanuts and caramel sauce, or with Nutella, bananas and powdered sugar.
A factor in their affordability here is the unfortunate fact that the Asian sugar dough buns are not made in-house. Nope, King Bao goes the route of the convenience-minded pauper and purchases packaged frozen buns, which are then heated on the premises. Needless to say, they're never quite as satisfying as freshly made, but that's the way at King Bao.
Yeah, I'm getting steamed just thinking about it.