When writing a positive review of an eating establishment with a rather underwhelming façade, food critics often feel compelled to lead with some sort of phrase like “its strip mall location belies a warm, festive dining space,” or “don’t be fooled by its drab exterior, X restaurant serves up some of the most vibrant, delicious cuisine in the city.” I’m going to resist the temptation to indulge in this clichéd rhetorical gesture when it comes to writing about Fat Bao, which indeed lies next to a Supercuts and shoe repair shop in an Upper Kirby retail center. Selfishly, I wouldn’t mind if some feckless snobs are deterred by its location because that might mean shorter lines and more bao in my mouth, more quickly.
Unfortunately (for me), the word is out on Fat Bao, but if you haven’t caught wind yet of their innovative variations of a traditional Asian sandwich known simply as bao, here’s the deal. The bao is like the Taiwanese version of a taco (or, perhaps, the taco is the Mexican version of the bao—but I digress) in that it comprises a folded circular carbohydrate stuffed with various fillings. Bao (which means “bun” in Chinese and Vietnamese and refers to the fluffy white flour bread) contain pork, egg, cabbage, chives, or some combination thereof and are most often sold on the street by vendors.
But at Fat Bao 1) the bao, as I have noted, are offered inside and 2) the options for fillings are far more expansive. Savory bao include the “Crab Daddy” (fried soft-shell crab, slaw, spicy mayo), “Bulgogi” (ribeye steak, kimchi, green onions), and my personal favorite, the fatty, creamy, spicy-sweet Pork Katsu (fried pork belly, avocado, slaw, tonkatsu sauce). There’s also Americanized bao, such as the “New Yorker,” stuffed appropriately with smoked salmon, avocado, and green onions and dressed in a cream sauce as well the “Bigbyrd,” with fried chicken and basil. Trying multiple kinds is the name of the game, for bao are not burritos: just one will not fill your stomach. Fortunately, almost all bao are under $5, so ordering two, three, or even four is neither gluttonous nor exorbitantly expensive.
If, however, you seek even more diversity than that inherent in the bao selection, Fat Bao also serves generously portioned “side” dishes such as edamame, onion rings, and house-made chips. The aforementioned are satisfying accompaniments, but for more sophisticated flavor profiles and textures, go for curry fried cauliflower or the “FAT fries,” a small mountain of thinly-cut fries covered in onions, cilantro, choice of bulgogi beef or pork belly, and kimcheenaise (= kimchee + mayonnaise). If there’s anything on Fat Bao’s menu that might compete with the actual bao in terms of heft, spice, and decadence, it’s these fries.
Sweet filling options for bao are enticing albeit rather predictable, resembling those often found at crêperies: bananas and Nutella, marshmallow and Nutella, or peanut butter and jelly. I think stomach space is best devoted exclusively to the savory bao and side dishes. If you’re still hungry but jonesin’ for something a bit sugary, order a Peking Duck bao with extra hoisin. Duck for dessert never tasted so good.
3419 Kirby Drive
Houston, TX 77098