One balmy evening a few weeks ago, Arne and I were walking down Central in Nob Hill when a curious sight met our eyes. In the window of the recently vacated Ecco Gelato space was a sign with a cartoonishly irritated white blob - maybe a marshmallow? a ghost? We walked closer, our fingers crossed in a communal wish: "Please be something cool."
And lo, we found that our wish was granted, for when we drew close enough we read two thrilling words: "Mean Bao." We weren't sure what that was going to mean, exactly, but clearly there were going to be Asian breads. I didn't need to know more than that to get pretty darn excited.
A rumored opening date came and went. When Mean Bao caught our attention again, we were on our way to Flying Star for dessert with friends. But there were lights on at Mean Bao, so we crossed the street to check it out. As we approached, a smiling woman came out the door with a tray of egg custards to sample. The size of mini quiche, they were very tasty and not too sweet. I wished for a flakier pastry, but nonetheless my excitement grew. Especially when the lady with the custards told us the true opening day: August 24. Today.
I told her we'd be there, and I meant it.
It wasn't exactly crowded when we popped in this afternoon, but there were two other small groups sitting at the tables along the side wall. On the restaurant's other side was a long counter holding trays of treats: cookies, loaves of bread, and individual-sized breads and buns called "milk bread."
We quickly chose an intricately twisted green-tea bun, a similar-looking mango bun, and a flat bread topped with corn. Perhaps one of us gave a mournful look to the empty plate labeled "bolo bao," described as being filled with custard, because our server told us they would be ready in six minutes and they would be delicious. We ordered two, and then threw in a tiny pineapple-shaped cake. Or maybe it was a cookie. In any case, it was adorable.
All six treats plus a blackberry Izze only cost us $11.
The first thing we tried was the corn bread. I got a little worried - it was tasty, but only partially warmed by the server, and just not... exciting.
Then I took a bite of the pineapple cookie and wasn't worried anymore. It was definitely a cookie, dense and crumbly - reminiscent of shortbread - and filled with a sticky caramelized fruit jam. We passed it back and forth, exclaiming our pleasure at each bite, until all too soon it was nothing but crumbs.
Shortly thereafter our bolo bao came out, still steaming hot from the oven. Sweet bun on the bottom, topped with a crisp-chewy yellow cap similar to a sugar cookie, they were moist inside with custard. The custard, partly absorbed by the bun, didn't flow out over my fingers as I had envisioned; it stayed put, giving the bun a marvelous punch of three textures. Aromatic and sweet - but not too sweet - these things were warm bites of heaven.
We took the mango and green tea milk breads home to eat later. We heated one in the microwave and ate the other cold. While I definitely recommend heating them, they were very tasty both ways - delicately flavored, with a sweetness level somewhere between a Midwest-steakhouse white roll and a dessert bun.
We didn't try any of the more Western-style desserts, though I noted a chocolate-cherry cookie and a beautiful chocolate-espresso cake with caramel sauce. (The cake, at $4, was the most expensive item I saw; most were $2.) I hope they take after their Asian-style counterparts in being delicious but not excessively sweet. I expect to find out very soon.
My one concern is that I fear this is not what Americans expect when they hear the word "bao" - namely, pillowy steamed buns filled with barbecued pork. I hope that people who venture into Mean Bao looking for dim sum will stay and discover the sweet new pleasures in store for them at this quirky Asian/fusion bakery.