The story: Bao Down is considered an Asian fusion restaurant that gets its name for the Chinese-style steamed buns on the menu. It’s originally from Vancouver, B.C. where it has three locations. This month it opened its first U.S. outpost in San Francisco’s Executive Hotel Vintage Court near Union Square, which formerly housed the brief All Spice but is mostly known as the original spot of the noted Masa’s restaurant.
Why I went: I was shopping in the city this weekend (more bathroom renovation styling) and decided to get an early dinner at Bao Down, landing right as it opened for Saturday happy hour. There’s a bar where I was offered a seat, but I chose to sit at a table squeezed in the main dining area that’s also surrounded by several communal tables.
The vibe: The brightly colored murals flanking both sides of the room convey a party atmosphere, and early on the crowd seems to be a bit of the young drinking crowd. It is a bit out of the way from the tourists’ path, although it is near to both Union Square and Nob Hill hotels. The music and TV screens showing local sports give it a part sports bar part hotel bar scene.
The booze: With an emphasis on happy hour, the beverage program is quite strong with a competent list of wine and beer, but also a menu of six specialty cocktails found under the heading “Strong Cocktails.” With positioning like that, I knew I had to try the Cherry Heering Manhattan ($14), which had the classic ingredients of a Manhattan (made with Bulleit Bourbon) but is slightly sweetened by the addition of Cherry Heering, a cherry brandy. I also tried the Yokohama Mule ($14), which was light and citrusy, made with sake, St. Germain, ginger beer and fresh lime juice. Both cocktails were nicely blended and well balanced in taste and alcohol.
The menu: The food at Bao Down is totally geared toward bar snacks with the signature baos or steamed buns, along with sides ($6) that were all deep-fried foods (two types of fries and Filipino lumpia, which is like a spring roll). Bao Down opened a couple of weeks ago with lunch and just this weekend began dinner service. The dinner menu expands on the happy hour menu by offering more small and large shared plates.
For the baos, there are six types that touches on various Asian cuisine from Korean to Japanese to Filipino to Hawaiian. Since I was there at happy hour, I paid the $6 each price (they’re typically $15-$18 on the dinner menu). I tried the “Two Worlds Collide,” which is crispy pork with braised kurubuta pork belly. They weren’t kidding on the crispy part as the crunchy pork cracklings in the bun were so hard I was worried it might crack my teeth, but the combined flavors of a hoisin glaze with pickled vegetables was satisfying. Then I tried the “Bao Chicka Bao Bao,” which I read to be a chicken bun but didn’t closely read the “fried chicken” part. I still ate it and liked the garlic aioli blending with the fried chicken, but the bun on this particular order wasn’t completely cooked. (You ever had that slight cardboard-like texture of a partially cooked bun?)
There are also “island tacos” ($4.50 each during happy hour), and most of them were also deep fried such as the N2 Deeper (crispy black cod), so I went for the “Tropic Thunder,” blackened ahi tuna with pea shoots and wasabi mayo. It comes on top of a blue corn tortilla on top of a regular corn tortilla, and served with three types of house-made sauces (the coffee chipotle is very spicy, if you like heat). Flavors were good but my piece of tuna was chewy, which made it difficult to eat.
From the dinner menu, I wanted to try the poke, which was listed as a plant-based poke ($15). I imagined raw fish mixed with watermelon, but didn’t realize that this is really a faux poke dish because there were no fish, just the watermelon cubes with smashed avocados, radishes, cucumbers and sides of nori (seaweed) and rice cakes. This was an unusual spin on Hawaiian poke, although the poke sauce of tamari-sesame with kukui nuts had an authentic poke flavor, which oddly worked nicely with the watermelon. The rice crackers are an odd accompaniment, but at least there was a slight flavor to them and they weren’t bland as I’d imagine.
My final dish was the “Conquistador Caldereta” ($18), which is Snake River Farms Wagyu beef made into a stew with espagnol sauce and Forbidden black rice blended with Quebec foie gras. This was a hearty dish with amazing beef chunks and unusually large green olives. The beef stew flavor was reminiscent of Asian-style curry that was comforting but heightened in flavor by the Wagyu beef and hints of foie.
My favorite dish: Probably for flavor and satisfaction it is definitely the Conquistador Caldereta. Ironically, it came last when I was nearly full so I couldn’t finish it all, but am excited to have leftovers.
The last bite: Bao Down lives up to the “fusion” aspect of its name, with equal parts emphasis on food as much as the fun atmosphere. While the food can be seen as creative, it can come off as too gimicky and not as authentic. Local bun boss The Chairman is creative but the flavors lean toward authenticity, while Bao Down lean more on apperance. The menu is geared toward happy hour or large drinking parties.
The rating: 2.5 out of 3 camera snaps
The deets: Bao Down, 648 Bush St. (near Powell), San Francisco. PH: 415.872.9258. Open lunch, Tuesday through Sunday from 11 a.m., and dinner, Tuesday through Saturday from 5 p.m. Closed Monday. Happy Hour, Tuesday through Saturday from 4 to 7 p.m. Reservations, major credit cards accepted. baodown.net
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