You might not understand what’s there to ‘wonder’ about ‘bao‘ (Chinese steamed buns) since to some it’s a staple and well…just some dough with filling inside. Strange as it may seem, Melbourne is seeing an influx of specialty bao shops and one of the pioneers of its success and popularity is Wonderbao.
On a Friday afternoon at what we thought was way past lunch time, Yuye and I ventured out to Wonderbao to experience first hand what all the fuss was about. Situated in the most hidden graffiti lined back alley, it took us quite some time and a few wrong ways to finally get there. Eating in was beyond a struggle as patrons even had to fight for standing space.
As I was so insistent on eating in, we had no choice but to squash in a little corner by the window, with bao in one hand and camera in the other. Luckily bao is a fast and easy thing to consume so it wasn’t long before a seat next to us was vacant. I did like the view from where I was standing though, seeing as there was graffiti in an unobstructed 180 degree way. I also LOVED this photo I took…I bet people wouldn’t have thought they’d be eating bao in a Melbourne lane way like this 10 years ago.
There’s not so many choices on the menu which made it a lot easier to choose. It was inevitable for us to pick the braised pork belly gua bao ($3.80) which came with pickled mustard, coriander & crushed peanuts along with tenderly braised fatty pork belly in an open bun. Surprisingly enough a lot of my friends have never seen bao like this before but it’s actually quite common in China, although it’s not something we’d ever order as a singleton. They usually come with a whole dish of braised pork belly and a whole plateful of these open buns for people to fill their own. We’d often order this at restaurants as part of a meal.
The pork belly was cooked to perfection, very tender and juicy and just the right amount of seasoning, albeit being a little on the sweet side.
It was also a given for us to order Da Pork Bao ($3.20). I wasn’t sure if ‘Da’ in the name was meant to refer to the word ‘big’ in Chinese or whether I was meant to read it with a slight fob accent to replace what should be ‘the’? Either way, the bao filling was plentiful and delicious. It came with egg, shiitake mushroom and Chinese sausage in visible chunks which was good.
I normally wouldn’t order very sweet bao as I’m not actually a huge fan of the thing. However, seeing as it was a good idea to sample all the classics on the menu, we decided to go with a char siu bao ($2) as well. It was actually quite decent with the soft fluffy dough complimenting the sweet cha siu inside. Cha siu for those of you who don’t know, is a Cantonese BBQ pork which is so popular it hangs by the front window of nearly every good Cantonese style restaurant you will find and I suppose this bao is also a staple in Cantonese cuisine.
The lucky last bao we consumed that day was the Nai Wong Bao ($1.70) which is yet another staple bao in Cantonese cuisine. It consists of a deep yellow egg custard inside fluffy sweet dough. Again it wasn’t all that bad with just the right amount of sweetness, although personally I just prefer the savoury ones more.
To finish the meal, we decided to order a hot handmade soya milk ($2.80) take away. It came in what looked like a large take away coffee cup which was quite interesting and strangely fitting of the decor and location of the shop. It was nothing special though since we make it at home all the time with the awesome soy milk making machine and it always tastes like that but it was nice as a palate cleanser after the many baos we had.
I I must clarify something though. All the dough we had at Wonderbao was sweet and fluffy, even the ones on savoury baos. That’s not something Yuye was quite used to as he’s from Northern China and up there, people ate bao with dough that’s a lot denser and not at all sweet. The fluffy sweet variety is more popular in Southern and maybe Eastern parts of China as well as places outside of Mainland China such as HK, Taiwan and Malaysia. However, for this reason, Wonderbao wasn’t to Yuye’s liking at all which I can understand. I didn’t mind it as much although I did find the dough a little on the sweet side. These types of dough on sweet bao like char siu bao and nai wong bao was perfectly fine though and should be that way.
Overall, Wonderbao left a good impression on me, although it wasn’t anything all that special. What contributed to its popularity I think was the lack of such establishments and the general love for bao in the greater Asian community in Melbourne. I don’t think I’d be willing to travel great distances for Wonderbao or bao in general, although I can’t speak for everyone since I know friends who are avid lovers of them and I don’t really belong in that group.
If you like bao, do give Wonderbao a go as there wasn’t much I could fault with the offerings (unless if you’re like Yuye and doesn’t like sweet fluffy dough). It might just be a good idea to get them takeaway.
Phone: (03) 9654 7887
Shop 4/19-37 A’Beckett St, Melbourne VIC 3000