It amazing just how popular the humble bao has become. I remember watching an episode of Play School when I was in Year 1 which included a multicultural 'through the round window' segment showing children our age eating dim sum. Pretty much the only person of Asian descent in the classroom, there were a lot of naive comments from the rest of the class that the dumplings and bao looked 'ewwww, gross!'. Fast forward over 20 years and love for the bao has exploded; the Momofuku bun elevated it into the mass public consciousness in the west, and the west even elevated Tim Ho Wan's brilliant take on the char siu bao to a Michelin Star. We've eaten a lot of bao in the last 6 months alone -the aforementioned Tim Ho Wan in Hong Kong and Singapore, Momofuku variations at Typika, Ippudo and Shop Ramen, and a very interesting Beef Tongue Ruben version at Pleased To Meet You - so when I discovered there was a place specialising in bao in Melbourne, it quickly made the list of places we had to check out.
Located near Melbourne Central and RMIT, Wonderbao is not the easiest place to find based on its address on A'Beckett St and indeed its nominal frontage (seen above) faces a back alley more easily spotted from Little La Trobe St.
The place is not very large and can only really cater for a handful of customers dining in, though the size of their steaming baskets and the frequent turnover suggests that they get a very decent takeaway crowd.
Meeting us for lunch was Mika, a swing dancing friend of Alissa's and a fellow blogger who just completed watching a whopping 156 shows for Funny Tonne as part of Melbourne International Comedy Festival. Amazingly, he came second in spite of besting the previous year's record.
Alissa and Mika were happy to let me do the ordering, and I decided to go with two of their 4 Packs - the Traditional Wonder set and the more premium Guo Bao Box - and two of the Cheung Chay Bao. Alissa loves lap cheong (Chinese sausage), so these were mainly for her benefit. The first thing we noticed was how nice and soft the bread was, with the characteristically fluffy texture we've come to know and love in good quality bao. I tend to be a bit lazy when it comes to using lap cheong in stir fries at home and fry it without steaming for a salami-like consistency. Steamed here, they had a soft quality similar to fresh sausage while maintaining that lovely sweet cured meat flavour.
The first two Traditional Wonders were Da Pork Bao, filled with pork,egg, shiitake mushrooms and lap cheong, and the classic Char Sui Bao filled with barbecue pork.
I've eaten both of these varieties many times throughout my childhood, and both were very good examples of each type of bao, with well made fillings and a spot-on filling to bread ratio - nothing worse than a bao that's stingily mostly bread. I was most happy with the egg in Da Pork Bao, as I've had versions that are overcooked and rubbery. Likewise, the Char Siu Bao was neither dry or overly saucy as some versions can be. Of course, I still prefer what Tim Ho Wan do with their bao but this was really good in terms of the traditional style.
I was less enthusiastic about the vegetarian Choi Bao. This was basically the same idea as Da Pork Bao but with shiitake mushrooms, tofu and vegetables. Vegetarian bao can be done well - and Wonderbao do offer a gua bao with Fried Silky Tofu that does sound delicious - but this one just tasted like those baos or dumplings from the supermarket that use vegetables as filler. Its probably largely a matter of personal taste though, as I didn't like the sweet Nai Wong Bao either. Filled with the very eggy style of custard common in Asia, its not really my thing. On the other hand as a massive fan of all things custard, Alissa really enjoyed this bao as a sweet treat.
All three of us were unanimous in our praise of the Roast Pork Belly Gua Bao, which was just about the best Alissa and I have eaten. Taking the pork, hoisin sauce and cucumber from the basic Momofuku bun, Wonderbao served it with pickled carrot and daikon in a manner similar to rice paper rolls. The bao itself was as pillowy and soft as the others, and the generous slices of roast pork belly had that delicious melt-in-your-mouth quality that makes this cut so highly regarded. The hoisin imparted its signature salty-savoury flavour to the proceedings and the crunch of the vegetables rounded it out perfectly. Just incredible.
Finally, our meal was accompanied by Homemade Organic Soya Milk. It reminded me of childhood meals at Spencer Village in Perth, and was thankfully not as overly sweet as some varieties can be.
The Verdict: Excellent
The idea of a bao specialist seems so simple and straightforward, its surprising that there are so few places like Wonderbao. Along with breakfast at Hammer and Tong, not being able to return for another lunch is one of the biggest regrets of our trip and will be high on our list of things to do next time we are in Melbourne. The bao bread was great across the board, and I would definitely recommend Da Pork Bao, Char Siu Bao and the Cheung Char Bao. But the real star of their menu is the Roast Pork Belly Gua Bao, which eclipses all the others; its really that good. I don't know about Alissa, but I'm going to go a whole Gua Bao Box of these just for myself next time we're in Melbourne. I can't recommend this place more highly.