baoPDX: Melt-in-your-mouth Pork Belly Bao
SW 9th and Alder, Portland, OR 97205
The food cart pods in Portland are an anomaly that represents the gathering of innovative, creative, independent badass cooks (no, not of the Breaking Bad variety) carving out a new territory for street food. I have always had a weakness for street food, scrumptious bites that can be eaten on the go, where you can watch the food being prepared, see the fresh ingredients, smell the fragrant cooking. Street food brings dining back to its roots, and the fleet of food carts all over Portland is like one big potluck with a community of intertwined cultures. The Urban Vitality Group and the City of Portland (Bureau of Planning) conducted a study in 2011 on the effects of food carts on the livability of the city and published a report titled Food Cartology complete with surveys, interviews with vendors and site analysis. The study found that food carts foster more social interaction, livens up the social space and creates community amongst the variety of food cart customers, from office workers to construction workers. Dialogue sparks amongst customers waiting in line at the carts for their food, and the cart owners get a chance to meet and greet their customers, unlike a restaurant setting where you never see the chefs tucked away back in the kitchen.
Portland is the host of over 500 food carts, the presence of the carts shape the city’s landscape, adding character and flair to the downtown core and outlying districts.
There are a few main food cart pods in Portland (in the downtown core), a scattering of pods east of Burnside Bridge and a couple of loner carts throughout the city. We visited baoPDX at one of the main downtown pods at 9th Ave. and Alder. baoPDX is tucked under a shady tree and features a simple and bold sign. I grew up eating bao (steamed buns) so I was instantly attracted to this cart. And when I spied a familiar-looking, three layer metal steamer that looked exactly like my mom’s steamer inside baoPDX’s cart, I was sold.
baoPDX makes their bao fresh daily. Impressive. Their global menu also features traditional fare from Jamaica to Japan.
We ordered the Jerk Chicken which featured a giant helping of tender shredded jerk chicken in an even more giant steamed bun. These fresh, fluffy white buns are three times the size of the ones my mom used to steam when I was little.
We watched the chef fill the bao with steaming hot jerk chicken straight from the pot as we paid. As for payment, we were intrigued by a device that we’ve never seen in Canada: Square. A little white square gadget attached to an iPhone took our credit card, a receipt was then emailed to us. Efficient, cool and low cost. Square is the brainchild of Twitter co-founder, Jack Dorsey. The app is only available in the US. A similar device in Canada is PayPal Here.
baoPDX’s Jerk Chicken is touted as being flavoured with ‘Voodoo.’ What is it with Portlandians and the supernatural, huh? Whatever that secret ingredient is, it was delicious. The chicken was sweet and spicy with a memorable tang. The meat was tender and juicy. The bao definitely brought back waves of nostalgia for me, fluffy, soft and cloud-like.
Our next bao was filled with one of my vices: spam! This was the Spam and Tamagoyaki bao: a bao sandwich inspired by a Hawaiian sushi dish. Spam sushi is extremely popular in Hawaii. Ever since American soldiers introduced native Hawaiians to Spam during World War II, the salty, preserved mystery meat has found its way into almost every dish on the island, even sushi.
In my own personal diet, I survived an entire university semester on instant ramen with sliced spam and egg. I interned at a publishing house, the pay in book publishing is abysmal and spam and ramen are cheap. I still crave spam daily.
baoPDX’s Spam and Tamagoyaki totally hit the spot, salty spam with sweetened, fluffy egg and crunchy, fresh green onion. I still haven’t the faintest idea what’s in spam, but whatever it is, it makes the perfect comfort food, especially inside a big soft bao.
The pork belly bao was by far our favourite though: juicy, moist and succulent fatty pork belly stuffed into a bao with daikon radish, carrots and pickled mustard greens. What put the bao sandwich over the top was the sprinkling of brown sugar and crunchy peanuts. The rich, nutty sweet sugar and peanuts added that extra dimension of texture and flavour to an already amazing sandwich.
The two plump slices of pork belly were so thick, they nearly spilled out of the bun when we unwrapped it from the tinfoil. The meat had a definite ‘melt-in-your-mouth’ quality and was soaking with flavour: smoky, sweet with hints of spice. The skin was also crispy, sealing in the most incredibly moist meat that actually dissolved slowly on my tongue as I was crunching away at the skin, carrots and daikon.
Growing up in a traditional Chinese family and eating Chinese food throughout my entire childhood, I am picky about fusion food and extra skeptical about dishes that I can get on the cheap in Chinatown but baoPDX blew me away and I’d revisit any day.
Rumour has it, BJ Novak walked by the other day so if you’re a fan of The Office (at least before it jumped the shark), maybe you’ll see him at the cart again one of these days. Nonetheless, if you’re going food cart hopping, make a stop at baoPDX, you won’t regret it.