Bao Hiroo: In the Spirit of Mischief and Tradition
As the Arts District continues to fill to the brim with refined watering holes and chef-driven eateries juxtaposed within graffitied walls running the game along East 2nd from Alameda to Santa Fe rests a lineup of some of the best spots to get your grub on in the whole city. For example, chef Sang Yoon’s Father’s Office serves up classic gastropub vibes and is said to have the best burgers in the world, while Nightshade by Top Chef’s Mei Lin offers a high-end, Asian-inspired menu amidst a lush atmosphere. Welcomed by the turn of the neighborhood, the new kid on the block taking up shop alongside these culinary juggernauts is yet another chef-driven establishment, but with a nostalgic twist.
Bao Hiroo, by way of Chairman Truck founder, chef Hiroo Nagahara is to be Los Angeles’ newest modern take on traditional bao, and the Tokyo-born, Japanese-Taiwanese American isn’t playing around with trendy ideals or extravagant culinary antics. Instead, he’s taking a Chinese staple and making it his own, all while creating a relatable and enticing lineup of tightly-packed sweet and savory buns, ranging from soft and fluffy to crispy and crunchy. What’s special about Hiroo’s bao, is that with every sticky, gooey, or crunchy bite, what you’re tasting is an ode to the chef’s childhood in Japan, mixed with the comestible discoveries he made upon arriving in the states as a child at the age of seven.
“As a concept, for me it’s really about nostalgia.” says chef Hiroo “It’s really about taking things that are nostalgic for me growing up, like my mother’s a big influence, my aunt -- they all cooked. I come from one of those families that just cooks all the time. Because of that, with that kind of upbringing, it changes you -- you appreciate food, you appreciate technique, you appreciate all the love that goes into the food itself.”
With just about everything made in house from scratch, all the way down to bottled low ABV cocktails, each bao is derivative of Hiroo’s mother’s recipes -- a mashup of mantou bao in steamed and fried varieties. Bold American flavor pairings live within these steamy delicacies such as steamed brisket bao with apple and fennel, and on the wild side, a crunchy Japanese curry bao that’s stuffed with fried tofu, veggies, and fingerling potatoes. You’ll find some dynamite sweets options as well, including an ode to chef Hiroo’s favorite cookie -- an oreo bao. As far as what’s going to be spun behind the bar, aforementioned low ABV cocktails are to be featured alongside a full beer and wine program, just until a full bar becomes a part of Bar Hiroo’s practically curated spectrum.
Whereas nostalgia is a reoccurring theme here, so is preservation -- the preservation of tradition and origin. Trained under the wing of the late and great chef Charlie Trotter, the philosophy of closeness and community runs deep within Chef Hiroo’s culinary nest. Also in the name of preservation, art will be displayed by local artists to pay homage to the true nature of the Arts District. Like most good things, Bao Hiroo also comes with a little mischief. Bao Hiroo’s logo is a homage to Tanuki, a major cultural Japanese icon that is a mix between a dog and a raccoon with giant cajones and a playful spirit. Consider this somewhat of chef Hiroo’s spirit animal.
“Throughout the years, there are many things that have changed in human history, but basically the environment of eating and the table itself hasn’t really changed over the last few thousand years. It’s still a place of gathering, it’s still a place of nourishment.” notes Hiroo “I guess in this world, that’s one thing that will remain constant -- the philosophy around the tables, what it means to eat with friends and family.”
As of the last week of May, you’re invited to be the first of your friends to check out Hiroo’s bao for yourself and let the comfort of steamy, heavenly goodness envelop you. Open six days a week (closed on Sundays), you have no excuse not to get your bao on, baby. You won’t regret it.
Written by Dakota Nate | Photograph of Chef Hiroo by Robiee Ziegler | Photograph of food by Stan Lee