Gua baos are a taste sensation. These Taiwanese steamed buns traditionally filled with braised pork belly and pickled vegetables were made world famous by David Chang of Momofuku fame, and are claiming their status as the ‘in’ food for the trendy. You can now get them in different versions, with chicken, tofu, beef and even soft shell crab. They are more regularly called pork buns, though I think of pork buns as the completely enclosed buns, not these half sandwich looking baos.
Gua baos have been spreading through Auckland before I left New Zealand. Blue Breeze Inn in Ponsonby made them a signature dish, and Chinoiserie in Mt Albert serves predominantly modern takes of gua baos in a bar setting. BL and I have been hunting them out since we moved to Sydney last year.
We’ve eaten downright terrible versions, mediocre ones and some excellent interpretations. Of the seven we have had, here’s the list from worst to best. (I have only included those that are easily available). A good gua bao has the right balance of salty, sour, sweet flavours and chewy, crunchy, soft textures. All in one bite. The bun should be warm, fluffy and soft, not dry or tacky. The meat is tender and well seasoned; the pickled vegetable still has a crunch.
7. Tsuru food truck pork belly bun ($10). The pork belly bun was most expensive by far, and also the most badly seasoned. The pork tasted overly salty, the soy flavour was overwhelming with no other discerning flavours coming through. The cucumber was under-pickled and tasted watery, so there wasn’t the nice sweet sour balance. The bun was room temperature when it should have warmed. If I hadn’t just pay $10 for it, I would not have finished this. This was a complete fail.
6. New Shanghai steamed pork belly bun (2 for $6). These were the cheapest gua baos we found, so I didn’t have high expectations. These were bland. The pork was tender but barely seasoned, with a single slice of cucumber wrapped in a nice soft bun, and there was no sauce. I wouldn’t bother getting these again. Stick to the other excellent dishes on New Shanghai’s menu.
5. Bao Dao Taiwanese Kitchen gwa bao ($4.50). I had higher hopes here as Bao Dao is rated highly for its Taiwanese cuisine. There was a generous slice of braised pork belly and pickled mustard greens, but it lacked other condiments that would have hugely lifted the taste. There was too much sourness from the pickled greens, some sweetness to balance this would have been good.
4. Bao Stop food truck braised pork belly gua bao ($7.50). These gua baos come with Bao Stop’s Peking sauce, pickled mustard greens, Taiwanese mayonnaise, fresh coriander and roasted peanuts. Bao Stop also serves up fried chicken gua baos ($7.50), fried mushroom gua baos ($7.50) and fried peking duck gua baos ($8.50). Any three for $20.
3. Devon on Danks pork bun ($5). This is Malaysian Hakka style braised pork belly, taro, pickled cucumber between fluffy steamed buns, and was very good. The taro is a great foil for the fatty braised pork, and the soft warm bun.
2. Wonderbao braised pork belly gua bao (was $7 at Sydney Noodle Night Market, $4.20 at Wonderbao outlet in Melbourne). This is a curious entry because Wonderbao is based in Melbourne, but as we tasted them at Sydney Noodle Night market, I had to include them. At their Melbourne outlet, they are a steal at $4.20 for the most delicious pork belly gua bao. The pork was meltingly tender, saucy and flavoursome, nicely balanced by the pickled mustard, coriander and crushed peanuts in a warm soft bun. Their other versions of twice cooked pork belly which came with pickled vegetables and hoisin sauce was good, and their fried silky tofu was exceptional. It was so good, on my visit to Melbourne, I scheduled in a detour to their steam-ery.
1. And the winner is Belly Bao pork belly bun ($6.50). I have been back here five times, and loved it each and every time. Belly Bao used to operate at the weekend Paddington Farmers Market, but luckily for most, they now have a permanent home at GoodGod Small Club in Liverpool St, Sydney CBD. The pork belly buns are perfection; well seasoned pork, just the right amount of pickled mustard greens, sauce, crushed peanuts and coriander. They also do a killer crispy tofu, slow braised beef short rib with kimchi and soft shell crab gua bao.