It’s often described as the ‘Asian hamburger’ and it seems like the folded pork belly steam bun is nearly as ubiquitous in restaurants across Charlotte as are golden arches.
Although native to China, bao are steamed buns seen and smelled on the streets of many Asian countries from Vietnam to Japan to Korea. They can be filled or steamed naked as a vessel for garnished meats. It’s the foldable, Taiwanese version seen most often at trendy new restaurants around Charlotte.
And a popular filling is pork belly.
One of the first places in Charlotte I found an open, pork belly bao bun was at Futo Buta in South End. It has since become one of my favorite pre-ramen shareables along the Rail Trail.
But the Japanese ramen house now must contend with a new neighbor also serving Japanese fare, Yume on Mint Street, right down the street in the Wilmore neighborhood.
So, I set out to answer the question: ‘Who has the best bao on the block?’ I subjected myself to the torturous task of tasting and judging these gluttonous masterpieces and threw in self-described “not…traditional Korean restaurant,” Seoul Food Meat Company, to see how its version measures up.
All scores are out of a possible 5 stars.
Lowcountry smoked pork belly ($10)
Pork Belly: Too much of the fat had been cooked out, leaving the meat dry and much of the smoke flavor left without a carrier. A small piece of smoky fat leftover on my plate was not enough to redeem it. ★★★
Bun/Garnishes/Sauces: The slaw and scallion were ample and provided good texture. The sauce was sweet, spicy and complemented the meat well, but I wanted more of it. Sadly, the bun was somewhat stale. ★★★★
Overall Taste: Underwhelming and not up to standards set by previous visits. I take half the blame for ordering late on a weekday night (9:15 p.m.).
Average Score: ★★★ ½
Pork Belly: There are no pork belly buns on the menu here. You have to piecemeal it. Order a small pork belly ($16) and a side of bao buns (3/$4). But before scoffing at the combined price, know that the amount of pork belly you get on your tray, even with a small, is substantial. The flavor? It was good—each cube a cross section of the belly of meat and fat—with a chewy skin that gets stuck in between your teeth like a meat caramel. ★★★★
Bun/Garnishes/Sauces: My bao bun construction was composed of three cubes of belly, a slice of pickled cucumber, and a splash of sweet hoisin barbecue sauce. The bun was freshly steamed, soft, and pillowy. ★★★
Overall Taste: Because these are not a composed dish, this order inherently suffers from misproportion. But the end result is rewarding and perfect for groups in numbers divisible by the lowest common bun denominator of three.
Average Score: ★★★ ½
Kakuni bao ($6.50)
Pork Belly Flavor: The pork belly here is braised and left with much of the fat unrendered. Each piece is silky and fatty—truly decadent if perhaps a tad underseasoned. ★★★★
Bun/Garnishes/Sauces: The simple mayo-based sauce was generously applied and brought with it flashes of summer BLTs. And a more well-made steamed bun, I’ve never experienced. ★★★★
Overall Taste: The delicate textures in Yume’s bao bun were a delight. A touch more seasoning would have given this version a runaway victory.
The Winning Average Score: ★★★★
Yume was the champion this evening but, as a former cook myself, I understand kitchens fluctuate with consistency and execution from night to night—and sometimes within the same evening.
In no way will this deter me from my favorite pre-ramen snack along the Rail Trail. And the leftovers from Seoul are going into tomorrow night’s dinner.
But I dined on pork belly for two straight evenings, so honestly, who is the real winner here?