It would be so easy to dismiss this place, with its gimmicky name and amusing attempt at street cred: "bao buns made especially for us in the san gabriel valley (i.e. the real deal)". But if you take it for what it is, a playful spin on a chinese staple - borrowing from a variety of asian cuisines, served with a quick dining concept - you could see it as a place that offers Valley workers a fun option for their hour lunch break.
Take a Bao started out as a counter at the Westfield Century City mall food court. The freestanding offshoot made its debut in Studio City last month with a menu offering different savory fillings for their steamed buns, as well as noodles, rice bowls and dessert bao and cocktail service at the bar.
It's a modern, sleek space that is pretty tastefully done, and confident in its identity. It doesn't try to put on any airs or aspire to be 'scenestery' - it just is what it is. You order at the counter, get a number marker, seat yourself and wait for your food to arrive. Or sit at the bar for 'full service'.
On a weekday lunch break, 'Designer Cyclist', 'Olesta Macheo' and I parked ourselves at the bar and with great effort dragged our eyes away from the cocktail list, placating ourselves with Izze soda instead. Bao was the reason for our visit, though a few of the dishes sounded interesting for another time (Roasted Market Fish in Banana Leaf with coconut kaffir broth, broken rice, wok-charred snap peas...eggplant, bok choy, finger chilis, thai basil, anyone?)
We decided on Thai Peanut Chicken Bao ($4.50) grilled chicken, thai peanut sauce, cucumber, cilantro, scallions, crushed peanuts Pulled Pork Bao ($4.50) hoisin braised bbq pork, pickled red onion, cucumbers and Duck Confit Bao ($6) maple leaf farms duck leg, grilled scallions, plum hoisin sauce.
Again, authenticity is not the intention. The flavor of the dough did remind me of the bao normally used with peking duck - but it was rolled thinner and longer, so it in effect was more like an inflated tortilla or wrap versus the thick, pillowy bao I know and love. Though different, it was still fluffy and tasty even if not completely true to the original. (Take a Bao also offers a wheat option for their buns, which I didn't like as much as white - probably as it was grainy and made me think 'healthy' which I subconsciously associate with 'not delicious'.) So, traditionalists may bulk, but we thought the bao were fun interpretations.
That combination to me represents the ultimate umami: gamey, savory meat with sweet, slightly tangy sauce and subtly sweet bread. Take a Bao does an admirable job - you're not going to get good peking duck at that price, but the meat which made me think 'pulled duck' was decent.
I did also enjoy bites of the Thai Peanut Chicken and Pulled Pork baos - textures were balanced: tender meat and soft bao were countered by crunchy peanuts and/or cucumbers, alfalfa sprouts, then enhanced by smooth and richly flavored sauce.
Portions are fairly small though, so expect at least 2 bao per person.
The sauce was the consistency of sticky toffee, and as a finger food this dish is decidedly not conducive to working lunches (maybe those who have more poise than me could manage, but for those like me, I would recommend not wearing clothes you love and bringing lots of moist towelettes).
Other than that we loved the bold flavors and crunchy deep fried skin on these wings. There was also enough for three people to fill up on, so not a bad deal for $6! (a 5-piecer from KFC would probably be the same price...and these are so much better)
All told, we got in and out of Take a Bao in less than an hour and had a fun and tasty lunch for not that much more than what we would have spent on a fast food place / less exciting casual restaurant. So, thank you for playing, quick service spots - but I'll Take a Bao over Chipotle any day. Welcome to Studio City, Take a Bao - I liked your first act and hope the show goes on.
On a 7 point scale:
Flavor - 5.5 bites
Presentation - 5 bites
Originality - 5 bites
Ambience - 5 stars
Service - 5.5 stars
Overall experience - 5.5 bites
Price - $ (1 bite mark)
Probability of return visit - 90%
Take a Bao
11838 Ventura Blvd., Studio City, CA 91604