For the past decade, the United States has been experiencing an Asian resurgence of the culinary variety. Dishes like bao buns and ramen, once reserved for Chinatowns and college dorms, respectively, have become the stars of restaurant menus around the country.
Like most trends, Asian street-food fusion was popularized in New York with the opening of (now) celebrity chef David Chang's Momofuku Noodle Bar back in 2004.
And like everything else, the concept took its time trickling down to South Florida. Over the past few years, however, we've been seeing increasingly more pan Asian starting to rise up.
Bao Las Olas is the latest incarnation.
Set on a canal on Las Olas Boulevard (the space that once housed Wild East), the spot offers a wide selection of from-scratch Asian fare in a casual, chic atmosphere.
The restaurant is separated into several areas. The main dining room is modern and somewhat stark. To the left is a large, rustic, imported Indonesian wooden bar overlooking the open kitchen; a few minimalist white booths sit across, commanding a view over the picturesque patio and dock.
Although the space allows guests to watch the chefs work, the outdoor area has been drawing the crowds. With upward-facing landscape lighting as well as dockside hurricane lanterns and fire pits, the exterior is idyllic, perfect for a relaxing, drawn-out meal of shared plates or entrées.
Owner Simon Bai wanted to open a concept that focuses on sourcing high-quality ingredients, with the majority of the dishes made from scratch on the premises. Meats are devoid of hormones and antibiotics, produce is sourced locally when possible, and no MSG is used in anything.
"I like to know what I'm eating," says Bai. "If something is full of hormones or steroids, I shy away from it. Everyone is eating out more and eating all that nasty stuff all the time. It made me wonder if I could turn that all-natural way of eating into a viable business."
To execute the concept, Bai brought on Mark Rivera as executive chef. A triathlete, Rivera is obviously health-conscious himself. Like Bai, he maintains a fairly clean diet, sticking to grass-fed beef and wild salmon over their less-expensive industrially farmed counterparts — this preference is clear on the menu.
Black Angus skirt steak is used in a variety of dishes, such as Korean street tacos, which are topped with a vibrant napa cabbage slaw.
Wild sockeye salmon is used in the salmon tartare. Finished with caviar, shallots, olives, white soy, and wasabi cream, it's well-rounded, with subtle spicy and briny notes.
The same natural ingredients are used to fill the namesake bao buns.
Items like Kurobata pork belly, Ashley Farms all-natural chicken, and local catch of the day are sandwiched between the pillowy dough with fresh herbs, apple kimchee, and cucumbers. Hoisin and sriracha are available on the side.
The fillings are good, but it's really about the steamed bun itself. Bai brought on pastry chef Kathleen Dills to develop the homemade dough. Once it's perfected — Bai says it's at about 90 percent right now — she'll move onto a rotating list of cakes and pastries.
He also brought in a specialist to make dumplings on the premises.
While the restaurant offers many of the trendier fusion items, it also features a selection of classic American-Chinese options.
Blue crab rangoon is made daily with macadamia nuts and a spicy homemade sweet chili. Unlike most variations, the crab is easily discernible in this dish.
Chinese sticky ribs are served with apple kimchee and arugula. The sauce is made from a blend of miso pastes and other spices; it's slightly sweet and savory without too much kick. The flavorful condiment coats the tender, fall-off-the-bone spare ribs.
The 32-year-old Bai was born in Brazil to Korean parents who moved to Suriname shortly after he was born. The former engineer and product developer credits his mixed bag of a background with his food choices — and willingness to try something new.
As a kid, he was exposed to flavorful fare from all over the world: Indonesian, Javanese, Creole, West Indian, Korean.
Part of his goal was to expand South Floridians' palate for Asian cuisine.
"I wanted people to know that Asian food doesn't have to be MSG-laden Chinese food, pad Thai, and California rolls," says Bai. "We've had a lot of people coming in looking for sushi. We're literally taking a loss by not having it on the menu. But we're going to stick to our guns and hope it pays off."