Since I made the effort of parking my car during holiday seasons at the horrific lot in Century City Westfield's, I figure I might as well check out one of new eateries that pop up around Century City in addition to the chocolate tasting at Breadbar. Craft? A bit far and pricey at the moment. RockSugar? Um, not really feeling like Pan-Asianed cheesecake. Ooh, speaking of Pan-Asian, how about Take a Bao? It's food-court cheap (well, for C.C. standards anyways, considering their court also has Lawry's Carvery serving up $25+ prime ribs) and it sounds like an interesting, if gimmicky, fast casual concept. Could be cool as long as I don't compare them to the baozis readily available in Chinatown and all over the San Gabriel Valley.
Like most fast casual places, Take a Bao's menu is basically a mishmesh, mix and match of different already-prepped ingredients and sauces that's plopped onto and sandwiched between flattened and steamed bao dough (or, if you so choose, in lettuce wraps, on a bowl of rice or noodles -- but really, who'd go to Take a Bao to, well, NOT take a bao?)
After reviewing their assorted "Asian-inspired" filling options (including a signature barbecue pork that includes pea shoots and marinated cucumbers, unlike any charsiubaos I've ever eaten -- reminding me again not to evaluate these dishes by real baozi standards), I opted for the spicy sesame citrus chicken standard white bao and a miso beef wheat bao. About $10, ten minutes and one light-up/beeping vibrator later, my two baos and side of chinese napa salad arrived.
As you can tell, the only real difference between the two tacolike baos is the dough, sauce and meat, the veggie stuffings (pickled carrots, marinated cucumbers, radish sprouts, scallions) were identical -- and most of the other fillings have this same combo too.
I tried the chicken bao first, and it tasted like a poorly made orange chicken (a dish I normally love when I get that faux Chinese craving,) there was way too much of the overly-sweet sauce, and the battered chicken was dense and dry as a brick and not crispy at all (were they trying to compensate for the dryness by overdousing with sauce? well, it didn't work). But at least the bao dough was decent - fluffy, a little chewy, not dry at all and surprisingly holds together well as I took repeated bites of this otherwise sticky-and-syrupy mess.
The beef bao was way better, the miso braising liquid was sweet-savory but not overly so and it complements the tender sheared short rib nicely. The crunchy and tarted-up veggies actually provides a nice foil here and rounded out the flavors while contrasting the textures, as opposed to the previous bao where it was just another territory for that crazy citrus sauce to pillage and dominate.
But the part I liked most was the salad (yes, my yellow flag popped up when I realized the side is the best part); it was one of the better Chinese (no-chicken) salads I've had in a while, nice crunchy texture and flavors from the chopped napa cabbage, carrots, scallions, almonds and fried wonton strips and a light, nutty, sweet dressing that's just enough to bind them all together. I would've readily traded the chicken bao for more of the salad.
Summing up, my feelings for this place is mixed given the hit and miss dish I had (though for anyone craving these taco-style baos, I'd surely point them to Cafe Hiro in Cypress for their peking pork appetizer, styled like Momofuku's roasted pork buns and much more memorable than those here!) I am open to checking out this place again, but it's definitely not a destination eatery and it's rare that I'll be at the Century City Westfield so it may be a while for me to re-evaluate. That may be for the better in the long-run, 'cause maybe by then I can finally forget about that terrible super sweet brick of a fried chicken.
What Do Others Say?
Caroline on Crack, while disappointed by the baos, thinks it's a nice change of pace from usual food court offerings
Drink Your Milk actually did not take a bao here and had mixed experiences with bunless dishes.
Teenage Glutster had better opinion (or luck) with both the baos and salads here
but the democracy of the Yelpers gave it a middling 3 stars
Take a Bao
10250 Santa Monica Blvd
Los Angeles, 90067