Some people call ’em bao. Some call ’em Taiwanese burgers. And others call them by their correct name, gua bao. Whatever you call them, these meat-filled, sandwich-like treats have well and truly hit Melbourne’s streets.
Here are some of our favourite gua bao in Melbourne.
Wonderbao has fast become the go-to place when the craving for bao kicks in, which is about as often as we’re breathing. The range of traditional bao (filled, steamed buns) is complemented by a short selection of gua bao, filled with either braised or roast pork belly or, for the vegans out there, fried silken tofu, plus various sauces and garnishes.
We like the roast pork belly version best, which is topped with crunchy pickled veggies and sweet hoisin sauce, but we’d happily devour all three options if they were delivered to us right now (hint, hint). If you’ve never had gua bao before, this is a great place to start.
With more brightly coloured silk lanterns and fake cherry blossoms than you can poke a chopstick at, the Asian cliche factor is high at Rice Queen—almost as high as the praise for its fun atmosphere and fab food. This big, brash and bold pan-Asian joint has gained a cult following for its Korean Fried Chicken, but we reckon its bao is equally worthy of devotion.
It's a DIY-style serve of four pockets of semicircular steamed bread, super tender slow-cooked beef cheek, thick hoisin sauce and pickled cucumber. Carefully unfold the bread, plonk in the filling and munch away, but be warned: these moreish little handfuls are more filling than they look. Stop at one or two or you might not have room for the KFC—and that'd be a right royal mistake.
You haven’t lived until you’ve tried the DIY bao at Tokyo Tina. Slow-braised beef bulgogi (Korean marinated, grilled beef), still on the bone, sits alongside pillowy bao spread with Kewpie mayo and a cute bowl of pickles.
You know the drill—slice off some beef (it's so meltingly tender you could cut it with a spoon) and add it to your bao. Top with pickles—they're just vinegary enough to cut through the beef's richness—and stuff your face.
If Peking duck and gua bao had a love child, it'd be something like Supernormal's duck bao. At this super popular Melbourne CBD Asian eatery, paper-thin pancakes are replaced by puffy envelopes of intentionally bland bao; the idea is that you should taste the delicious twice-cooked duck, and the bao should be merely a carrier for the bird.
And what a glorious bird it is, all crispy skin and succulent flesh, perfectly accompanied by a tangy-sweet plum sauce and a few slices of cucumber for crunch. If you ever spot a free table here, duck in and try it.
CBD & South Yarra
Combining the authentic yum cha experience with a series of elegant tea merchandise for in-house or on the go, Oriental Teahouse does not mess around when it comes to bao.
We’re talking soft shell crab sliders, chicken san Choi bao, and even a DIY Peking duck option. You won’t leave hungry.
Kong is the younger cousin of Chin Chin and Baby Pizza, so your stomach is pretty much guaranteed a good time every time you go.
With some pretty tasty options peppering the menu, including their soft shell crab bun and a pretty delectable peanut tofu bun slathered in mouthwatering burnt chilli mayo, Kong BBQ is a great option to fill that bao-shaped hole in your belly.
Rice Paper Scissors
CBD & Fitzroy
Did someone say Asian Fusion? For years, Rice Paper Scissors has been serving up some of the sweetest rice-paper rolls and southern Asian share plates in town.
There are a few gua bao options that are sure to satisfy, including juicy steamed pork buns we could write sonnets about. And if you’re meat-impaired, don’t worry: crunch your way through the tempura buns—you won’t regret it.
Even though Uncle St Kilda is no more, you can still get your crispy pig’s ears and bao at Uncle on Collins St.
The chicken tenderloin bao is an absolute classic, with Vietnamese mint and spicy pickle, you’ll definitely want to order more than the standard two.
You might not think ‘Drumplings’ when talking about traditional bao options in the CBD. After all, Drumplings is known for its weird flavour combos like cheeseburger, mac & cheese, beef rendang, truffle mushroom and pepperoni pizza.
But Drumplings also serves up some fresh-as-hell classic Chinese favourites such as the Xiao Long Bao, prawn and ginger dumplings and gua baos including pork belly and kung pao chicken. So get to it.
ShanDong MaMa Mini
Did you know that ShanDong MaMa spawned a little lunch offspring? If not, you’ll want to get a move on because the bun game here is strong.
It’s a tight squeeze, so maybe mull over your decision while waiting in line: delicious stewed pork belly or the beef shank bun? At $5 each, why not both?
Bao X Waffle
In case you’re not familiar with Bao X Waffle, let’s get you up to speed: Bao X Waffle is combining cutting-edge Chinese bao technology with funky Southern-style flavours (and a hefty dollop of hip hop swagger). What does that mean? It means pillowy bao stuffed with crispy AF Southern chicken fillets, deep-fried gnarly little nuggets, topped with pickles, iceberg lettuce and a house-blend hot sauce known as ‘Bruce’.
It means braised and panko-crumbed daikon (sourced from local farmers), dished up with pickled veg, watercress, Kewpie mayo and Tonkatsu sauce. Can we get a hell yes?
Once you're done sampling all of the bao, why not chomp on Melbourne's best Korean BBQ?
Image credit: Annika Kafcaloudis