Some folk call ’em bao. Some call ’em Taiwanese burgers. And still 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.
Ghost Kitchen Taiwanese Street Food
With addictive offerings such as salt n pepper popcorn chicken and spring onion pancakes, this food truck has been driving our obsession with Taiwanese street food. The truck is especially worth stalking—er, following—for its gua bao. It’s a fairly traditional version, with a piece of fluffy, steamed bread encasing slow-braised pork belly that’s topped with ground peanuts, sweet chilli paste and coriander. It looks a bit like an Asian taco and it tastes a lot like heaven. Order two—trust us, you’ll want one for the road.
It’s secreted away down an alley. It’s the kind of place people talk about with a look of guilty pleasure. And it offers hot, steamy delights… the kind you can enjoy with your parents present. Say what? We are, of course, talking about Wonderbao, purveyors of some of Melbourne’s best bap. This funky spot 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 picked veges 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.
Despite having only been open for a few months, Tokyo Tina—the little sister of Hanoi Hannah and Saigon Sally—is already making a name for herself. Manga posters, gorgeous ceramic plates and artfully placed anime figurines, not to mention Tina's name, suggest she's got a Japanese bent—and she does. But with kimchi, gochujang (Korean red chilli paste) and bulgogi scattered throughout the menu, it's more like Japanese via Korean, occasionally deviating via a few other cuisines, and more often than not the fusion works.
Take the DIY bao, for example. 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 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 while contemplating which sister you like best.
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 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.
It's all burgers, all the time at Thaiger, which churns out burgers with a Thai twist to hungry city slickers and curious foodies alike. What are they curious about? Well, the black buns, for a start, made with bamboo charcoal for visual appeal and stuffed with crispy soft-shell crab. And the unusual fillings such as prawns and tom yum mayo, or lemongrass-marinated pork—there are enough varieties at this tiny eatery to keep diners coming back for days until they've worked through the whole menu. On our quest to do just this, we tried—and loved—the pork belly gua bao. No prizes for guessing the soft bun is full of pork belly—that's twice-cooked, crispy pork belly, with enough crackling to ensure there's a pleasant crunchiness in every mouthful. There's also some salad in there, plus either hoisin or chilli sauce, but who are we kidding, we're here for that pork. Screw your cholesterol levels, this is well worth the pig-out. And yes, you should have fries with that.
Image credit: Tokyo Tina - Nick West for The Urban List