Famous Bao in Berkeley Shines Spotlight on Xi’an-style Dishes

Biang biang noodles and 'Chinese burgers.'

In the grand tradition of the Chinese tamale, the Chinese doughnut, and the Chinese McRib (okay, I made that last one up), let us now familiarize ourselves with the “Chinese burger.” That’s the popular English name for rou jia mo, a kind of meat-stuffed sandwich that’s hawked by street vendors in the Shaanxi province — and, these days, all over China — but is relatively unknown here in the East Bay. Famous Bao, an aspirationally named new Chinese restaurant located on the UC Berkeley campus, aims to change that.

The proprietor of the restaurant is Francis Sun, who graduated from the university in 2011 with a dual degree in political science and media studies. Sun had aspired for that classic nine-to-five where he would wear a suit every day, but of course five years ago the economy hadn’t quite finished tanking. (I wonder how many accidental restaurateurs we owe to the Great Recession.)

With no other job prospects, Sun wound up opening a Vietnamese eatery on the north side of campus and later moved back to his native China for two years. During that time, he fell in love with rou jia mo and other Shaanxi-style dishes. And, recalling the absence of any restaurant serving those dishes in Berkeley, he saw a business opportunity.

So, two months ago, Sun opened his Shaanxi-inspired restaurant near the intersection of Durant and Telegraph avenues, in one of the mostly Asian-themed, mini-mall-esque food courts that are scattered around the Cal campus.

Perhaps drawing some inspiration from Xi’an Famous Foods, a well-known Shaanxi eatery in New York’s Flushing neighborhood, Famous Bao belongs to that class of Chinese restaurant where it feels as though half of the dishes on the menu are labeled “famous” or “very special” or flat-out “legendary.” Not only do the restaurant’s namesake bao (aka steamed buns) receive that “famous” designation, so too do the oxtail stew, the braised eggplant, and even the plum juice. (That juice, also known as suan mei tang, has a distinctive kind of smoky tartness that makes it a particularly good foil to hot weather and spicy food.)

If a restaurant’s fame is measured by the number of customers it attracts, Famous Bao is off to a good start. During my visits, the line to order often stretched to the entrance, and, judging by the Mandarin being spoken at many of the tables around me, the restaurant is especially popular among the university’s Chinese international students.

Sun and his father, Jiankang Sun, are the chefs. The elder Sun recently spent two months in Xi’an researching the cuisine. Prior to that, he was a chef at Z&Y Restaurant, a popular Sichuan spot in San Francisco’s Chinatown, so in addition to the Shaanxi items, you’ll find a smattering of Sichuan flavors — in the mapo tofu, in the fish simmered in bright-red chili sauce, and in the assortment of sterno-heated “iron pots,” whose contents are laced with a hint of tongue-numbing Sichuan peppercorn oil.

But if you’ve made a special trip to dine at Famous Bao, and haven’t simply wandered over from your dorm or your five o’clock lecture, then the Shaanxi dishes are the ones to try. For the uninitiated, Sun describes Shaanxi cuisine — and, in particular, the food you’ll find in the province’s capital city of Xi’an — as “spicy, sour, and packed with flavor.” In part due to the region’s large Muslim Chinese population, much of the cuisine is wheat-based — lots of noodles, dumplings, and, of course, those “burgers.”

Priced at just over $3 apiece, the rou jia mo might be the best deal on a menu where no single item costs more than $10. The restaurant makes the “mo,” or flatbread, in-house, cooking them on a hot grill. The closest comparison I can think of would be to a thick pita — though, in truth, I found the mo itself to be somewhat dry, and the sandwich, overall, too bready.

But ultimately, the bread was just a vehicle for an assortment of meaty, generously portioned fillings, which were uniformly excellent. My favorite was the stewed pork — basically, a variation on classic “red-cooked” shoulder and belly, but with the soft, fatty meat chopped up after its long braise and tossed with cilantro stems for a bit of vegetal crunch. Also tasty was the “spicy beef,” which tasted strongly of star anise and had some of the delightful gelatinous bits that I associate with slow-cooked tendon. (Sun couldn’t recall the name of the exact cut.)

The least traditional variation is the “Peng-Peng” chicken burger, which was stuffed with bite-sized pieces of saucy, wok-fried chicken that reminded me of a non-trashy version of General Tso’s. (Oddly, all of the chicken I ate at Famous Bao tasted a little bit like fish — or had a particular kind of sweet, umami-laden sauce that I associate with fish dishes. That sounds like a knock, but I swear: I’d order that Peng-Peng chicken again.)

Any of these burgers would make a fine, inexpensive lunch for a student who needs to grab-and-go in between classes. Meanwhile, the aforementioned “iron pots,” such as the fermented-black-bean-studded oxtail pot that I ordered, are loaded with a surprisingly diverse array of vegetables. They’re the kind of “one-pot” Chinese meal I wish was readily available to me when I was an undergrad.

One of the appealing things about Famous Bao is that the menu essentially has a mix-and-match format. The four or five primary meat options are available in a variety of formats and paired with different starches — bread, rice, or noodles.

Indeed, biang biang noodles — a kind of wheat noodle known for its belt-like width and length — are another Shaanxi specialty, and Sun told me that Famous Bao makes these noodles by hand in-house. These were long and crinkly with a nice chew, though they were thinner than most fresh, hand-made noodles I’ve had, and weren’t nearly as wide as other biang biang noodles I’ve seen. It made for a tasty bowl, however, especially when paired with a particularly sour and spicy version of cumin lamb.

My favorite noodle dish, and probably the best dish I ate at Famous Bao, was a beef noodle soup that Sun told me wasn’t Shaanxi at all, but was instead loosely inspired by a popular fast-food chain in China called “California Beef Noodle King,” which was, in fact, started by a Taiwan-educated Chinese-American from California. (I swear I’m not making this up.) In any case, Famous Bao’s beef noodle soup is a kind of Taiwanese-Sichuan fusion, with a clear broth — made by simmering beef, lamb, and chicken bones — that’s spiked with house-made Sichuan chili oil. Traditional or not, the tender chunks of meat, toothsome noodles, and deep, full-flavored broth make this one of the top two or three beef noodle soups I’ve had in the East Bay.

If you’re wondering why you’ve gotten almost to the end of this review without seeing any discussion of the actual bao at Famous Bao, that’s because they aren’t available yet due to some mechanical issues. (You might know the Oakland takeout window called Tian Jing Dumplings that no longer sells dumplings. Here’s to hoping this isn’t the start of the world’s most confusing trend.)

In any case, Sun is optimistic that the bao will be ready before the end of the summer. And, in keeping with the restaurant’s name, Sun said he hopes to eventually expand the menu to introduce other popular Chinese dishes that have yet to become “famous” here in the States. For now, he’s busy spreading that Shaanxi gospel with all the zeal of a new convert — one order of biang biang noodles and rou jia mo at a time.

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