Five years after the mobile food cart version of Gongfu Bao hit the streets of Ottawa, Tarek Hassan and his team have settled into a new home in Centretown, taking over a prime corner spot at Bank and Gilmour streets. A rather long “soft opening” appears to be paying off: Gongfu Bao is now running smoothly with regular hours and a growing menu.
As the name suggests, the restaurant focuses on handcrafted bao — fluffy steamed buns that originated in northern China. Save for a few dinner-only items such as fried chicken bao or the turducken siu mai (dumplings with turkey, duck, and chicken), the lunch and dinner menu items are identical, with a handful of bao offerings (two pieces per order), a few “not bao” dishes, and sides (like the addictive taro chips with zippy lime).
Fans of the original cart menu will be happy to find such favourites as the Shaoxing pork bao (saucy braised pork shoulder with long bean and garlic) and the killer slaw (a tangle of seasonal vegetables with chili bean sauce, crispy onions, and cilantro) still on heavy rotation. All bao fillings are mouth-watering, but a standout is the Racha Glazed TVP, which features textured vegetable protein. (The shop even has a dedicated vegan fryer!) Hassan has said that the flavourful nuggets of soy have fooled some customers into thinking they’ve accidentally received a meat product. Coated with sriracha from local purveyor Michael’s Dolce, the garlicky TVP is nestled in the cloud-like bun with melt-in-your-mouth eggplant and topped with fresh cilantro. Everything is washed down nicely with house sodas (bitter lime and ginger or rhubarb cream soda), kombucha, or a local beer or cider.
Brunch kicked off in mid-February and looks as though it will quickly become a hot ticket on Sundays. Counter service is swapped for table service, coffee is poured, and an entirely different menu is offered. On one recent visit, Hong Kong French toast is served, the crispy bao arriving in a bowl with tender pork belly and baked beans. A double-decker chicken and Chinese sausage bao club, as well as a warming soup — with the house brisket, egg noodles, rye berry broth, peppy mustards, and a fried egg — are also on the menu. There’s even a five-spice cinnibao (yes, like a cinnamon roll) that arrives in a sweet puddle of coconut dulce de leche. Clementine radlers with a tasty salt rim are the alternative to mimosas.
Wait times vary, but service is quick and friendly. The kitchen crew is on display in the narrow open space, with booths lining the wall opposite the service counter. Gongfu Bao is a place with heart and is a welcome addition to the dining scene.
Gongfu Bao, 365 Bank St.
Mains $8–$16. Open for lunch on Tuesday, dinner Wednesday to Saturday, and Sunday for brunch.