When Bing's Bao Buns had its soft opening in December 2021, owners Sam and Mike Whittaker had no idea just how much the San Luis Obispo community was craving handcrafted steamed bao buns.
"I did not expect many people to really be interested," Sam said. "I didn't expect that like an hour before we were anticipating opening, that there would already be a line and that the line would be out the door. ... I was sold out in 40 minutes."
Before opening in the SLO Public Market, Mike spent the previous four years perfecting the craft of steamed bao buns from home: hand-kneading the dough, finding the right flavor balance for the filling, learning how to wrap the bao. What results is an authentic Chinese steamed bread roll with various fillings, which the Whittakers get creative with.
- Photo Courtesy Of Shannon Mcmillen
- HAND CRAFTED Co-owner Mike Whittaker hand-folds each and every bao. This one is filled with chorizo, ground beef, breakfast sausage, soft scrambled egg, onion, and garlic, and it's served with a maple chili dipping syrup.
"He doesn't do anything with a machine, so he has to hand knead all of the dough, which has to be paddled 50 times," Sam said of her husband's bao-making process. "He ends up making 16 to 20 batches of dough, which renders him about 400 to 450 bao a day. I've watched him do it and it makes my head spin."
Before moving into their space at the newly unveiled SLO Public Market, the Whittakers had only run a food business informally out of their home kitchen.
"Mike and I first moved here back in 2015," Sam said. "We had been to LA before, we had been to San Francisco before. We realized there was really good food in both of those cities, so we automatically assumed that it would meet in the middle."
But they soon discovered that SLO was severely lacking food that's easy to find in other cities.
"Mike realized there were certain things that he really missed, so he decided to just start trying to cook certain things," Sam said. "It was really just for him and myself, and then we had movie nights and invited friends over, and he would make dinner. Then people started asking, 'Hey I really want to try this, can I buy some?' Then it kind of turned into cooking out of our house."
As the demand for their buns continued to grow, the Whittakers decided to take a leap of faith and sign a lease with the Public Market. Since opening, they've consistently sold out within hours and often have a line out the door.
- Photo By Malea Martin
- SOLD OUT Sam Whittaker co-owns Bing's Bao Buns with her husband, Mike. The pair is working hard to keep up with the high demand from the SLO community.
"The downside, that we learned very quickly, is that I had to set limitations on how much people could buy," Sam said. "The first few days, everybody came in and said, 'I want a dozen.' We only had a certain amount made. I hate putting restrictions on things, but if I don't do it, I won't be able to spread the love."
Sam said it's been fulfilling to offer a cuisine that's lacking in SLO, and seeing the community respond so enthusiastically to it.
"We grew up in New Jersey, so pretty much I could turn in any direction and throw a rock and I'd hit a Chinese restaurant or a dim sum restaurant," Sam said. "A lot of people in this area still don't even know what bao is."
For those who already know and love bao, Bing's Bao Buns is a long-awaited staple that has finally reached the Central Coast community. And for those who have never tried the slightly sweet steamed buns most often filled with veggies or meat, they're in for a treat.
"It's really cool to see people get to try it for the first time," Sam said.
Typically, bao is filled with char siu, a barbecue pork.
"The char siu pork is probably the most traditional in terms of the Chinese variation of it, so we try to do that at least once a month," Sam said. "The process to do the sauce and prepare the pork, though, is very time consuming. It has like 18 ingredients in the sauce, and we often have to order a month in advance to get everything here."
When Bing's makes char siu, they also offer a vegan version using jackfruit.
"Once we opened, we realized that there would be a demand for vegetarian, and then we thought, instead of catering only to vegetarians, it would probably make more sense to try to do it vegan," Sam said.
Bing's also ventures outside of the typical bao fillings, offering everything from the egg-filled Farmhouse Breakfast Bao to a locally sourced mushroom bao.
- Photo Courtesy Of Shannon Mcmillen
- NEW AND TRADITIONAL Bing's Bao Bun flavors include everything from the pictured Farmhouse Breakfast Bao, a breakfast-meets-bao situation, to the traditional char siu bao, filled with barbecue pork.
On the weekend I got to try the bao, Bing's had a Thai basil beef bao and a mushroom bao.
"It's probably the first flavor profile that we dabbled with, because my husband and I love Thai food," Sam said of the Thai basil beef bao. "They do have a bit of heat to them, I'm not going to lie. We tried to tone it down a little bit, but we use Thai chilis, and they're definitely hot."
The savory, juicy beef filling paired harmoniously with the slightly sweet steamed bun. The freshness of the basil cut through the rich meat filling perfectly, packing an impressive flavor punch with each bite. The vegetarian mushroom bao was equally delicious, especially when dipped into Bing's signature sauce, which is slightly spicy and brimming with umami flavors. I alternated between dipping into this sauce and Bing's chili crunch sauce for even more of a kick.
If you want to get your hands on some bao, you'll need to plan ahead a bit: Bing's only sells the buns on the weekends from noon to 2 p.m., and people often start lining up a half an hour or more before the restaurant opens for the day. But if you miss the bao window, don't fret: Bing's also serves up Korean fried chicken on Fridays (Fried Chicken Friday from noon to 5 p.m.), plus a dinner service menu from 4 to 6 p.m. on the weekends, featuring goodies like the Korean fried chicken, sliders, and shiitake rice bowls.
I'll take one of everything, please! Δ
Staff Writer Malea Martin is waiting in line for bao. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.