DC Omnivore 100: #19 Steamed Pork Buns

Photo courtesy of
’04 Small Steamed Pork Buns’
courtesy of ‘jasonlam’

It’s time for another item on the DC Omnivore 100 list of the top one hundred foods every good omnivore should try at least once in their lives.

In the spirit of the recent Chinese Lunar New Year and the Year of the Tiger celebrations, let’s explore the sweet, doughy, BBQ-esque goodness of steamed pork buns. In China, these roll sized delights are regularly consumed street cart food and are also a staple of the traditional Chinese family gathering of dim sum.

The bun’s exterior and its steaming bamboo container might have you thinking that this is just another dumpling. And while you’d be right, this is a dumpling, the steamed pork bun offers a sticky, rich, doughy and savory experience that starkly differs from the clean and fresh taste of shumai and the nutty flavorings of potstickers.

Photo courtesy of
’03 Steamed Pork Bun – Mei Li Wah Bakery’
courtesy of ‘jasonlam’

As you see in the above picture, the outside of the bun is much thicker and bread-like then the thin, paper-like casing of other steamed dumplings.  The steamed pork buns I recently had at Chinatown Express, in DC’s Chinatown, had a soft Wonderbread, and I reference that in a good way, texture. Ideally, when you bite into the bun, your teeth should take about a millennium to travel through the fluffy, doughy goodness; it’s like sinking your face into the world’s softest pillow.

Finally, after your cloud-like journey through the bun exterior, your mouth reaches the succulent, honey barbecued pork center. The meat filling, if properly done, is the perfect combination of sweet and savory. I particularly like Ping Pong Dim Sum‘s version (char sui bun) because the filling exemplifies this delicate balance, and is very similar to the pulled pork one would find at a traditional southern barbecue.

Additionally, the center filling also has the distinct  flavoring of onions, vinegar, sugar and spices found in a vegetable, such as pumpkin, based chutney. If you’re looking for a steamed pork bun that is very much along this line, I suggest checking out the pork bun at Wheaton’s Hollywood East Cafe.

When ordering a steamed pork bun, be sure they’re made to order as the exterior can become dry and hard, if they sit too long post steaming. Also, if you’re not a carnivore you can still enjoy the tastiness of steamed buns with the vegetable or sweet bean paste filled varieties (the bean filled buns usually have a red dot on the outside.) The above three DC locations generally serve a vegetarian friendly bun option, just double check with your server to make sure they’re definitely meatless. FYI: These meatless version, especially the sweet bean, tend to be on the very sweet side, so they might be best served towards the end of the meal as a dessert-like option.

Rebecca Johnson

A born and bred New Yorker, Rebecca made the big trip “down south” to DC in 2006 and hasn’t looked back. She spends her days strategizing/planning/ideating how interactive products can help her clients and change the world. In her free time, she explores DC’s ever expanding bar, restaurant and small business scene, plays a crap ton of soccer, attends concerts that contribute to her sleep deprivation and embarks on local adventures. Read why Rebecca loves DC or follow her on twitter.

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4 thoughts on “DC Omnivore 100: #19 Steamed Pork Buns

  1. I think you mean char *siu* bao. :-) I know Ping Pong’s menu says ‘char sui bun’ but that will just trap people into eating there forever, unable to get it at other restaurants.

    Also,steamed pork bun does not mean BBQ only, but includes all kinds of other pork fillings. Bao just means ‘bun’. Char siu means ‘BBQ pork’.

    Try some of the dim sum places in Rockville or China Garden in Rosslyn. I find Chinatown Express to actually be disgustingly greasy half the time I eat there. (The food, no matter the dish is excessively oily.) I’ve never even bothered to try the bao, but I will the next time. Perhaps it’ll be less greasy because it’s steamed.

    Having pre-made bao is ok depending on where you go as long as they are fresh. Yank Sing in San Francisco has excellent & huge char siu bao for a buck apiece that were made every day. I could buy two and be happy for lunch. In fact, most of the dim sum to-go places in San Francisco didn’t have quality problems and you could reliably buy bao at any time. I guess DC’s dim sum shops haven’t figured out how to do that.

  2. Yes, DCs dim sum scene is sad.
    Second China Garden and Fortune (Falls Church).

    I’ve had some okay frozen ones, but the ones at Masa 14, Zengo, and Big Bowl are bad. Well, not bad, but just… NOT CHAR SIU BAO ^_^

    You can also buy char siu and make your own bao and then fill, but the problem is actually finding the char siu, since char siu is best when smoked and who has meat smokers anymore?

  3. I highly recommend Mark’s Duck House in Falls Church. It’s better than anything in DC proper. Granted, it’s not up to NY or Boston standards, but it’s pretty darn good.

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