Today's object of obsession: Okonomiyaki, a Japanese pancake made with shredded cabbage, kale, scallions, and carrots, topped with Asian mayo, chili sauce, and a dash of fish flakes ($8). It's savory, bursting with flavor, and damn good, and it gets better. For three bucks more, a succulent slab of pork belly and a ready-to-ooze-golden-goodness fried egg can be thrown on top, transforming a damn good dish into an unbelievable dish.
There's nothing fancy about this. It's served on a large plate in an old gas station. Simple Asian fare that's not only tasty, but gives us a sense of comfort. And that's what Xiao Bao Biscuit is all about: recreating classic, soulful dishes from China, Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Thailand, and Vietnam and serving them in an ultra-laid-back environment.
Owners Joshua Walker and Duolan Li traveled throughout Asia before heading back to the states where they started doing Asian pop-up dinners in Charleston. It wasn't long before their dinners gained a big following, so they decided to open up a permanent location in Cannonborough, the hip little downtown enclave that's becoming quite the culinary hotspot with restaurants like Octobachi and Bon Banh Mi. Inside an old gas station, they added a kitchen, bar, some paint, and tables, but the vibe is industrial and hip: cement floors, exposed brick, dim lighting. The staff wears grey V-neck tees and the music flows from Black Sheep to the Black Keys.
Banh mi and noodle bowls have taken Charleston by storm over the past year, and XBB adds some stiff competition. A stop in Vietnam reveals a crisp, flaky, not-so-dense roll filled with tender pork that's glazed in a zesty caramel fish sauce, topped with bacon jam, shredded carrots, slices of cucumber, spicy mayo, and cilantro — a standout banh mi ($10 with side). Dropping by Japan, noodles share a bowl of bold broth with succulent pork belly, a sour, yet spicy kimchi, and a poached egg for an outstanding bowl of ramen ($12).
But it's the not-so-familiar dishes, like the okonomiyaki, that stand out. In China, the Congee ($12/dinner, $11/lunch) consists of creamy rice porridge that has the consistency of oatmeal. Tender pieces of braised chicken and soft cuts of acorn squash rest in the bowl of rice with a dose of chili oil and cilantro. A side of light yet bold pork cotton candy is optional, though it should be a must, as it adds so much flavor to the dish.
The list goes on. In the Thai dish Khao Man Muu, medallions of slow-cooked pork shoulder and their drippings accent a bowl of jasmine rice with pickled garlic slivers, greens, and chili gravy ($13). Another dish has a whole duck leg, tender as can be, basking in a bowl of sweet and sour tamarind curry with bamboo, butternut squash, and shavings of preserved meyer lemon, an aromatic bowl of coconut rice on the side.
The best dish comes from the streets of Hanoi. The Cha Ca Ha Noi is a charred filet of tilapia with dill and fat rice noodles with an unforgettable savory and salty lemongrass broth ($16). This was followed by a side of shaved green papaya with Thai chilies, tamarind, shrimp paste, a dusting of peanuts, and some crispy fried shallots ($5), which reminded me of a salad I had in Bangkok not long ago — superb.
It's not just the food that's memorable; the drinks are worthy too. The Hanoi 75, a refreshing blend of Brokers gin, lime juice, cucumber, green Chartreuse, and velvet falernum, paired well with the savory tilapia. On the sweeter side, the Sun Wukong consists of tequila with chili honey, ginger beer, and fresh orange juice. Both drinks: $8. No alcohol? No problem. The housemade lemongrass ginger beer is a real gem ($3) and the Chanh Muoi ($2) is a stellar Vietnamese lemonade made by preserving lemons, limes, and oranges in a salt brine for about a week and then mixing the preserved citrus with water and sugar. It's sweet, salty, and delicious.
In addition to the housemade cocktails, a handful of Asian brews, such as Chang and Saigon, are available alongside some American craft brews like Westbrook IPA and Anderson Valley Winter Solstice. Winos have slim pickings, one white and two reds, but the cocktails are good enough that it won't matter.
The service is shared amongst the bar staff, who cover both the long bar and the handful of tables. They're knowledgeable, on point, and good company, making the overall experience relaxed and inviting.
It's worth noting the family-style dishes are available only with a 48-hour advance reservation via e-mail. I'll be making a reservation for the whole steamed snapper with curry and coconut rice soon enough.
If outstanding food and drinks at a low price point paired with friendly service in a calm and cool environment isn't a recipe for success, then I don't know what is. I do know that I've left Xiao Bao Biscuit full and satisfied on multiple occasions and I still want more. During an interview with the paper, Walker told us they expect their customers to decide what XBB's signature dish will be. I think it's a no-brainer: the okonomiyaki. It's unforgettable.