Spring and King streets have much in common these days as commerce marches north and west. New businesses and new restaurants fuel these arteries that were once the thoroughfares of exodus.
The newest players in satisfying our appetite for all things Asian are Josh Walker, Duolan Li and cocktail maestro Joey Ryan, proprietors of Xiao Bao Biscuit. For the past couple of years, XBB, as it is affectionately known, hosted pop-up dinners around town.
Now they have a “room of their own” — a former gas station has been converted for XBB. It possesses an urban edge that in true Charleston preservation fashion maintained the design lines of its previous function, added a sassy turquoise-painted door, maintained the pass-through as a window onto Spring Street and painted the former gas station’s canopy a cheerful Carolina blue. Add a few outdoor picnic tables, pot some bamboo, hang some Asian “primitive” art and fire up the rice cooker, and Xiao Bao Biscuit is open for business.
The menu is pan-Asian, not anchored to authenticity but gently tethered to the cuisines of East Asia, Southeast Asia and the West. For Walker, Li and their team, this means the use of local produce and foodways translated to sauce stratification, layered seasonings and the generous use of herbs and aromatics.
You will find the flavors clean. There is a clarity of plate composition that plays ginger and garlic against chiles and mint; that tempers fish sauce with caramel and lemongrass with vinegar.
Walker informs guests: “Our dishes have been carefully crafted to be enjoyed as is. No substitutions please!” Honor that, and you will not be disappointed.
Begin with Japan’s okonomiyaki ($8), a cabbage-based pancake that would remind you of a Korean pajun, tossed in a light batter with kale, carrots and scallion. It is striped with Japanese mayo and a bright red band of chili sauce. Commendable.
The dumplings ($8) are toothsome and are allowed to crust before being topped with pea shoots and radish and a black vinegar dipping sauce.
The bahn mi tom quet noung ($6) are Vietnam’s answer to Chinese shrimp toast and play out greaseless and crisp. The dipping sauce has some kick, but the paste of shrimp is light and fresh tasting.
Follow this with som tam ($5), which is a green papaya salad topped with peanuts and fried shallots. A traditional snack food, it makes for a good palate cleanser before any of the main courses.
This is not a one-from-column-A, one-from-column-B kind of a place, but you can easily mix the sides and starters and share any of the main dishes.
Xiao Bao Biscuit also offers family-style platters. These must be reserved 48 hours in advance with an email to the restaurant. At the time of our review visit, the choices were a whole Poulet Rouge chicken ($50) served with rice and seasonal vegetables for four; a triggerfish ($32) for two and clams from “nowhere” ($29), an obvious play on the fact that every other item on the menu lists a country of origin.
Tenri-style ramen ($12) was popular that night, and the restaurant tops its shoyu-based broth with pork belly, kimchi, greens and a poached egg.
The classic Hoi Ann (a place) cao lau ($13) is not to be missed. The belief is that this wheat noodle dish was designed to please the Japanese, and its noodles get their chewiness from that city’s well water. Walker and his team manage to get that sticky, toothsome quality to the noodles. The broth is elixir and the garlic and lemongrass “chips” cut the fat flavor of the pork. Bright green kale adds a bitter, earthy note, and the chili-infused broth cradles the final flavors of this dish.
A pan-seared flounder dish ($16) served over rice noodles brought new appreciation to whole stems of dill being used as both a vegetable and herb. Lemongrass played up the citrus notes and the well-crusted fish kept its texture for as long as it lasted in the bowl.
Our server, “Wu Tang,” did not spin any hip-hop or break into a dance but was well-informed about the menu, the heat levels and the flavors.
Mapo Dofou ($12) will appease those looking for heat, and congee ($12) adds a note not usually seen in Asian-influenced restaurants here: the addition of pork cotton candy (rou song) as a topper for the dish. Think of a light, soft/crunchy elusive pork-whisperer.
The cocktails read interesting. The beers are well-matched to the menu, especially the Beer Lao ($4). Wine has a very short sheet.
Push-up Popsicles are for dessert ($4). They are the perfect balms to the chiles’ heat and vary with the day. Diners to the right of us enjoyed doughnuts that they were dipping into a condensed milk sauce (thank the French for that one!).
Xiao Bao Biscuit is a labor of love. They recently closed for two days to prepare a new menu and launch Saturday brunch. Theirs is truly “Zen and the Art of Cooking” and it shows in taste, texture, flavor and the calm that presides in the kitchen.