Once upon a time, I would have prefaced a piece on Charleston, South Carolina's much-discussed Xiao Bao Biscuit with a disclaimer acknowledging our regional preference for dishes like fried chicken, shrimp and grits, and buttermilk biscuits, and that the uninformed eater might not expect great things from an Asian comfort-food restaurant within walking distance of the ramparts where the residents of Charleston watched the first shots of the Civil War.
But as anyone who has traveled below the Mason-Dixon line over the past several years can testify, things have changed. And Xiao Bao Biscuit, serving an amalgam of dishes pulled willy-nilly from across Asia and tweaked considerably here in coastal South Carolina, exemplifies the best that the new South has to offer.
Xiao Bao is the culmination of years of travel, research, and experimentation from husband-and-wife co-owners Josh Walker and Duolan Li. The couple left their New York City restaurant jobs for a seven-month, food-centric Asian honeymoon and then returned to Walker's home state of South Carolina. In 2011, they began to test their accumulated knowledge with a series of pop-up dinners.
In Charleston, a seaside town with a growing population of adventurous eaters, the tongue-searing flavors of the Mekong Delta and coastal Japan hit home. A trickle of interest in the duo's pop-up dinners grew into a full-fledged roar, pulling crowds who demanded that the Walker and Li go brick-and-mortar. And so they did, quickly, co-opting the crumbling walls and patchy paint job of an old gas station into a rustic space well suited to chef Walker's specialties.
These are dishes like the Okonomiyaki ($8), a lightly battered vegetable pancake made from shredded cabbage, kale, carrots, and scallion, and finished with a thin layer of char that contrasts nicely with the gentle funk underneath. A crosshatching of chili sauce and Japanese mayonnaise, plus a bright sprinkling of furikake seasoning, round out the diverse tastes and textures on the plate that several critics have already labeled Xiao Bao's signature dish.
Like their counterparts at other modernist Asian restaurants, Walker and his team do not shy away from powerful flavors. The Mapo Wings ($6) are slathered with a lip-tingling glaze radiating the flavors of salty broad bean paste and Sichuan peppercorn, while the Hong Shao Rou ($11), or braised pork belly, arrives at the table in a bowl of cloudy, umami-rich gravy. The Mapo Dofou ($12) is klieg-light assertive, its tart and fiery broth pocked with hunks of delicate tofu.
The menu has lighter dishes, too, that serve as comfort foods of a different sort during South Carolina's hottest months. Take the Bo Tai Chanh ($6), a plate of beef carpaccio dressed with mint, fish sauce, and strips of fresh watermelon. The pan-seared flounder in Xiao Bao's Cha Ca Hanoi ($17) emerges crisp from a fragrant, dill-infused broth. And the Som Tam ($6), a heap of green papaya brightened by a sweet-and-spicy dressing and sprinklings of green beans, crushed peanuts, and ripe cherry tomatoes, touches on the familiar flavors of Thai cuisine with refreshing restraint.
Drinking has been a favorite pastime in Charleston since the first migrants from Europe and the Caribbean arrived in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, rum and drinking habits in tow. As befits its location, Xiao Bao offers both top-notch mixed drinks and a streamlined list of bottled beverages that includes wine, sake, and several exotic beers.
Many of the cocktails, created by veteran local bartender and co-owner Joey Ryan, nod to the more assertive flavors on the menu. The Sun Wukong ($8), a customer favorite, is an idiosyncratic blend of tequila and housemade ginger beer accented with chile-infused honey and fresh apple juice. The ginger beer commands the drink, tempered slightly by the smoky, vegetal influence of tequila. The Sichuan Sting ($8) is a mixture of Sichuan peppercorn-infused gin, lemon juice, and ginger beer, and tastes like a prickly lemonade fortified with a splash of the hard stuff.
The best cocktail for warm-weather sipping is the Taipei Storm ($8), a breezy blend of dark rum, sloe gin, and coconut milk. The combination is mild and floral, creamy with a lingering coconut flavor that bridges rum-soaked Charleston and the distant shores of East Asia. Xiao Bao also offers a handful of options for the non-drinker, including Mexican Coca-Cola ($3) and a tasty preserved lemonade ($2).
In a city full of restaurants that cater to the vacationing shrimp-and-grits crowd (some spectacular, and many others far from it), Xiao Bao Biscuit raises a fiery and unabashedly local flag. And with nothing on the menu priced above twenty dollars, it is remarkably easy on the wallet, too.
Xiao Bao Biscuit
About the Author: Jed Portman is a Charleston, South Carolina-based writer and editor. Follow him on Twitter @jdportman.