Size matters at Bao Bao Dumpling House in Portland.

The diminutive Spring Street restaurant (it has only about 20 tables, but I’ve never waited for one) serves up bite-sized Asian dumplings, small cups of aromatic teas, thimble-like portions of shoo mai and miniature dessert buns, plus one larger soup offering. The menu may be limited and the options fairly basic (plates of six dumplings are served either pan-fried or boiled), but you can nibble and slurp your way through a filling meal here for a song. And there’s more to the place than dumplings. It’s really a snack joint for Sinophiles, an informal refuge for anyone craving simple treats that work for lunch, dinner or long after Portland’s sidewalks have rolled up for the night.

Start with a pot of spicy ginger peach tea, one of 10 varieties on a dedicated menu. Then try the pan-fried pork and cabbage dumplings ($6.08), crimped half moons that arrive sizzling and golden brown, filled with a finely minced mixture of pork, cabbage, scallions, ginger and kohlrabi, and releasing the heady scent of sesame oil. The filling is not super flavorful or highly spiced (in fact I found many of the dumplings here surprisingly bland, though you can elevate the taste with a drop of the soy sauce, chili oil or malty black vinegar placed on every table); it’s plain and understated – a smooth counterpoint to the crunchy wrapper.

The pork and shrimp shoo mai ($7.08), served in a tiered metal steamer atop shredded cabbage leaves, are much the same: subtly flavored and emphatically simple with just scallions and ginger adding extra flavor. I expected more seasoning, but the morsels of minced ginger within the tender, pleated wrapper did stand in for spice.

If the shoo mai seemed restrained, Bao Bao’s lamb, black bean chili and peanut dumplings ($8.08) were the opposite – super flavorful and wildly juicy. (I have a sweater at the dry cleaner’s to prove the point.) These lamb dumplings epitomize the best of Chinese jiaozi or stuffed dumplings. They’re thoughtfully seasoned and release an intoxicating blend of juice and oil with every bite. You can order these boiled, but why would you? The joy is in balancing the crunchy dumpling on your chopsticks and munching through to the soft interior (bite 1), discovering whole peanuts inside (bite 2) and savoring the contrasting textures (bite 3) before swallowing what’s left with a sigh of pleasure. These are even better dunked into the ramekin of fresh, bright tomato sauce served alongside. “The Chinese love tomatoes,” I was told when I asked about this condiment, “and there are all sorts of tomato sauces in China. This is our version.”

Bao Bao, the name means “wrapped treasure” in Chinese, is the latest venture from Cara Stadler, who at just 26 was recognized as one of Food & Wine’s Best New Chefs for 2014. She co-owns this restaurant and the highly regarded Tao Yuan in Brunswick with her mother, Cecile. “I call Bao Bao a fast-casual restaurant where you can have a tasty meal that does not break the bank,” Stadler says. All the dumplings cost $6.08 to $8.08 (because eight is a lucky number in China.) Though her maternal grandparents are from Shanghai, Stadler did not set out to create a classic Chinese dumpling house with rigidly traditional recipes. Instead, she says, “We draw most heavily from Chinese cuisine but dabble in Japanese and all other cultures from (across) Asia.”


Take the Taiwanese beef noodle soup ($14.08), the only large entrée on the menu, and a meal in itself that will easily feed two. Served in a blue and white bowl and filled with morsels of brisket, vivid Chinese greens and ropes of noodles, the soup is a standout with a deliciously salty broth I couldn’t resist. I found myself closing my eyes, the better to inhale the smell and taste of star anise, orange zest and shaoxing wine, then slurping up more of the noodles along with bites of the tender, slightly fatty beef. Bao Bao may be a dumpling house, but do yourself a favor and order this soup. (And if you’re worried about your chopstick skills with noodles, use the attractive porcelain spoons delivered to the table.)

Almost everything at Bao Bao is attractive, from sculptor Jason Hahne’s stunning copper sculpture of a flying dragon blanketing the west wall, to the open Chinese lanterns (with Edison bulbs) that illuminate the ceiling and the blue, green and gold dragon cushions that fill the seats and benches. (Only one dining room choice falls flat: the shiny blue polyester napkins that resist absorbing anything at all.) Even the plates are pretty, some painted with images of fish, others with the traditional, pierced rice pattern – backdrops for the more colorful dishes at Bao Bao.

The most colorful may be the Asian Slaw ($5.08), in which red cabbage, snow peas, carrots, scallions and cilantro are dressed in a tart soy and rice wine vinaigrette. The vibrant slaw would taste good by itself, but fried shallots and peanuts on top take it to another level. The same can be said for “smashed cucumbers” ($7.08), which combine ultra-crunchy cubes of cold cucumber with a garlic- and vinegar-based dressing, then bring tears to your eyes with a drizzle of red-hot Sriracha. Cold cukes and uber-hot sauce. Healthy slaw and oily fried shallots. Finely minced lamb and whole peanuts. Stadler likes playing with contrasts and tweaking your tastebuds.

Case in point: her outrageous dessert offering of pillowy, classic white buns filled with sugary bean paste that – instead of being steamed as usual – are deep fried and served with sweetened condensed milk. The contrasts and intensity of flavors here are startling – the crunchy exterior similar to that of a yeast-raised doughnut, the dense and starchy filling, the added guilty pleasure of the candy-like sweetened canned milk. Bao Bao is open late most nights, and I’d go back for the bean paste buns alone.

I guess that says something about what Stadler has pulled off at Bao Bao. If you go expecting a conventional dumpling house, you may be disappointed. Some of the dumplings, especially the tofu dumplings, ($7.08) are forgettable. Others, like chicken cashew dumplings ($6.08), are merely good. But a spoonful of the beef noodle soup or a bite of the bean paste buns demonstrate her versatility and creativity.

When I tried to phone Stadler, she emailed that she is traveling in Thailand for the next couple of weeks. After she comes home, I’ll return to Bao Bao. Good things do come in small packages here, and I’d like to see how they taste when she’s back at the helm.

James H. Schwartz has covered food, travel and architecture for The Washington Post, Downeast, Coastal Living and Southern Living magazines for more than 30 years. Long a commuter between Portland and Washington, D.C., he retired from his job as vice president at the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 2013 and relocated to Maine.

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