Tom's BaoBao, the fast-casual chain that opened in Harvard Square last month, is a study in contrasts. The bao — fluffy Chinese steamed buns filled here with an array of seasoned meats and vegetables — are an ancient food, being served up in a sleek, ultra-modern, white-tiled counter service restaurant.
The staff is a mix of head-down master bao makers who've come over from Tom's parent company GanQiShi Bao in China — where there are more than 200 restaurants owned by founder and CEO Tom Tong — and kind but bumbling college-age kids who forget your tea on every visit. Just go back to the counter and remind them; they're terribly sorry, if a bit distracted, goofing around with their co-workers.
Oh, and the bao? These are nothing like the frozen, flavorless pucks you'll find in the freezer case of your local Asian grocer. They are pillowy soft, super-savory, handmade, and coming out of enormous steamer baskets by the dozen — a process you see firsthand through the plated glass that separates customers from the open kitchen.
The fist-size bao are the only thing on the menu, so settle in with two or three and you've got a filling, very affordable meal. Even if you decide to go luxe and order the lobster (by far the most expensive menu item, clocking in at $6), it's a decadent value, rich and buttery with chunks of sweet meat and dripping in scallion-flecked butter.
Conversely, the vegetarian bao ($3.50) feels pious (even if it's still wrapped in the substantial wheat dough), with bok choy, meaty shiitake mushrooms, and smoked tofu. It's very satisfying and almost as umami-filled as the juicy pork bao ($3.25), which eschews veggies altogether in favor of a soup dumpling-like pork center flavored with ginger, scallion, and a Shaoxing wine broth that's soaked up by the bready wrapping.
Curry beef ($3.75) is mild and sweet with chunks of carrot, familiar flavors you'll find at Japanese-American restaurants. The chicken bao ($3.50) has chunks of dark meat mixed with silky cabbage and salty bean sauce.
To drink, try one of the Chinese tea selections ($3). We liked the smooth oolong (even if we did have to ask for it twice). They also serve soymilk from Chang Shing Tofu in Cambridge, and Massachusetts-made Spindrift seltzers, along with bottled juice.
Gerry Furtado, director of training and development, tells us that the managers spend time in Shanghai in a kind of training boot camp to learn about the tradition of making bao and apprentice with masters of the craft. Tom's general manager Michael Colabella says that though the company has a large presence in China, this is the first international outpost, chosen, in part, because Boston is a sister city to Hangzhou, the current hometown of founder Tong. The American offshoot "is really being built from scratch," says Colabella. Next month, they plan to open a location in Providence, where they worked on developing the stateside restaurant concept.
A busy dining room on multiple visits proves that bringing this ancient food into a modern restaurant concept translates well in New England. The key — from the bao to the business — seems to be starting from scratch.
84 Winthrop St., Harvard Square, Cambridge, 617-945-0067, www.tomsbaobao.com
All major credit cards,
Prices Bao $3-$6
Hours Mon-Thu 10 a.m.-10 p.m., Fri-Sat 10 a.m.-11 p.m., Sun noon-8 p.m.
What to order Lobster bao, pork bao, chicken bao, beef curry bao
Catherine Smart can be reached at email@example.com.