From fueling cars to now fueling bellies, Xiao Bao Biscuit found its home in an old gas station situated on Rutledge Avenue in Charleston, South Carolina. A hip and relaxed environment diffuses across the restaurant creating a unique interior. Hmong dressed vibrant pillows from Fareast villages rest on the benches, funky music echoes against the timeworn brick walls, and antique Chinese shutters line the massive concrete-topped bar. It is a rough aesthetic with feminine touches, and Xiao Bao captures the essence of Southeast Asian in a soulful way all their own.
Xiao Bao welcomed customers for the first time in November 2012. Owners Joey Ryan, Duolan Li and Josh Walker could not be more thrilled about its unexpected national praise and foodie glorification such as a mention in the New York Times. They sailed through the rough waters that accompany the first year and are now excited as they delve into the adventures that come along with a second year. It was delightful speaking to Joey as he explained that the second year is very different from the first because you’re “not the new show in town anymore, peoples expectations are higher.”
When gathering information about a restaurant it’s hard not to ask the meaning of the name, especially one as obscure and intriguing as Xiao Bao Biscuit. The correct pronunciation for those who have been wondering is See Ou! /Baow/Biskit/ and it has an underlying meaning worth telling. It means precious little one and was the nickname of a captivating Asian woman when she was younger. That same Asian woman happens to be the owner Duolan who finds a partner in co-owner Josh both in and outside the restaurant. The two honeymooned in Asia where they discovered the untouched dishes that rarely make their way to American tables. Together they joined teams with Joey and came up with the concept to knockdown the wall between the kitchen and the bar and have the beverages pair directly with the dishes. If Szechuan peppercorns are found in a dish they can also be found in a cocktail.
After a successful year the group decided to shut down the restaurant for little and travel back over to the motherland to get in touch with why they were inspired to do a restaurant in this style in this first place. He explained to me how he was in awe at “how simple it was for them to execute dishes. Grandmothers and street venders were just nailing this food that was so much more intensely flavored than a lot of the stuff we were exposed to in major cities that are hubs for ethnic cuisines.”
He went on to tell me that their style “is very opportunistic in the sense that whatever you get your hands on plays a role in the dish. When you pick up a dish in the window it may look a little different than the day before because we got in something from 7 miles away that fits that dish. We don’t have to wait for the mass producer food truck to drop off that exact thing. Greens from the area make sense because if your running a food truck in Vietnam or street cart in Japan you are just grabbing what you can.”
Their kitchen is small and tight but that does not stop them. They utilize every inch of space and on any given day if you walk by during off hours you may see kitchen staff folding dumplings on the table in the dining room. One of their biggest and most popular dishes is the okinamiyaki, the cabbage pancake that literally means “as you like it.” The compact kitchen dishes out an astounding 1,200 of these a month, which considering their size is pretty amazing.
There is true heart and soul found in Xiao Bao and no room for pretentiousness. “We wanted to make everything simpler with limited energy; it’s just a couple of guys and beautiful Asian gal running a restaurant. We wanted to put all that energy into what makes sense to us, like the food and drinks and the atmosphere,” Joey explained. “You need to let the restaurant be what the customers love the most and tend to it.”
They don’t take reservations, they don’t have a kid’s menu or highchairs, and they don’t modify their dishes because they want “to share an experience with people here that speaks to Charleston. You get to leave your monotonous ways behind when you walk in here. Music is going to be funky and the food is going to be spicy. You have to let all that go because if your sitting at table in Taipei and you’re wondering if you can ask for these specifications, you can’t. They’re just not going to entertain that idea. That’s the best part. It’s risky and sometimes it’s not perfect.”
Xiao Bao Biscuit is a celebration of Southeast Asian cuisine that can be found in the heart of one of the greatest cities in the world, and for that, many Charleston food goers and visitors are thankful. It is truly a culinary treasure.
Photos courtesy of Isobelle Hemmers