Tom’s Bao Bao, the young chain that brought Chinese steamed buns to Providence and Boston, is expanding its repertoire with street food. Adding variety to the menu with this handful of additional items makes the restaurant more compelling for a dinner out.
If you’ve been to Tom’s, you’ve seen staff artfully rolling, folding, and filling the bao in the front window. That handmade ethos continues with the new menu items.
To start, dumplings are offered in three varieties: pork, chicken, and vegetable. If you’re having trouble deciding, as I was, you can order the Two-Two-Two sampler. The dumplings are available steamed or fried; I enjoyed them both ways. The steamed vegetable dumplings I ordered were adorable, folded and then pinched into a rose-like circle. This variation was especially tasty, too, with extra texture contributed by cellophane noodles, and a slightly spicy, tangy sauce drizzled over the top.
The Hand Cut Noodles are a bit thicker than linguine, and, just like the ones I’ve had in noodle shops in New York’s Chinatown, slightly chewy. The bowl was attractively topped with julienned carrots, sliced cucumber, cilantro, scallions, and ground pork with hot pepper (a vegetarian option is available). I will definitely return for a second bowl.
The Rice Bowl is also available with chicken, pork, or vegetables. Though it was not quite as memorable as the noodles or dumplings, the chicken thighs were tender, and it would make a solid meal.
It seems like the new street food items are somewhat of an experiment, and one I had hoped to try was already pulled from the menu – Jianbing, a sort of Chinese crepe. The Hand Pulled Cold Noodles also seem to be perpetually unavailable lately. This was upsetting news, but it was understandable to keep the menu trim for a restaurant like this.
Another recent addition to the menu is milk or Thai iced tea with boba (large tapioca pearls). In addition to teas and some bottled drinks, Tom’s has a small selection of beer and wine.
For me, it would be impossible to visit Tom’s without getting at least one bao, a Chinese steamed bun with filling. Bao is an ideal fast food item. It’s somewhat healthy, easy to transport, not too messy to eat, and at Tom’s, made right in front of you. The buns are fluffy, warm, and fresh, with the requisite sheen on the outside. Bao are best served fresh, so you might have to wait a few minutes for the flavor you want. When I’m in a rush, I just ask which are available immediately.
I make a point to try the rotating seasonal bao, which are sometimes untraditional but always fun. On this visit, both were great. The Buffalo Chicken Bao was juicy and had classic buffalo sauce flavor in every bite. Because the seasonal bao are often playful, I was expecting the Barbecue Pork Bao to be filled with western barbecue, but was pleasantly surprised to find a hoisin-flavored Chinese barbecue filling instead.
I like to end every visit to Tom’s with a Mini Red Bean Bao. Not too sweet and not too big, there’s always room for one.