First Taste: Bar Bao in Clarendon
A fun spot to drink—and soak up the atmosphere.
With the ongoing efforts to elevate the American diner’s palate, many restaurants have moved beyond the term “Asian fusion,” opting instead to find authenticity with deep dives into Thai, Lao or Korean food. Not so at Bar Bao. This Clarendon newcomer embraces the idea of Asian fusion, both with its servers’ spiel and on its website. Here, you’ll find dishes that pull from and blend the many styles of cooking found throughout Southeast Asia, with some areas more successfully represented than others. The concept is brought to you by Social Restaurant Group, the team behind neighboring Pamplona, as well as Provision No. 14, and The Prospect in Washington. D.C.. Bar Bao, which officially opened in Clarendon May 11, borrows its name from bao, which can mean many things in Chinese cuisine but in this case refers to the steamed white buns that are shaped like a taco and filled with a variety of proteins.
My table started off with the bulgogi fries ($12) and tuna poke tacos ($14 for three) from the “snacks to share” section of the menu. We expected those to come out first, but all five of the savory dishes we ordered came out at the same time. It was a shame, because the fries that were tucked under the short-rib bulgogi, kimchi, Sriracha mayo and mozzarella (that last ingredient isn’t listed on the menu, by the way) were soggy by the time we dug into them. Thankfully, the flavors were so great that this Korean-style poutine was still my favorite dish. The poke tacos were another winner, their taco-shell-shaped wontons stuffed with tuna cubes, slaw and a generous portion of tobiko (flying fish roe). They were nice and light, especially compared with the rest of the dishes we tried.
The bao come two per order and can be prepared the traditional way (steamed) or fried. On the recommendation of our server we went with the steamed version the fried chicken-filled buns ($7) and the fried version of shrimp bao ($8). When fried, the bao take on a savory doughnut-like flavor and texture that, thankfully, isn’t as greasy as it sounds. Both bao were tasty and would be most welcome after a night of drinking, but they lacked anything really distinctive or special. Instead, they just tasted vaguely Asian.
The one dish I found inedible was the naem khao ($8), a disappointing surprise, given chef Donn Souliyadeth’s claims Lao heritage. The plate lacked the punch of spice, the herbal brightness and the nutty crunch usually associated with this salad, and the mealy, clumped texture of the rice was just so very wrong.
For dessert, we tried the banana-Nutella egg roll ($5), which came with a scoop of something that looked like ice cream but turned out to be whipped cream that tasted like it had about a pound of confectioner’s sugar in it. It would have been really nice to have ice cream, instead. The duo of egg rolls also would have been better served with a knife and fork instead of the clumsy spoons we were given to tackle the fried wrappers, which turned chewy under the chocolate sauce. But the flavors were exactly what one would hope for.
Fans of various Asian spirits will appreciate the thoughtful and on-trend cocktail list, with drinks that hover around $10. The Hidden Leaf Swizzle ($10), spiked with shōchū and white rum, gains tartness from yuzu, sweetness from lychee and a hint of something floral from chrysanthemum syrup. Shōchū, for the uninitiated, is a distilled, typically clear Japanese spirit that can be made with rice, sweet potato, barley or some other starch, and the alcohol content falls somewhere between wine and whiskey. The swizzle was served in a ceramic cup shaped like a ninja, while another eye-catching cocktail — the Choji’s Breakfast ($13) — was served in a hollowed-out honeydew melon, half loaded with crushed ice, shōchū, gin, peach liqueur, melon and apple-pepper syrup.
Other sections of the drinks menu that beg to be explored include the shooters, the infused sakes and the soju, a Korean spirit similar to shōchū. Those who prefer to stick to beer will be more than satisfied with the 15 draft brews that run the gamut from Bud Light to Kirin Ichiban, Bell’s Oberon to Milk Stout Nitro. Wines include a small list of four reds and four whites, all available by the glass or bottle.
Bar hours extend beyond the kitchen’s, with drinks served until midnight Monday through Thursday; until 2 a.m. Friday and Saturday; and until 10 p.m. Sunday. Happy hour is offered daily from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m.
Go, Wait or Skip?
Go if you’d like a fun, energetic spot to grab a cocktail that goes down way too easily or to nibble on artery-clogging yet satisfying appetizers. Skip if you’re looking for something more substantial, such as a full appetizer, entree and dessert experience.
Bar Bao serves dinner daily from 5-10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday and 5-10:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday. Lunch kicks off Tuesday and is served weekdays from 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Brunch joins the party in a couple of weeks and will be offered Saturday and Sunday from 11 a.m.-3 p.m. 3100 Clarendon Blvd., Arlington; 703-600-0500; barbao.com.