ASIAN SOUL FOOD ENERGIZES DOWNTOWN CHARLESTON
When I first met Josh Walker and Joey Ryan of Xiao Bao Biscuit I thought they had been buddies forever. They have a similar mien, passion for travel, nearly identical birthdays, and most importantly an ardent zeal for exceptional food and drink. As it happens they were only introduced a year ago when Josh was looking for a partner to help actualize a concept he had for an “Asian soul food” joint. He heard about Joey’s work at the trendy downtown Charleston Bar, The Belmont, and after a series of initial phone conversations Joey says that he fell in love with the idea. The kindred spirits were off and running.
Xiao Bao Biscuit, is located off the beaten path of downtown Charleston in a residential corner near Spring Street and Rutledge Avenue. Quick to eschew the label “Asian fusion,” the restaurant was born from a dream more expansive than simply offering pad Thai and spring rolls. The short story: Josh and his new wife, Duolan Li, quit their jobs in New York City, took a seven-month honeymoon, and worked their way through Asia. This idyllic global gallivant, combined with Josh’s wife’s Asian heritage, helped springboard their idea. After a busy season of pop- ups around the area, Xiao Bao Biscuit found its permanent residence in an abandoned gas station.
The space is certainly representative of their mission. It reminded Josh, Duolan, and Joey of so many buildings that populate Asia, as well as Central and South America, where Joey has spent significant time traveling. “The space is true to us, because we’re not trying to build a faux Asia here,” says Joey. While it doesn’t have beach paraphernalia or tchotchkes screaming “Lowcountry,” you certainly recognize that you are in a young, hip, vibrant city such as Charleston. The realtors initially tried to talk them out of the space, but the guys were sold from the moment they toured it. As for not getting the same foot traffic as other centrally located spots, Joey posits, “If the food is good enough and the experience is good, people will go out of their way for it.”
It’s actually really good. “The food represents the kind of food we had while traveling. We wanted to have a simple menu that showed off our favorite foods,” explains Josh. The menu may be tight and focused but the archive from which Josh is pulling all these dishes is rather extensive. From an arsenal of around ninety dishes the menu boasts a resounding ten. A couple of side dishes season the menu, as well as three family-style options (requiring 48 hours advance notice), otherwise the choices are limited. But, let me be clear: this is not a bad thing. I already wanted to try everything offered. I fear that had I been presented with more options, my head would have exploded.On my first visit, the Jiao Zi (homemade lamb and pork dumplings) was a must, and at Joey’s suggestion the Okonomiyaki (“as you like it” in Japanese, essentially a cabbage pancake) was also quickly summoned. My boyfriend and I decided on Cha Cá Hà Noi (seared tilapia with dill and rice noodles) and it soon joined the party. The experience was exactly my favorite way to eat: several plates of food, a couple of frosty beers (Toña lager, if you please) and rapidly snapping chopsticks. A table full of food that is so good it quickly extinguishes all conversation. The flavors were fresh, the chilies at turns present and subtle, the fish impeccably cooked, the noodles tender to perfection. Though, this wasn’t a one-off experience. The pair reveal that local reception has been tremendous and patrons are already coming in two or three times a week. I’m not alone in my enthusiasm for the food, it appears.
Spring brings forth new changes to the menu, however. Favorites such as the Okonomiyaki will stay, but Josh will dip back into that cache of choices and pull out items more complementary to the warm humid weather of Charleston, one that is incredibly similar to the climate of Vietnam, the birthplace of many of the restaurant’s dishes. Joey will continue to pair crafty cocktails with the fare, creating a short list of beverages with flavors as intricate as those within the dishes on the selective menu.
Along with menu modifications, the outdoor area will receive an update as well. Picnic tables pepper the space now, but planter boxes provided by Tivoli are in the works to create a garden oasis, intended to block traffic from the street. For a city that stays warm nearly all year, this is highly beneficial. Spring is right around the corner and an ice-cold beer and plate of Okonomiyaki is just how I would like it.