It all started with a craving.
University of Iowa students and roommates Connor McGuire and Yanyi Zhu shared a love of bao, Chinese steamed buns. Zhu is originally from China and McGuire lived there for about two years.
“I came back looking for bao. I was roommates with Yanyi, and we commiserated over the fact we couldn’t find fresh bao in Iowa,” he said.
Slowly, like dough rising in a steam basket, the idea formed: What if they opened their own bao shop? That was a couple of years ago. In the meantime, Zhu returned to China to learn the bao-making craft.
“I tried to find the most authentic bao. I traveled around China, and I worked at bao shops, and I learned from bao masters,” he said.
When Zhu returned, McGuire recruited UI graduate student Todd Jones to come on board — he has previous restaurant management experience — and at the beginning of September their cafe, Bao Chow, opened in Iowa City’s Old Capitol Town Center.
Jones and McGuire met in class: Jones’ graduate studies are in the UI’s Chinese program, and McGuire is studying Chinese and English literature. Zhu, who has graduated, studied mathematics and statistics.
The trio took what Zhu learned about bao and modified it for a college town food court restaurant. Their bao is shaped using molds, rather than by hand. They wanted to be able to hire students and not have to spend months teaching them the proper folding techniques Zhu studied.
Good bao takes patience and practice to make, he said.
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“It’s very complicated. I can’t say I’m fully a master yet. I’m still learning and improving our product,” Zhu said. “We want to get the best food to our customers.”
Their bao come with a range of fillings, from sweet red bean with osmanthus flowers to juicy pork with scallions and ginger to vegetarian with baby bok choy, mushrooms and smoked tofu. Each fluffy white bun is carefully steamed in baskets before being served hot.
Bao shops are growing in popularity on the coasts, Jones said, and they felt they could help bring the dish to the Midwest. The UI’s large international student population from China also was a boon for their business plan. In the future, they envision additional Bao Chow cafes opening up, perhaps on other college campuses.
“I want to bring the authentic foods for Midwest people to try,” Zhu said. “The bao has great potential.”
WHAT: Bao Chow
WHERE: Old Capitol Town Center, 201 S. Clinton St., Iowa City
HOURS: 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday to Friday, 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday
DETAILS: (319) 499-1143, Facebook.com/baochowic