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Article posted: 1/2/2013 5:00 AM

Bao Gourmet serves traditional Chinese fare in fast-casual setting


Bao Gourmet is named for the light steamed buns called bao that this fast-casual eat-in, takeout and delivery restaurant recently added to its already extensive menu.

The small strip mall storefront restaurant at 941 Illinois 59 in Bartlett has just 26 seats but a pleasant, contemporary atmosphere with earth-toned décor finishes that look like wood, stone and granite tiles, accented with large tropical plants. A worker delivered our food, served on real tableware instead of disposable carryout containers, to our table shortly after we ordered.

We started with the bao, which, we were warned, take 12 minutes to steam. The spongy texture of the round filled rice flour dumplings takes some getting used to for novices. We ordered one of each of the three flavors: barbecued pork, chicken vegetable and the slightly sweet bean paste.

The buns may seem odd to someone who has never had them but they are a popular Chinese breakfast item. However in this country they are eaten any time of day as an appetizer or snack, said co-owner Alex Liang. Our favorite turned out to be the chicken vegetable that we kicked up a notch by dipping it in sweet-and-sour sauce. We had to guess what was inside each one because they all look the same. They won't fill you up and make a good first course.

Moving on to more familiar dishes, I ordered the hot and sour soup, my favorite Chinese soup. Bao Gourmet's version was well-balanced, with appropriate amounts of vinegar, black pepper and ginger and not overly spicy. The broth contained diced mushrooms, scallions and bamboo shoots.

The menu is very large and has lunch and dinner combo specials, usually including an egg roll and soft drink. Degree of spiciness is indicated by drawings of one or two red peppers in front of the dish's name.

Menu sections are designated by the following labels: poultry, beef, seafood, pork, vegetarian, noodles and fried rice. After much deliberation, we ordered the Orange Flavor Chicken and the Mongolian 3 Musketeer.

The chicken had one pepper pictured, but it should have had two. A nice citrus flavor hung in the background, but the hot peppers eventually dominated, unfortunately. A generous portion of steamed broccoli accompanied the chicken.

The Mongolian dish was more successful with its combination of chicken, beef and shrimp, stir-fried with green and white onions over some vermicelli (rice noodles). Soy sauce was the predominant sauce flavor.

Flavors were well-balanced, but I counted only two shrimp in the mix, which also was a little short on the beef. Lots of white rice was included.

The fried rice we chose with the orange chicken was bland and lacked scallions. The blandness, however, did help absorb some of the heat from the red peppers.

Menu items reflect many of China's regional variations, including Canton, Hunan and Sichuan. There also are nods to other Asian countries, especially Thailand and Singapore.

A "healthy menu" section lists five steamed (not fried) choices and come with brown rice and sauce on the side. Choices are chicken vegetable, Kung Pao chicken, beef broccoli, shrimp vegetable and vegetable delight.

The house Oolong green tea provided a good accompaniment to the food, but more tea choices would be a nice touch. Good fortunes in the cookies ended the meal on a positive note.

Bao offers online ordering, as well as large catering orders. Delivery is available to the nearby communities of Bartlett, Streamwood, Carol Stream and Hanover Park.

Ÿ Restaurant reviews are based on one anonymous visit. The Daily Herald does not publish reviews of restaurants it cannot recommend.

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