Richard and Joanne Lam, the husband and wife duo that run the Bao, are self-declared foodies. They try to do as much research as possible, mainly by visiting other restaurants and ordering from their competitors’ menus. They have got their delicious Chinese cuisine down to a science. “I think we’ve perfected the sauce, ” Richard said, referring to the chili pepper sauce in his favorite dish, the Mapo Doufu. “We went around the city and tasted everybody’s! ” After sampling some myself, I had to agree with him: the sauce made the dish, with a well-balanced level of spiciness. The Manhattan Sideways team was treated to a few more of The Bao’s various dishes. The specialty, the soup dumplings, was met with delight. I watched as full, surprised smiles appeared on the faces of the Sideways members when their mouths filled with warm soup. Richard told us that some customers remark that the dumplings are not authentic, and that Chinese soup dumplings do not contain as much liquid. He has discovered, however, that American customers prefer the soupier version. “Have fun with it and don’t trust the critics, ” he said of creating his recipes. Our team also tried the chili fried chicken, formed into glistening little puff balls, and a scallion and beef Cantonese dish. Richard tries to represent the best dishes from each region of China, therefore allowing him to have a mixture of different cuisines on the menu. He is originally from Hong Kong and Joanne is from Shanghai - together they are able to bring extensive knowledge from their two somewhat separate cultures into this mix. Both Joanne and Richard used to work in the Fashion district, and it is clear to see from the sleek, modern aesthetic of the restaurant that their eye for design has been put to good use in the culinary world. They decided to open their own restaurant after spending years being unable to find good quality modern Chinese food in an enjoyable environment. They opened their first store in Flushing in 2010 before expanding to the East Village in 2014. In the beginning they found that their customers were primarily students and Asian ex-pats, however, in time they have notice more locals frequenting the Bao. Even though their menu now has a fan base, the couple continues to do "their food research. " When I visited, they had recently returned from a culinary trip to Taiwan with the hopes of someday opening another Bao in Midtown.
Beneath the Spanish Benevolent Society lies La Nacional, one of Manhattan’s most authentic Spanish restaurants and the most easily accessible part of the society. Just by walking down the steps into the dimly lit basement lounge, we felt the bustle of 14th street quickly recede and we were transported across the ocean. La Nacional has the same relaxed, no frills atmosphere as most tapas bars in Spain. We gazed at the old photographs from the society’s earlier years on the walls and then had the option of sipping a drink at the bar, sampling some classic simple Spanish tapas such as tortilla de patatas, croquetas or chorizo, or dining on a full meal of paella. Perhaps the most authentic option, though, was to simply have a seat by the television to watch the fútbol game - it is always on. For visitors from Spain who want a taste of home, those of us pining for the Spanish travels of our past, or New Yorkers simply curious about a new culture, La Nacional is the place to go.