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Food & Drink

Got (Bao Bao) Buns, Hun?

These locally made buns are so nice, they named ‘em twice.

10:48 AM CST on February 13, 2024

Em Cassel

The thing about baozi is that they objectively rock—what’s not to love about a big, squishy bun stuffed with savory meats and veggies?

Well, I guess there’s one thing not to love: In the Twin Cities, they’re not terribly common. You’ll see them regularly at some Chinese restaurants, on weekends at the handful of local dim sum places that exist, and, recently, in the freezer section at Target, but a high-quality steamed bun is still a relative rarity in our part of the country.

That could help explain the explosive success of Bao Bao Buns, a new handmade bao brand from couple Edward Zhang and Caitlin Higgins. 

“Growing up in a Chinese household, we did a lot differently compared to what Americans know about what Chinese food is,” Zhang tells Racket. “I started to realize that people know dumplings, but not so many people know what baos are.”

He figured, floppy dough, different fillings—that’s a winning formula across cultures, with nearly endless possibilities. Surely there was a market for high-quality bao in this town? “It could be Italian food, it could be Hispanic food, it could be whatever you want to make it,” Zhang says.

“What would taste good in bread? Everything,” Higgins adds with a laugh.

Em Cassel

They launched Bao Bao Buns in November, and it’s been go, go, go ever since; the couple had a three-week turnaround from the time they got accepted at their first event, the Minneapolis Gift & Art Expo, until they needed to be ready to sell. A designer friend quickly laid out their colorful packaging, and Zhang frantically prepped the 400-ish orders they’d need before debuting to throngs of holiday shoppers. 

A few months later, the Bao Bao biz is booming. The prep work and pickups are done out of MSP Kitchenery, a shared commercial kitchen in Hopkins where Zhang makes the meticulously formulated, fluffy bao dough and flavorful fillings from scratch. 

The options change a bit from week to week, with more traditional weekly offerings (like the bestselling Belly Flop, stuffed with Taiwanese braised pork belly), alongside fun cross-cultural mashups that come and go (like the Juicy Bao-Lucy). Last week I took home the Super Bao, with Texas-style tangy pulled pork and a side of purple cabbage coleslaw (plus some “secret recipe” BBQ sauce), along with Shy LaBeef, a meaty baozi boi that’s perfect dunked in Bao Bao’s smoky, spicy chili oil. And there are vegetarian options, like the mushroom-and-eggplant Boho Chic.

The buns couldn’t be easier to steam on the stove (if you’re bamboo steamer-less, all you need is a lidded pan and some oil and water), and the results are really show-stopping. The foolproof instructions—and I am a fool—left us with buns that were crispy and toasty on the bottom, and soft and pillowy throughout, texturally delightful and packed with flavor. At $18-$19 for a bag of six buns and all the fun accouterments, one bag is an easy and rewarding weeknight dinner for two.

Em Cassel

Bao Bao Buns announce the new flavors on Instagram and via their newsletter each week, and they’re available for pickup Wednesday through Saturday. 

Things haven’t slowed down much for Higgins and Zhang since those first frenzied weeks in November. The local businesses that stock Bao Bao Buns, like Westside Wine & Spirits in St. Louis Park, can hardly keep ‘em on the shelves. Mentions in Eater Twin Cities and the Star Tribune have sent hordes of bao-curious Twin Citians to their kitchen in search of fluffy deliciousness. And with upcoming collaborations with local chefs in the works—including, soon, a sweet cinnamon bao collab with Fletcher’s Ice Cream and 56 Brewing—it feels like the beginning of a Twin Cities baozi craze.

“What’s fun about it, too, is we’re literally sharing what we eat at home,” Higgins says. “It’s almost like, come into our home—this is what we eat every day. It’s the entrees we eat, stuffed into a bao.”

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