At its most basic level, gua baos are essentially pork belly buns. They're the Taiwanese equivalent of hamburgers.
The bun, steamed and flavored with a bit of milk, envelops pieces of fragrant braised pork belly. An endearing amount of fat is preferred. Rule of thumb: the richer the better. The pork is stewed with soy sauce, star anise, chilies, sugar and ginger -- a process that takes hours to complete. Then, it is decorated with ground peanuts spiked with sugar, pickled mustard greens, and a heaping of cilantro. It's meant to be consumed on the go and is typically a breakfast or early lunch snack.
Here are three places to try these in Los Angeles:
1. Fusion Buns at Take A Bao
Take A Bao takes the traditional gua bao and puts their own spin on it. Their "Original Hoisin Pork" incorporates pickled red onions and cucumbers and instead of a slab of pork belly, they use pulled, braised pork flavored with hoisin. Buns are imported from the San Gabriel Valley (so you know they're legit), but the main draw here is really the variety.The possibilities are truly endless. There are nine different types of bao and while the original is always a safe choice, we recommend giving the bahn mi and hamburger versions a try. 11838 Ventura Blvd, Studio City, CA 91604.
2. The Traditional at Four Seas
Gua baos can be found at most Taiwanese breakfast joints and Four Seas has, hands down, the best version. The proportions are perfect. The bun is thick but sufficiently soft and durable enough to hold a sizable piece of pork. It's absolutely massive and expertly seasoned with a balanced amount of accoutrements. A sweet chili sauce is smeared inside for contrast. The best part? It's only $2. 708 E Las Tunas Dr, San Gabriel, CA 91776.
3. Customizable at Yi Mei
Currently priced at $2.50, the main draw to Yi Mei's Chinese pork buns is the fact that it's customizable. "We have customers who add a fried egg inside," owner Jason Ting said. "Others swap out the pork belly for beef. Some people go all out and add ham, cheese and extra pork belly." The basic ingredients are simple: stewed pork, peanut sugar, pickled greens, and cilantro. 943 W Duarte Rd, Monrovia, CA 91016.