Looking to pick up my to-go order from Bao Bei, a Taiwanese ghost kitchen concept that 26-year-old Gaithersburg native Kevin Hsieh began operating in June, I drive to the rear of a small industrial complex off Parklawn Drive. Spotting various parked food trucks, I know I’m in the right place: Farmland Commercial Kitchen, a licensed communal kitchen where many local entrepreneurs without brick-and-mortar facilities operate.
I ring the buzzer and Hsieh hands me my order: his signature Bao Bei bao (a Whopper-sized steamed wheat-based bun filled with thick slices of braised pork belly, pickled mustard greens and chopped, brittle-like peanut “sugar”); a minced pork belly rice bowl with pickled greens, cilantro and a soy-braised hard-boiled egg; cucumber and wood ear mushroom salad; and brown sugar swirly buns with condensed milk. My intention is to take everything home, but the Bao Bei, an irresistible amalgam of sweetness, saltiness, richness and a kick of acid from the greens, doesn’t make it out of the lot. (Bao Bei means “precious darling” in Chinese, but bao also mean “bun,” so the name is a play on words.)
Life had been on track for Hsieh. He graduated from Gaithersburg High School, earned a B.S. in finance from UMBC in 2017 and got a great job as a financial analyst with a promising career ahead of him. There was only one problem, Hsieh explains. “The job didn’t occupy my mind as I wanted it to, so I got the idea to sell my nostalgic childhood food. I grew up in the Rockville area, where there is a plethora of Asian food—Japanese, Korean, Chinese—but not much Taiwanese.” He had a good mentor. His father, Peter, who now manages Ginger restaurant at the MGM National Harbor, is a chef who worked in many D.C.-area restaurants while Hsieh was growing up, including Taipei Cafe and Far East Restaurant in Rockville.
Hsieh’s concept is based on street food at night markets in Taiwan, where his parents would take him on trips to their hometown, Taipei City, and where he went on a research eating trip before starting Bao Bei. He’s building the business slowly. He debuted his Bao Bei bun at a street market pop-up in D.C. in September 2019, selling out 250 buns in a couple of hours, then sold 800 a week later at the Charm City Night Market festival in Baltimore just as quickly. When COVID hit, he had to rethink the festival business model and decided on the ghost kitchen, offering delivery and takeout. For now, Hsieh is a one-man operation and offers only the items I ordered plus vegetarian versions of the bao and bowl made with braised tofu (bao: $7.95; bowl: $11.95). He makes everything himself (including more than 800 steamed wheat buns a week by hand) and fills all the orders. The long-range plan is to open a brick-and-mortar restaurant in the Rockville area within the next two years.
Bao Bei, 11910 Parklawn Drive (in the rear of the complex), North Bethesda, 240-750-5618, baobei.menu
Restaurant Comings & Goings
Kensington-based Java Nation, which opened its third location in Gaithersburg’s Kentlands development in May, announced plans to open a dual concept (an express coffee bar and a full-service restaurant) in downtown Silver Spring in the first quarter of 2023.
D.C.-area chainlet Andy’s Pizza, owned by Montgomery County native Andy Brown, announced plans to open its first Maryland location in Bethesda in early 2023.
A location of South Korea-based bakery Paris Baguette is scheduled to open in Rockville Town Center this winter.
In Gaithersburg, Teriyaki Express Japanese grill closed in August.
Republic restaurant in Takoma Park closed in September after nearly a decade.
Bun’d Up, which specializes in Korean American riffs on Taiwanese gua bao (filled buns), closed its Pike & Rose location (in The Block) in September. Also at The Block, Anh-mazing Viet Kitchen closed in September.
David Hagedorn is the restaurant critic for Bethesda Magazine.
This story appears in the November/December 2022 issue of Bethesda Magazine.