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Restaurant Sun Dec 28 2008
A year ago, I was excited when the Lettuce Entertain You restaurant empire opened the third outlet of their modest Wow Bao Chinese (oh, excuse me, "Asian") bun chain at the corner of State and Lake, a five-minute walk from my house. Before they came to me, I'd often walk over at their postage-stamp-sized Mag Mile location at Water Tower Place for some barbeque pork buns and "homemade" ginger ale. I'm glad my walk is shorter now. If only the prices were more reasonable for some of the most popular items on the menu, the place would be perfect. For now, my advice is simple: hold the rice.
The star items here are bao, or filled buns, in the case of Wow Bao always steamed (there is no baked option here) and served individually wrapped perched atop a teeny paper doily. Were they to be served in Chinatown the buns would be unexceptional. In downtown Chicago, though, they become enchanting, warm, yummy delights that make a nice break from mundane sub-sandwich Loop lunch fare.
My favorites are barbeque pork and Thai curry chicken, usually a pair of them in combination with the a spicy peanut noodle or Chicken pad thai noodle salad (together for under $7, a real bargain). You won't find finesse here: gristle occasionally pops up in the chicken buns; stems are left on leafy herbs. But peeling open your own set of warm bao on a cold day can be as fun as it is filling.
The State/Lake location has extended evening hours--and during warmer weather, extended weekday morning hours--to serve the growing legions of north Loop/south River North condo dwellers. In fact, breakfast at Wow Bao is one of the nicest times of day to be there, if you're the sort who groks to savory before Noon.
Breakfast rice bowls are a popular morning option. Various combinations of egg, meat, and cheese over rice are also fairly priced at around four bucks.
Just make sure it's a breakfast rice bowl you opt for. Rice bowls on the regular menu are shamefully overpriced. With tax, you'll pay almost $7 for what amounts to a ten-cent bowl of rice topped with at most two tablespoons of the meat or veg of your choice. When last I sampled the regular rice bowls, I had to go back and ask the server if they were kidding.
They weren't. In my book, when you pay $7 for chicken over rice, you probably ought to at least be able to detect the chicken. Maybe that's just my arroz con pollo Spanish-mother upbringing. But I'm thinking it's more a misguided attempt to save money in a woebegotten economy.
Aside from those over-priced rice bowls, though, Wow Bao gets the job done. As long as your protein is wrapped in a bun or strangled by a noodle, anyway.
One West Wacker (corner State/Lake), Chicago