Many expats residing in Medellin have a taste for adventure that includes travel and food. If you’ve visited Asia and long for noodles and dumplings and the flavors of lemongrass, miso and curry, Bao Bei Cocina Asiatica Contemporanea is here to satisfy your craving for Asian food.
In this tiny, 21-seat restaurant, chefs Nathaly Montoya and Ian Vacolbe Delfin, along with their staff, pump out as many as 100 covers (meals) in 3 ½ hours. The number of meals alone is amazing for the diminutive kitchen, but what’s astonishing is that everything on the menu is made in-house daily: stocks, noodles, dumpling doughs and fillings. Nothing is recycled for the next day.
Producing these menu items takes time. A typical day for chefs Nathaly and Ian starts at 9am and often ends the next morning at 4am.
As diners, we’re rewarded by their ardent dedication to their craft. With each bite, the flavors will immediately take one back to a favorite meal in Asia.
The Talent Behind the Restaurant
Chefs Nathaly and Ian were formally trained in culinary school. Nathaly studied here in Medellin and Ian in the Philippines. After culinary school, they met while working on a cruise ship in California. They decided to form a partnership in marriage and business and opened their first restaurant in Makati City, Philippines, where Chef Nathaly shared her expertise in traditional South American cuisine.
Next on their agenda was to bring Chef Ian’s native Asian food to Medellin. Friends and family tried to dissuade them, saying it would never work in a culture where people are so tied to traditional Colombian food. Thankfully they followed their instincts and opened Bao Bei to almost immediate success seven months ago.
There is no typical diner at Bao Bei. During an evening at the restaurant, you’ll see plenty of locals and expats, young and old, and serious foodies sharing photos on social media.
The menu has a selection of five different bao. These fluffy, white steamed buns are filled with a variety of savory ingredients. Gua Bao: pork belly and pickled cucumber, Char Siu Bao: roast pork and hoisin, KFC Bao: Korean fried chicken and kimchi (my favorite), Miso Eggplant Bao: tempura eggplant (a vegetarian option), and, for the truly adventurous, Sisig Bao: pig’s head confit, pork crackling and quail egg.
All bao are reasonably priced at 11,000 pesos ($3.65) except the vegetarian option, which is 7,000 pesos ($2.32). An order of bao is two buns and an excellent and shareable way to start your meal.
Small plates or appetizers range from 8,000 to 10,000 pesos ($2.65 to 3.32) and include mouth-watering dishes such as Xiao Long Bao (3 pieces): minced pork with pork broth and black vinegar, Inasal Yakitori: grilled lemongrass chicken skewers glazed with annatto and ginger and Pork Belly Kushiyaki: grilled pork belly glazed with miso and served with papaya.
Of course, noodles get their own section on any Asian food menu, and Bao Bei doesn’t disappoint. Try an order of Khoa Soi: egg noodles with chicken thighs in red curry broth or Niu Rou Mian: egg noodles in five-spice broth with an oxtail dumpling. This section always contains a vegetarian option which is soon changing. The prices for the noodle dishes range from 17,000 to 20,000 pesos ($5.65 to 6.65), and all noodles are made in-house.
There are three main dishes which are all served with rice. Inasal: grilled lemongrass chicken with coconut milk braised spinach, KFC: Korean fried chicken on a bed of kimchi fried rice (I prefer the Bao version) and Pork Ribs Adobo: braised pork ribs in a soy vinegar sauce. The ribs are cooked sous vide (in a plastic pouch immersed in hot water for hours) to ensure maximum flavor and tenderness. This is also the most expensive item on the menu at 24,000 pesos ($7.98).
One dessert graces the menu: Ice Cream Bao. It’s a delicious combination of milk tea ice cream, peanut brittle and salted caramel. There are a variety of beverages: beer, tea, mineral water and traditional Asian options like Taiwanese Milk Tea and Thai Iced Tea, which are sweet enough to be desserts.
Location and Hours
Hours: Tuesday – Sunday, 6:30pm – 10 pm
Bao Bei is located right off Calle 10, a couple of doors down from Domino’s Pizza.
My advice is to get to Bao Bei early, as there’s always a wait. Since every item is prepared fresh daily, late diners may have fewer choices. Don’t worry, though, all the choices are delicious!
Shelly is a retired chef and professor of culinary and baking arts. She has taught at Johnson & Wales University, University of Maryland and East Carolina University. Shelly worked as a pastry chef at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel in NYC and the Carolina Club on the campus of University of North Carolina. She and her husband retired to Medellin in June 2017.