Northern Chinese street food has hit N. Main St. in the form of the steamed, stuffed buns known as baos. Following a lunchtime soft opening during December, Jessie Zhu’s Bao Space launched in early January in the site of the former Vedge Cafe.
At six to eight dollars a pair, the fist-sized buns are an affordable addition to the city’s ethnically diverse dining scene. According to Zhu’s husband and helpmate, Raphael Yue, they’re producing 400 baos per day. Even with no marketing budget, they’re already struggling to meet demand, particularly on Fridays and Saturdays. They aim to build capacity over time.
“As a starting point, it is already pretty good,” Yue says, “We are getting people interested. We have a lot of customers who really like—really like—the baos.”
Some of the eight available varieties are traditional recipes, and some are Zhu’s own creations. Berkshire pork is the bestseller so far, followed by beef-and-onion buns and pickled cabbage and pork. The dough recipe uses yeast and milk rather than synthetic leavening agents.
Zhu is glad to have found two prized staffers to help make the baos fresh daily. “I had to find the right person, because this kind of a bao bun takes time to make, to practice,” she says. “Other people who work in a bakery, it’s different.” The artistry of the process and product is on display above the counter, as a video loop shows her preparing, filling, and closing the baos into one of three different shapes.
The couple, along with their two toddlers, moved from Shanghai to Michigan in 2018 for Yue’s job with LLamasoft. The kids now attend Wines Elementary, and Yue, a supply chain software engineer, runs his own companies—helping launch the restaurant is just a side gig.
He’s originally from northern China, which he says is the true home of bao buns. “I grew up eating this kind of stuff. In southern China, they also have it, but it’s more delicate.” At many Chinese convenience stores, Yue notes, “they put a steamer over there. They sell frozen baos, so they put the frozen baos into the steamer to steam it up. People eat it for breakfast, they eat it for lunch, some people eat it for dinner, so it’s really an all-the-time thing.”
Yue says fresh-made and -steamed baos are far superior to the mass-marketed, machine-made versions. “The comparison’s like if you’re going to buy a frozen bread from a freezer versus you’re gonna buy it from a bakery—the difference is very big.
“Being from northern China, in my view, steamed is definitely better or more nutritious or healthy” than fried convenience foods, he adds. While it’s still “not a salad,” with simple, natural ingredients and fat-free cooking, “it’s a good balance of health and also good taste.”
Zhu’s family was steeped in the food industry in China, and she has culinary training as well, “so her skill sets came from many, many years ago,” says her husband. The idea for a restaurant came during the pandemic, and she built a small but supportive following among friends and neighbors by filling orders from the kitchen of their Scio Township home.
Zhu says the restaurant’s build-out was “not so bad,” though the Vedge Cafe’s bold colors gave way to clean, neutral hues and Chinese-style paintings. The menu also features soups, appetizers, dumplings, dim sum, hot teas, and bubble teas. Each food category has vegetarian options.
Bao Space, 205 N. Main St., (734) 436–8488, Tues.–Sat. 11 a.m.– 3 p.m. & 5–7:30 p.m.; Sun. 11 a.m.–3 p.m. Closed Mon.