Big-Tent Cooking

The Baowry, a charmingly domestic former hovel in St. Johns, recalls a vacationer's eatery in a picturesque riverfront town—which, of course, St. Johns very much is. On weekdays, the spot's small bar space is packed elbow-to-elbow with regulars and down-the-street locals. As irregulars arrive to sit at the Baowry's tables, they are greeted with casual surprise from behind the bar.

Much at the Baowry bears hints of the carnivalesque and far from home. On one visit, we were serenaded by a Carnaby Street fair of obscure Kinks tracks, on another with Exile on Main Street's equally catholic excursions. The place was, after all, once a street-side food cart; it might as well bring the bustling variety of the street inside with it. The Baowry's tables are decorated with a collage of Californian-Japanese newspapers, from hair-removal ads to immigrant news. Beer is available in tall novelty giraffes. 

The Baowry's Asian-eclectic food seems similarly determined to pack everything in.

The trademark bao—steamed bun sandwiches ($4 apiece, or three for $10)—are jammed with flavors and textures: the yeasty sugar dough still dusty with flour; the hoisin-heavy pork loin, duck confit or shiitake mushroom; and then the acidic crispness of lightly pickled cucumber and daikon. It's an all-boats-in-the-water approach to sandwich making, a pre-bop jazz confection of flavors balanced in counterpoint rather than overloaded on the palate.

The menu's far-flung flavor bombs seem to have less to do with any '90s notion of food fusion than of simple abandon. In the bacon black bean mussels ($14), this approach leads to perplexity, with thick garlic-lime aioli dripping off a generous pile of mussels onto soy-spiked black bean noodles. The feeling is that one dish has mistakenly been spilled onto another in transit from the stovetop.

On the other hand, the gingery braised greens ($5, listed as mustard on the menu, though they looked to be red swiss chard) were a beautiful Southern dish gone nonnative, with umami in threefold concert among bacon, pork stock and soy sauce. With a vinegared soft-boiled egg ($2 extra), the result was an unbridled excess of flavor, a wildly salty-spicy bar snack best slurped with alcohol in hand. 

The sizzling rice soup ($14) works with a similarly ocean-salty flavor profile (substituting pork belly for bacon, and introducing some shrimp), but adds the satisfying texture of crispy rice squares that crackle when dropped into broth. 

The Baowry's food, though sometimes a bit overambitious in spicing, is propped up by a solid understanding of what to do with a cut of meat, whether a firm-textured pork belly, a shrimp prettily butterflied within its shell or duck steeped until the flavor seems to come from somewhere deep within.

Besides, in a drab world, the small-town fair is always a comfort. MATTHEW KORFHAGE.

  1. Order this: One of each bao ($10) is a worthy meal.
  2. Best deal: Each $5 happy-hour banh mi is stacked higher than a tire fire.
  3. I’ll pass: Mussels. 

EAT: The Baowry, 8307 N Ivanhoe St., 285-4839, 5 pm-2:30 am daily. $-$$.

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