In the summer of 2016, when Cal alumnus Frances Sun introduced Famous Bao, a Chinese restaurant specializing in Xi’an-style dishes, to Southside Berkeley, its namesake steamed buns were unavailable for the first few months of business. Apparently, the restaurant had struggled with the equipment it had imported from China to prepare the baozi. No matter, the show went on, and what might have been the beginning of the end for some nascent eateries appeared to be a slight peccadillo for Famous Bao. Diners, especially those already familiar with Shaanxi cuisine, continued to pour in for its affordably priced specialties, most notably its excellent handpulled noodle and iron pot dishes.
Famous Bao was just famous enough that Sun was able to open a second location in downtown Berkeley last March, but nearly a year later, both locations went dark. In May, Sun reassured Nosh the closure was temporary, giving the restaurant time to reevaluate its offerings. As promised, both locations have reopened, and although its name remains the same, Famous Bao has a new menu that, once again, is sans baozi.
The restaurant now considers itself a noodle house. Some might be sorry to see Famous Bao retire its iron pot dishes, as well as its rice plates and rou jia mo (Chinese steamed bun “burgers”). Instead, it now focuses almost solely on noodles, offering 30 types in three categories: dry tossed noodles, noodles in soup and vegan noodles. Customers choose between three pastas — Famous Bao’s signature handpulled flat wheat noodles, Shanghai Yangchun noodles (thin, round like spaghetti and also made with wheat flour) and wonton noodles (made with egg) — or a bowl of steamed rice. There are also side dishes like braised egg or tofu, a la cart fried pork chop or Szechuan pickles.
A large sign outside the downtown Berkeley location calls attention to its new vegan dishes, seemingly an attempt to attract a new audience to a style of cooking that’s not always vegan friendly. Traditional versions of Yangchun noodle soup, for instance, use a dollop of lard to the flavor and enrich the broth. On my first return to Famous Bao, I had every intention to try the vegan noodles, but as it often does, the temptation of savory meats distracted me from my original meatless mission, and I found myself ordering Braised Pork Ribs Tossed Noodles ($9.45) instead.
I chose the signature handpulled noodles — Famous Bao’s version of biang biang — that go best with this dish. They are wonderfully chewy, and their wide, flat shape creates more surface area for the slick, flavorful sauce to cling. The portions are hearty here; light to medium eaters can get at least two meals from one portion. My bowl had several hefty pieces of braised bone-in pork topping a generous serving of noodles. The meat was well-seasoned and tender, but could have been slightly braised longer for a fall-off-the-bone quality. The simply blanched baby bok choy quarters added a fresh crunch, and even the bland, but cooked cabbage had its place in the bowl. When all the components were mixed together with the sweet, salty and oily sauce, it created a harmonious balance of flavors and textures.
On my next two visits, I stuck to my guns and ordered vegan options, and both times, I’m glad I did. I tried the spicy hot oil seared handpulled noodles ($8.75), the most expensive of the four vegan choices, and the only one that comes with biang biang. Fresh bean sprouts and plenty of hot chili powder joined the usual bok choy and cabbage toppings. But the secret weapon that took this dish to another level was the small blob of garlic paste that you must be sure to thoroughly mix in, lest you get an uneven mouthful of its potency. While I wouldn’t say the dish is overly spicy, you do feel the heat in the back of your throat, and it might be overpowering for those who fear heat (or those who are vampires). I also tried the Shanghai-style scallion oil tossed noodles ($7.50), which come with the thinner Yangchun noodles. I asked on two separate occasions to be sure, and was told that these noodles are made in-house, they are just not handpulled. This dish had a soy-based sauce, leaning slightly sweeter than the other dishes I tried. I enjoyed the crunchy fried onion and sour preserved vegetables that topped the bowl, in addition to the bok choy and cabbage. And in both cases, I didn’t miss the meat at all.
I thought I’d be remiss to not visit the original Southside location to ensure consistency between the two restaurants and to see if Famous Bao still has clout with its mostly student customer base. I arrived at lunchtime on a Thursday to a loud and packed restaurant. Every table was occupied, save for a strip of bar seating along the windows that face neighboring business Yogurt Park. In comparison, the downtown Berkeley space is normally quiet, sometimes partially full, with plenty of comfortable booths in the main dining area, a bar space near the ordering counter and even front patio seating.
When I ordered the Signature Spicy Beef Noodles ($9.85), I asked the young woman at the counter if ownership remained the same, as I had heard some whispers that it had changed (and I was unable to contact Sun for this story). She said that only the menu had changed.
I tucked in and was pleased by the tender anise-tinged beef. The broth just below the noodles had a deep amber hue from the chili oil, but more than spice, I noticed black vinegar and soy sauce flavors. The noodles were a tad overcooked, but I may not have noticed if I hadn’t eaten at Famous Bao three other times so recently. Overall, it was a satisfying bowl.
While the food was just as good at the Durant Avenue restaurant, the incessant din from the crowd could not be ignored. I found myself hurrying to finish my lunch, just to get a break from the noise. But for one perfect minute, there was a noticeable break from the cacophony, a nearly silent moment when the only thing heard were quick intakes of air, the unmistakable sound of satisfied slurping.
Famous Bao is also at 2431-A Durant Ave. (near Telegraph), Berkeley.