There is a way to eat bao buns, and it is with Kendrick Lamar and Biz Markie playing in the background. At least, that’s the way it feels at The Bun Shop, a Koreatown eatery and brick-and-mortar offshoot of The Bun Truck (now only available for catering). Founded by Detroit natives Brian Yeun and chef James Seok, the small restaurant bills itself as a "chill late-night spot for the homies"—and with a graffitied wall, big screen TVs, curated hip hop playlist and masculine decor, it could resort to just that: a dude's bun shop. But its reach extends further, in that it's a place where, on a Tuesday night, a lone food writer can wander in, order a few items at random and find herself completely engrossed in the bao plopped in front of her on a metal tray.
The menu is simple, leaving little room for hemming and hawing. To make it even simpler, here is what you should get: the 3 bun combo with a side of edamame (You will be offered pasta salad as an alternative, but the edamame is a winner and a salty complement to the sweeter buns.). Choose from a list of seven buns, each with an entirely unique profile (although the bao itself is stellar across the board: light enough to put its fillings in the spotlight; dense enough to soak up any stray sauce). A customer favorite held over from the truck, the Beefy operates as a bulgolgi slider, where Korean marinated beef is matched with a creamy aioli to create the ideal comfort snack. The spicy pig bun amps up its pork filling with both sriracha and tzatziki; the pork BBQ, an even better choice, left me pausing after each bite to process the cohesive marriage of flavors—the citrus slaw, the BBQ sauce, the slivers of fresh cucumber all working in unison.
It is not all pork and beef and chicken—there are veggie options here, too, the best of which is the tomanko, a panko fried tomato with cucumber and the same citrus slaw that conjurs up images of summer picnics. The non-bun options sound like they could inspire a heart attack at any moment: ba’corn cheese, sticky wings, fried wontons, sweet potato fries. There is really no need to venture to this side of the menu, but if you must, the dosirak is a decent choice, bringing heat with a healthy dose of sriracha amidst fried rice, green peppers and your choice of chicken or mushrooms.
Should you stay for dessert? Yes, yes you should. In particular, a plate of fried Oreos and refreshing green tea ice cream brings the meal full circle—not too oily, not too sweet, it's something that ends up satisfying just about everyone. Kind of like The Bun Shop.
What to Eat: There is a 2 bun ($7.50) and a 3 bun ($10) combo, of which you can mix and match bao fillings. Our recommendations? The pork BBQ. The beefy. The spicy pig. The tomanko. For dessert: The deep fried oreos with green tea ice cream ($5).
What to Drink: The Bun Shop insists they’ll have their beer and wine license by the end of April—the plan, as of now, is to serve a rotating list of Korean beers that will undoubtedly pair well with a bun combo. In the meantime, choose from water, sodas or juice.
Where to Sit: If you're here to watch the game, grab a spot at the communal high top, where you have a clear view of the big screen. Chowing down with a big group? Snag a booth against the wall farthest from the door. They’re comfortable, big and give you ample people-watching opportunities.
Conversation Piece: Fans of The Walking Dead may get an extra kick out of this place: actor Steve Yeun, who plays Glenn Rhee on the show, is an investor in the restaurant. Yeun also happens to be Brian's older brother.