Good and Baked
Lean dessert machine
Eric Williams ericwphoto.com
Mean Bao is the sort of place you want to succeed despite its dizzying eccentricities. First, it’s a Taiwanese-American bakery (mien bao is Chinese for “bread”) in the plummest territory of Nob Hill, the space formerly occupied by Ecco Gelato. It offers perfectly concocted delights like savory and vanilla cream bao (a beignet-like treat), pineapple cake and green tea milk buns. The company gives 10 percent of profits back to the community and uses locally sourced products such as flour, honey, eggs and fruit. Finally, you can’t help but like Sarah Lim, the friendly and enthusiastic owner and head baker.
The eccentric management choices manifest in the décor, pastry list and the presentation of the American and Taiwanese delectables. Mean Bao offers none of the port-in-the-storm, dessert pageant comforts of a place like Flying Star across the street. Orange hues predominate—Slice-soda orange, electric-stove-top orange, don’t-shoot-me-in-the-forest orange—and the rest is sleek and hard with glass, metal, black and white. Cozy or calming would not be appropriate descriptors. And Mean Bao’s furnishings feel more empty than minimalist, with only three tables and a smattering of stools at the window. I hope it’s a kink Lim works out.
The vanilla cream bao ($2) is a dreamy little number, dressed with a demure sheet of orange icing, filled with a thin layer of vanilla cream and delicately crispy on bottom. The use of custard is restrained and nectar-like, akin to biting into a white Chinese peony.
Lim told me that her concept is not coffee shop, but pastry boutique. Indeed, Mean Bao doesn’t open until 10 a.m., and there’s only a handful of each offering presented. With so few of each item, some individually wrapped and labeled in Sharpie, the impression was not so much boutique as end-of-day bake sale.
On my second visit, I began to appreciate the showcase mode for its less-is-more advantages. You’re not lost in a sea of creams and ganache and icing here. There is a mindfulness encouraged by the limited choices, some of them playful and exquisite—green tea whoopie pies, vanilla cream bao, chocolate chipotle espresso cupcakes.
Eric Williams ericwphoto.com
So yes, let us sink happily like stones into the delicious desserts. Fusion at Mean Bao basically means “friskiness.” You’ll find straight-up American classics like expertly baked chocolate chip cookies and piggies in a blanket (they do offer a savory item or two), next to authentic Taiwanese staples like vanilla cream bao and pineapple cake. Then you’ll run into the whimsical items like green tea custard twisted milk buns.
Each day of the week, Mean Bao features a different delectable. There are Tart Tuesdays, Whoopie Pie Wednesdays, Green Tea Thursdays, Frosting-Fix Fridays. It’s closed Mondays, so plan accordingly.
A few recommendations: The vanilla cream bao ($2) is a dreamy little number, dressed with a demure sheet of orange icing, filled with a thin layer of vanilla cream and delicately crispy on bottom. The use of custard is restrained and nectar-like, akin to biting into a white Chinese peony. It’s a beautiful experience. Take your cashier up on his or her offer to warm it for you.
Eric Williams ericwphoto.com
The whoopie pies ($2) also should not be missed. I have a thing for whoopie pies. (My mom is from Dutch country, Pennsylvania, where whoopie pies have their own cult. I have a thing.) And I’m here to tell you these are good whoopie pies: ultra-light, moist, dark chocolatey. Put your hands in your pockets and they will free-float into your mouth. You can hardly be held responsible for how many you eat when the very laws of physics are confounded.
The green tea milk roll ($2), described as lightly sweetened and swirled with green tea custard, also caught my eye. Barely sugared and mildly grassy with fine threads of vibrant tea leaves, the soft, warm knot conjures a spring meadow.
My friend, who fancies himself a green tea connoisseur, was effusive about the quality of the ingredient at Mean Bao. Sarah says that she only uses select tea, after discovering that lesser varieties render a muddy color and flavor in baking.
Finally, I could not resist another of Mean Bao’s specialties: the quintessential pineapple cake. In Taiwan they’re made from fresh island pineapples. Picture teacakes, not the heart-pounding iced and double-tiered versions Americans are used to. These are diminutive treats for sweater-vested people, society dames, Chinese ex-pats, and regular Joes with a particular tea-time craving. They’re seemingly not the best value at $2 a pop, until you appreciate the fine craft and ingredients involved. (Lim went to some trouble to procure the traditional pineapple-shaped molds from China, for instance.) I suggest ordering one with coffee or tea and savoring the caramely pineapple filling encased in crumbly shortcake. Again, mindfulness is key at Mean Bao.
This brings me to the final reason I want Mean Bao to make it. In a world of careless overindulgence, this strange bird, with its odd plumage and spindly legs, makes us pay attention. It draws customers into its vision and says, “Behold.”
And beholding at Mean Bao is pure pleasure.
Mean Bao Bakery & Bread
3409 Central NE
Hours: 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Sunday & Tuesday-Thurday
10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Friday & Saturday
Price Range: Pretty much everything is $2
Vibe: Mod and spare
Vegetarian and Vegan Options? Yes and occasionally
Extras: Free tea and coffee every visit with the purchase of a Mean Bao travel mug
The Alibi recommends: Bolo bao, green tea milk roll, any whoopie pie