The Vegetarian Option: Wow Bao
After hefty, sit-down dinners at the likes of Mana Food Bar, the Pump Room and Ruxbin Kitchen, it seemed like an apt moment for the Vegetarian Option to shift gears and grab some good veggie-friendly food on the go. In some ways, the challenge of eating vegetarian is hardest when doing it in a fast-food context. Enter Wow Bao—Lettuce Entertain You's chain of Asian bun stands, which in the past few years has expanded to include five locations in Chicago and the Bao Mobile, a roving bun truck.
Wow Bao's menu offers at least one vegetarian selection in each of the available food categories, from bao (the eponymous stuffed Asian buns) to potstickers to salads. On a recent visit to the Wow Bao kiosk on the ground floor of Water Tower Place, I loaded up on a two bao and salad combo ($5.99) and an order of Thai herb broth ($2.29), which on a bitter cold evening in Chicago is like nectar from the perennially smiling and sun-tanned equatorial gods of Southeast Asia.
But first, let's talk buns—specifically the whole wheat edamame bao. Steamed buns are common all over Asia: in China they go by baozi, among many names; and in Japan you can get man at practically any convenience store. Wow Bao does service to the cuisine by keeping its buns in stacked circular steam boxes so they're warm, fresh and fluffy when served. The whole wheat edamame bao is made with a yeasty, whole wheat dough exterior and a filling of crunchy peanuts, vegetables, and edamame. The mix of textures and warm, savory center make these guys a satisfying snack.
Wow Bao's Asian vegetable salad at first seems pretty simple and unassuming, but it's actually got quite a bit going on. Ingredients: grape tomatoes, bean sprouts, thinly sliced red bell pepper, baby spinach, romaine lettuce, red onion, carrot and cilantro. It also comes with crispy noodles and a tangy, peanut-laced Asian dressing.
Oh, and that Thai herb broth? Served in a lidded paper coffee cup, the broth is peppery, herbaceous, citrus-spiked and savory all at once. Let's just say that if it were caffeinated, it very well could take the place of my afternoon coffee all winter long.