For the many students and families from China like me, the true gem of the Chinese food scene in C-U lies in the restaurants’ Mandarin-guarded intimate offerings. They are the breakfast staples enlisted on a menu stuck to the street-side window at Mr. Chou & Charles before it closed, the delectable cafeteria-style lunch boxes that come with soups as they should at Kungfu BBQ (which name never seized to amuse me), the chicken cold-cut menu at LaiLai Wok whose English translation emits empty boredom rather than the tender chicken perfections that they really are.

Above all, the one that I exploit the most is Bobo China’s baozi.

Bobo China has been around for a long time — you know when you see the old menu that’s still a part of the wall, of the iconic American Chinese dishes that gave immigrant families a foothold in the strange new home. The “new” menu’s immensity still gives me a headache, but I’ve learned to order without looking — for anything that comes close to existing in the homely realm China’s Northeastern cuisine, they probably have it. Plus, I only come for my favorites.

I’m not sure when Bobo started selling their baozi, which became a hit in the Mandarin-speaking circles, but it never spilled outside of those circles when the whirlwind of orders arrived every Thursday afternoon, sticking notes of names, numbers, and times on the kitchen door like white feathers fluttering after the heel-to-toe race of the staff.

Baozi, in my purest memory, is a labor of love. The plain yeast-risen dough is rolled, portioned, flattened with a small rolling pin in a certain dexterity that is the descendent of talent and time. Enrobing a generous blob of well-seasoned filling (pork with vegetables more often than not) the spirally crimped dough is then set to proof and steam. There’s no better time to introduce to you one of the fondest foods of my childhood; Pixar’s Bao just won the Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film, portraying an empty-nest Chinese-Canadian mother whose baozi one day comes to life, which she raises as her son. The meticulous care in the making of a good baozi echoes.

Because Bobo China only makes them once a week, every Thursday I’d face the decision of to bao or not to bao. It’s $10 for a half dozen, making two generous meals that I can just pop in the microwave with a loose cover for the days with little time to cook, or simply when I crave a steaming hot baozi from home. (And trust me: The frozen ones you find in the stores have nothing on these.) Bobo takes orders ahead of time but they usually have extras for the Thursday dinner wander-ins, and maybe a few left on Friday if you’re lucky.

The filling for baozi is a liberal land of what-have-yous where the only rule is “tasty.” That said, Bobo makes a couple of staples, the green bean with pork being my personal favorite next to the celery or “sour vegetable” with pork; the beef and carrot baozi is only rivaled by my love for their lamb and carrot dumplings (which is also excellent, amongst their other homemade dumplings proper Northeastern style; dumplings start at $11). For vegetarians, there’s the classic melange of Asian chives with eggs and shiitake mushrooms that haunted my childhood as I was forced to eat many of them when I really hated chives, but vegetarian nonetheless.

China’s Northeastern cuisine is not without its very own sauerkraut, here at Bobo it is “sour vegetables” by word-for-word translation from Mandarin. Imagine funky kraut made from napa cabbage. For baozi takeouts, there seem to be no alternative to the styrofoam boxes, with the corners cut off to avoid hot steam building up inside which would dampen the baozi skin; desperate times call for desperate measures, I suppose?

Something else that I didn’t expect to love here at Bobo was the “steamed pork knuckle,” while in fact it was far from just “steamed” ($16). An old-school Northern dish that I’ve rarely seen in the States, the skin of the bone-in pork knuckle is usually burnt or fried before scraping it clean, then steamed or braised with subtle herbs and spices. When it is finally served sitting radiantly in a ubiquitous reddish-brown sauce, it is the meltingly tender essence of the pork itself, nakedly simple and clean, the gelatinous skin is rich without feeling greasy — envied by the juiciest of carnitas and the most tremendous of Schweinshaxen.

Finally, when it comes down to impressiveness by sheer presence, you can’t fight adding a healthy fare. The gigantic plate of mung bean noodle salad that feeds four to five, appropriately named “Homestyle Deluxe Salad Plate”, completely dazzled a gluten-intolerant friend of mine ($25). We asked for both dressings to be on the side, as I’m a fan of the rich sesame dressing mixed with the wake-up zing of the mustard sauce, sautéed pork adds its own sauciness and warmth to the mix, this may just cure any aversion to vegetables. The freshness of the julienned vegetables without a sign of dryness especially spoke volumes to me, that beyond the somewhat blunt service that’s not customary to the attentive style in America, I’m cared for this way.

Bobo China
404 East Green St
Champaign
Tu-Su 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.
(217) 352-2272

Photos by Cara Feng