Over the past two decades, Mesa’s Asian Business District has grown from a few scattered shops to a busy corridor, and one shopping center, Mekong Plaza, has been at the center of the growth. The former Target store, now an Asian-themed plaza full of restaurants and stores, is now joined by the H Mart across the street, Arizona International Marketplace down the road, and even plans for its own expansion. Even so, Mekong Plaza itself still has plenty of hidden corners to explore. One of them is a tiny restaurant by the food court known as Happy Bao’s.
As its name implies, the restaurant, unnecessary apostrophe included, focuses on bao, the steamed buns served in some regions of China. The bao are supplemented with a variety of dumplings, noodles, and rice dishes. The common theme is casual food that might be found in small shops or street stalls, in contrast to the Cantonese feasts served in the much larger restaurant next door. The restaurant is full service within its small dining room, now operating only a few tables open and also doing a steady business of takeout and delivery orders.
The walls are decorated with huge posters explaining the origins and traditions behind some of the restaurant’s signature dishes. These displays with their larger-than-life photos, high enough to be seen from throughout the dining room, are a valuable supplement to the pamphlet-style paper menus with far more succinct descriptions of the dishes. The menu leads with sections devoted to dumplings and bao, the items most central to the restaurant’s focused mission. Six varieties are available of each type of specialty with many coming in small and large sizes.
The signature dumpling is stuffed with a mixture of ground pork, bits of shrimp, minced chives, and scrambled eggs. Green chives and Napa cabbage both pair with meats like pork and chicken in other dumplings, and lamb and squash stands out as a combination filling from the north of China. The dumplings have crimped edges, chewy wrappers, and an accompanying soy vinegar sauce. These traits make them seem familiar, but unlike the widely popular dumplings sometimes called “pot stickers,” these are all steamed rather than pan-fried.
The bao are rounder than the dumplings with a more airy texture. Xiao long bao are a classic at the top of this section.They feature pork, scallions, and a bit of chicken broth that actually creates a small pocket of soup within. An alternative version of this signature dish features a seafood mixture of crab roe and shrimp combined with the pork inside the buns. Shen jian bao are a different style, similar in form, but pan-fried on the bottom with chicken, pork, or vegetable fillings occupying the interior and a sprinkling of black sesame seeds on the top.
Roujiamo, two big buns stuffed full of minced pork, scallions, cilantro, and peppers are described as “Chinese hamburger,” but it might be more accurate to see them as analogous to Mexican mulitas, stuffed tortillas cooked on a griddle, only without the cheese. The gentle char on the outside of the buns gives them a nice toastiness, but their overall flavor is mild. Dipping this handheld food into a bit of soy sauce or chili oil adds a layer of more intense taste. All of the bao and dumplings are of course ideal for ordering in a variety of types and sharing at the table.
The bao and dumplings, often listed as appetizers on American Chinese menus, often function as the main dish at Happy Bao’s. With that in mind, the restaurant’s own menu does have a small selection of starters that are more focused on vegetables. The cucumber salad is a simple treat with little more than a little garlic and salt anointing the crisp, fresh slices of green gourd. Vegetable side dishes, prepared simply with a bit of oyster sauce or garlic, include heaping plates of gai lan, bok choy, choy sum, and a choy, a form of lettuce that is gently braised.
Happy Bao’s does not try to re-create the extensive menus associated with many Chinese restaurants in the United States, focusing instead on its core mission of starchy, steamed treats. Nevertheless, the restaurant has some successful rice and noodle dishes that add variety to its menu. Dan dan noodles combine ground pork with spicy chili oil, peanuts, cucumbers, scallions, and cilantro. Beef chow fun features thick noodles with a smoky essence from wok cooking. The signature liang pi are glutinous noodles in a meatless dish served cold with sesame paste.
An unexpectedly successful pairing is the tomato egg noodles, while the Singapore rice noodles have a mild curry flavor that accentuates the pork and shrimp in the dish. Yang Zhou fried rice with shrimp and Chinese sausage is a balancing act between the mild grain and little bursts of flavor from the flecks of meat. Hong Kong fried rice incorporates bacon and barbecued pork. For dessert, the answer is back to bao. Steamed buns with sweet fillings such as red bean, custard, or taro are all served in the same quantities as the savory bao emphasized earlier in the meal.
Happy Bao’s serves canned sodas and its own house-made soy milk. The restaurant does not have a liquor license, but it is the rare establishment with a BYOB permit, so customers can bring their own wine and beer and enjoy it at one of Happy Bao’s tables. Those tables, limited in quantity even in ordinary times, are worth seeking out in this corner pocket of Mekong Plaza. Even as the shopping center and the surrounding business district continue to grow, Happy Bao’s is a reminder that existing spaces at Dobson and Main still have their secrets to share.
66 S. Dobson Rd. #112, Mesa AZ 85202