I'M TRYING to imagine a financial advisor counseling someone bent on opening an Asian fusion restaurant/bar in St. Johns. "Suicide with receipts," they'd say. "Death by moony ambition." But the Baowry, one of the city's latest cart-to-restaurant success stories, is a tangible, functioning example of what you can do if you buck the naysayers, grab a hammer, and just get started. It's also a good place to eat.
Two years ago, a couple kids opened a cart of the same name, hawking steamed buns and tacos and whatever else took with the public. When a derelict little craftsman home on their block—a howling shithole, by all accounts—finally coughed out its last addicts, wall-punchers, and transients, they dug their nails into the place's bones, gutted every last vestige of decay and abuse, and made it theirs. It's not slick or precious—it feels exactly like what it is: an old house that some first-time buyers gave new life to, on a shoestring, so they could cook their food and show people a good time. It's too dark in some corners, but the floor's level. The tables are a little low, but they match, they don't wobble, and they're well spaced. It's rough around the edges in an honest and endearing way.
None of that bootstrap charm would matter, of course, without the food. Over three visits I've tried 12 of the 15 or so items on the menu, and I'll admit that at first I didn't get what the Baowry was trying to be. The sizzling rice soup ($10, for two) seemed a little off from the standard, until I realized what was bugging me about it was that it was scratch-made and had its own personality. Meaty, perfectly cooked shell-on shrimp, pork belly, and braised greens are the chef's unusual additions, but the familiar toasted rice squares hiss warmly in the fresh, dark broth, making for a deeply satisfying bowl.
The chile garlic prawns ($14, for sharing), a heaping serving of butterflied, shell-on shrimp in a butter-enriched garlic-chile sauce, was another one of the better dishes. Dealing with the peel is worth the mess, as the meat keeps its tender texture and delicate moisture; the mildly spicy sauce evenly coats a generous bed of noodles. The braised greens ($5) are truly excellent, with deeply smoky bacon (ordered from a Montana purveyor) and a vinegary garlic-miso broth that should be drunk once the vegetables are gone. Unconventional happy hour banh mi ($5) are overstuffed versions of the classic and feature togarashi fried chicken, confit duck, "red cooked pork," or their shiitake tofu terrine. The crisp chicken tenderloin version, with pickled vegetables, cilantro, cucumber, and aioli, delivered a lot of flavor and pleasure for a bar snack, so I ordered a second while enjoying the first.
The duck plate ($22) is their flagship item, featuring two large leg quarters of Peking "style" (confit) duck and all the trimmings: four large steamed buns, house-made hoisin and plum sauces, pickled vegetables, and pickled chiles. The meat is abundant and moist, and while the skin is under-crisped and under-seasoned for my taste (this is where the dish can really stand out), it's rich and well cooked. The Baowry steak ($16) is a generous portion of surprisingly tender marinated meat, grilled medium-rare but also a little lacking in sear. Served with a poached egg, slaw, and shiitake mushrooms, it was a balanced set of flavors but needed something dry or crunchy to offset all the soft textures.
A third of their menu is staked on large pork, duck, or vegetarian steamed buns ("bao"), $4 apiece or three for $10. The house-made hoisin sauce tends to dominate the mild meats, which could also use stronger and more distinctive spicing.
Service has been thorough and quick during off-peak times, though at capacity it shows signs of stress. Appetizers and entrées can come out all at once after a long wait, crowding the modest table and forcing some items to sit and cool while others are rushed through.
Ambitious cocktails are generally decent, but can lack balance. The Salty Plum ($7, made with Monopolowa gin, lime juice, plum vinegar, and simple syrup) was far too sweet, but the Baowry Vesper ($8, made with Yazi ginger vodka, Aviation gin, Lillet vermouth, and sweet vermouth) was smooth and balanced.
The Baowry, now three months old, is an important and inspiring chapter in the revitalization of St. Johns. More useful in a day-to-day sense, though, the food shows promise, imagination, and integrity.
Open daily 5 pm-2:30 am. Happy hour 10:30 pm-close. Check out thebaowry.tumblr.com to see renovation pictures featuring founding partner Ross Skomsvold tossing old mattresses while dressed and coiffed like a mid-1970s Ron Wood.