October is going to be a big month for local pastry queen Romina Rasmussen.
Not only will she be celebrating the grand opening of the permanent location of Xiao Bao Bao — the Chinese bao shop she started with twin brothers Dwight and Derrick Yee — but she’s also going to be opening her latest sweet venture: a chocolate shop.
Rasmussen and the Yee brothers made a splash in February when they held a soft-opening pop-up for Xiao Bao Bao, located in the downtown Salt Lake City space formerly occupied by Rasmussen’s beloved French bakery, Les Madeleines, which she closed in December after almost 20 years in business.
Xiao Bao Bao’s star product is the trio’s own version of bao — soft, steamed Chinese buns made with a yeasted dough that can be filled with savory or sweet ingredients.
It may be surprising that Rasmussen, who said she closed Les Madeleines partially due to burnout from working 100-hour weeks for years, is now dedicating herself to not only one, but two new businesses.
But she told The Salt Lake Tribune that closing her bakery was a chance to “start over” and put the “blocks together in a way that makes sense for Romina the human, and Romina the business owner, and Romina the creative chef-type person.”
Sharing experiences and history with bao
Bao (rhymes with “cow”) is tied to nostalgia for both Rasmussen and Dwight Yee.
For the Yees, who were born and raised in Salt Lake City, bao was scarce locally when they were growing up. The only place they could get it was at their Chinese grandmother’s house, where she’d make char siu bao from her own recipe.
And for Rasmussen, bao reminds her of the combined six years she spent living in Hong Kong as well as Taiwan, where she’d frequently eat the buns during quick breaks from her job teaching English.
Making bao is a way for her to share the experiences she had in Asia with others, Rasmussen said. “Food, I think, is just a way to bridge so many gaps.”
When Rasmussen and the Yees met about 20 years ago and started talking about opening a bao shop, the buns were typically available locally only at dim sum, they said, which is a sit-down, often lengthy meal that involves trying a lot of different dishes. But they agreed that they wanted their shop to reflect their own experiences with bao, centered around convenience and fun.
“You can just take them and eat them on the run or whatever,” said Dwight Yee, “and so we love the portability of that. When we visit Hong Kong, that’s the thing we love is you can just find all these small bakery shops, and you just get one in a little paper bag and just eat it while you walk somewhere.”
What does “xiao bao bao” mean?
Romina Rasmussen and Dwight Yee said the phrase “xiao bao bao” is a mixture of colloquialisms that are neither exclusively Mandarin nor Cantonese.
“Xiao” means “little,” and “bao” often means “bun,” so “xiao bao bao” can mean “little bun.” Colloquially, “xiao bao bao” can also mean “little hug.” “Bao bao” means “I’m full” in Cantonese, Yee said.
The word for “treasure” is also pronounced “bao.” Rasmussen said she had a friend come into the shop with her baby, and the friend was able to say, “I got ‘xiao bao bao’ (’little buns’) for my ‘xiao bao bao’ (’little treasure’).”
The bao at Xiao Bao Bao isn’t strictly traditional, but the Yees and Rasmussen aren’t going for traditional. They developed the recipes together, with the Yees bringing the knowledge of their grandmother’s bao to combine with Rasmussen’s extensive pastry background, creating steamed buns that are culturally relevant to them.
At the top of their menu is their most popular bao, the char siu (barbecued Sakura pork), which is inspired by the Yees’ grandmother’s never-written-down recipe. There’s also pork & cabbage bao, which is the type of bao that Rasmussen often ate in Taipei, as well as chicken curry. The menu includes two seasonal vegetable bao, which at the moment are shiitake mushroom & bok choy, and eggplant & tofu. For dessert, there’s sweet coconut custard bao.
A rotating seasonal flavor rounds out the menu; until October, that flavor is Chilean empanada, made with organic ground beef, onions, eggs and black olives, in reflection of Rasmussen’s Chilean heritage. Past rotating flavors have included a Baileys & coffee pastry cream for St. Patrick’s Day.
You can get carrot salad or edamame on the side, as well as chili oil if you like your bao spicy. For a gluten-free option, Rasmussen has brought back the sesame chicken wrap that used to be on Les Madeleines’ menu.
Bao is best eaten fresh. At takeout-only Xiao Bao Bao, you can grab your bao and eat it outside on the patio, or on the go. There’s also five-packs of frozen bao, which you can steam or reheat at home.
On Friday, for Mid-Autumn Festival — a harvest holiday widely celebrated across Asia — Xiao Bao Bao will be selling moon cakes as well as giving away a free special-edition sticker to the first 50 customers.
Xiao Bao Bao is located at 216 E. 500 South, Salt Lake City, across from The Leonardo. Until the second week in October, Xiao Bao Bao will be open only for lunch Tuesday through Thursday, then from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays. Starting the second week of October, Xiao Bao Bao’s hours will be Tuesday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. For more information, follow Xiao Bao Bao on Instagram at @xiaobaobaoslc.
A new chocolate venture
Two doors down from Xiao Bao Bao, in the space previously occupied by Dewey’s Bail Bonds, is going to be a sweet place dedicated to a sweet feline, opening in mid-October.
Rasmussen is calling her new chocolate shop Chez Nibs, after her cat that she had from 2011 to when he died in May. Black with a brown undercoat, Nibs resembled a cocoa nib, she said. “My whole world revolved around Nibs.”
Although the shop will feature sweet things, it will be “definitely smaller in scope than Les Madeleines, primarily chocolate,” Rasmussen said.
Chez Nibs will feature bonbons, chocolate bars, chocolatey snacks, chocolate-dipped items and other treats on a rotating basis, she said. But whatever is on the menu at any given time, it will likely have a chocolate component.
That includes Rasmussen’s famous kouign amann (pronounced “queen-a-mahn”), the buttery, flaky and decadent pastry from the Brittany region of France that was a mainstay at Les Madeleines and will be making a comeback at Chez Nibs.
In order for Rasmussen to avoid the burnout that led to the closure of Les Madeleines, Chez Nibs will be closed June through September. It will also be open only four days a week.
It’s all part of “reengineering my life,” Rasmussen said. “How do my businesses fit into my life? As opposed to, how do I fit into my businesses?”
Although there’s an office between the front doors of Xiao Bao Bao and Chez Nibs, the two spaces are connected by a door in the back and also share a kitchen.
Chez Nibs wouldn’t be complete without cat wallpaper, and a window in the back will allow visitors to watch chocolates being made.
“I like making chocolates,” Rasmussen said. “It’s fun.”
Chez Nibs will be located at 212 E. 500 South, Suite A. Once the chocolate shop opens, its hours will be Wednesday through Saturday from noon to 6 p.m.
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