New restaurant Bao Chow to offer a taste of classic Chinese cuisine

Yanyi Zhu, Connor McGuire, and Todd Jones behind the counter at their new restaurant Bao Chow – photo by Frankie Schneckloth

Bao Chow will open for business in Iowa City’s Old Capitol Town Center on Monday. The new restaurant, owned by partners Yanyi Zhu, Connor McGuire and Todd Jones, will have a very specific focus.

Bao Chow’s menu just features Chinese bao. Bao is a classic Chinese dish made of steamed, leavened dough and filled with ingredients ranging from sausage and egg, to bok choy and mushrooms. According to legend, bao was invented by the third-century Chinese military strategist Zhuge Liang, who believed the stuffed buns would help protect soldiers from disease.

Zhu — a recent University of Iowa graduate, who is originally from China — was so interested in this classic dish’s long history and many variations, he traveled back to China to study authentic bao. Zhu studied and trained in both culinary institutes and busy restaurants. He sought out acknowledged bao masters, because the traditional process of making bao is complicated and requires precision and skill to perfect.

“When you learn the traditional process, how to fold it is the most complicated part. We changed that part and use a mold instead, but the flavor didn’t change. We still steam them in the traditional way,” Zhu explained.

Stacks of bamboo steamers await delicious bao – photo by Frankie Schneckloth

After Zhu’s return to Iowa, he and McGuire began collaborating on ideas for the restaurant. The two quickly learned how complicated it is to open a restaurant. The two turned to their mutual friend Todd Jones for help and guidance. Jones has plenty of experience in the restaurant industry, having worked for more than 10 years with Heart of America, a Moline, Illinois-based company that owns restaurants like The Machine Shed, Johnny’s Italian Steakhouse, and Thunder Bay Grill.

Together, the trio conducted market research and honed plans for their bao restaurant. With strong support for the idea of bao restaurant from downtown residents and the Asian community, the group looked for a location to open up shop.

“For us, this place was just ideal,” says Jones of their new home in the Old Capitol Town Center. “So many of our potential customers live in Coralville or the surrounding area, and drive to school or work everyday and park in the ramp. This location allows us to capture that business as customers are headed in and out of the mall every day.”

The menu has just seven items, but each bao is only $3, a price intended to encourage customers to order a variety and sample the entire menu. Plans to expand the menu with authentic side dishes are in the works, but for now Zhu, McGuire and Jones hope their bao-centric restaurant will stand out as a unique choice in Iowa City’s vibrant culinary scene.

Bao Chow will be open Monday through Friday from 7:30 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. and Saturdays from 9:00 a.m. to 2 p.m.