Written and photographed by Justin Ramsay
This has been the hottest summer I can remember in my five years of living in Korea. The only real respite we’ve had is in the evenings once the sweltering ball of fire in the sky is no longer present. As soon as the temperature becomes bearable, I’m out the door and taking a walk around the neighborhood to stave off cabin fever and get a bit of exercise. A number of weeks back, on one of these evening walks, I noticed a large sign on one of the empty storefronts advertising a new restaurant on its way to this neighborhood full of trendy eateries. The sign briefly detailed that this restaurant, called Belly Bao, would be a Hong Kong-Asian fusion style restaurant, with a chef and owner who has spent a good part of the last ten years working at top Michelin-style restaurants abroad, mostly in Melbourne, Australia (even appearing on MasterChef Australia). This big sign promised much, and I was eager to try what they had on offer, so I made a habit of checking whether or not it had opened yet whenever I was nearby. After weeks of finding it closed, my wife and I were lucky enough to walk by on its first night open and, without a second thought, changed our dinner plans and went straight in.
The interior of the restaurant had a clean layout with a few flags and posters around and colorful, pink wooden tables with simple chairs. Once we were seated, we found that the placemats already set on the table doubled as menus. This was a welcome change from sharing one menu amongst a table of people, which is often standard in Korea. The kitchen was purposely visible from the dining area with a large, long window allowing the chef/owner to keep an eye on everything. This is also great as the customers can see where and how their food is being prepared. The menu was small and simple, but varied with only around 10 items, which I like, as often lengthy menus can lead to subpar food and ingredients. Within a few moments of looking at my menu, the chef/owner (Terry) came from behind the line and greeted me with a hearty “G’day mate! Where you from?” Once he had introduced himself, Terry told me that Gwangju was his hometown, but he had been living and working in Australia for a long time and wanted to bring home what he had learnt and open a restaurant in Gwangju. After this friendly welcome, he explained the menu and made a few recommendations before going back into the kitchen. This was a very nice, personal touch in this land of bballi, bballi (빨리 빨리, quick quick).
We ordered the cured salmon salad, Belly Bao dim sum (Chinese cuisine prepared as small, bite-sized portions), pork belly Bao Bao, Hong Kong chicken wings, and Singapore crispy egg noodles, along with Tsingtao beer and a cocktail called Blue Singapore. We received our drinks quickly and only had a short wait before the first dish was served. The salmon salad looked beautiful and vibrant, with a number of different greens served on a bed of almost purple-colored cured salmon with capers, nuts, and a tasty sauce. After taking a quick picture, we dug in and were happy that the salad tasted even better than it looked. The cured salmon had a unique taste and a consistency which, though easy to pick up, melted in your mouth almost as soon as you started chewing.
After this exquisite first course came the Belly Bao dim sum, which was served in the traditional jing lung (bamboo steamer). The dim sum were bite-sized pockets of pork and vegetables steamed in dumpling cases. They were tasty without being overly filled, and made a good appetizer for a table of people sharing.
Next came the Hong Kong chicken wings which, again, looked good on the plate and came served with a nice salad topped with nuts. The chicken was full of flavor and less oily than most fried chicken; the meat just fell from the bones with ease – delicious!
The pork belly Bao Bao and egg noodles arrived at around the same time as the chicken. We were already becoming quite full, but knew that if these next two dishes were as tasty as what came before, we would have little trouble polishing them off. Bao is Chinese for “bread,” and generally, this comes in the form of a steamed bun. The bao resembled a hamburger with juicy pork belly, romaine lettuce, and sauce sandwiched between a soft, bouncy steamed bun and served with fries and tangy sauce. The bao was delicious and the various textures of its contents made it a joy to eat. The sauce that was served with the fries and bao was excellent. The Singapore Crispy Egg Noodles were very crispy and the broth that it was served in was flavorful and had a clean, natural taste. The peppers, shrimp, calamari, and mussels that were in the dish were also perfectly cooked and not rubbery at all.
Once we were done with our meals, the chef came out to ask how it was and offer us a dessert. There are two dessert options: Mango ice cream bao and salted caramel ice cream bao. We were very full and debated whether we should get a dessert or not. Thankfully, we did. Terry brought our salted caramel ice cream bao to our table and explained that the ice cream, fried bao, and caramel sauce were all hand-made. He was eager to hear our opinions. I had to be honest and say, “This is not only the best dessert I’ve eaten in Gwangju but the best dessert I’ve had anywhere.” The fried bao was crispy and sweet; the ice cream was creamy, milky, and incredibly smooth; and the salted caramel sauce was divine. This unique dessert was the perfect cherry on top of an already excellent meal.
If you’re in the mood for something different and want to eat some great food without breaking the bank, then you should definitely stop by Belly Bao, say hi, and get some tasty goodness in your belly.
Belly Bao 벨리바오
Address: 광주 동구 동계천로 135-3
101, Donggecheonro 135-3, Donggu, Gwangju
Opening Hours: Daily 11:00 a.m. – late
Price Range: 8,000 – 20, 000 won per person