Welcome to One Year In, a feature in which Eater interviews the chefs and owners of restaurants celebrating their one year anniversary.
[Walker-Li, Walker, Ryan/Photo: Audra Rhodes]
Asian comfort food home Xiao Bao Biscuit started as a bit of an experiment, with a few highly coveted pop-up dinners around Charleston. Once they secured a fixed address at 224 Rutledge Ave., the team that brought okonomiyaki to the Lowcountry experienced a successful first year. Duolan Walker-Li, Josh Walker and Joey Ryan set out to bring the knowledge of their travels and backgrounds to an eclectic menu that has delighted critics and suburbanites alike. XBB's official anniversary will be on November 16, so Eater wanted to ask the gang about the last 12 months.
Can you explain, for those who may not know, how XBB come about?
Josh: This whole thing started when Duolan and I met. We got married in New York. She was working in finance, and I was working in fine dining. We got married at the Brooklyn Courthouse and both went back to work the same day. We were thinking of what we wanted to do long-term and try to figure out some sense of a wedding here in Charleston.
My grandmother has some land that's been in the family in Ridgeville, and I've been coming on vacation here, on and off, before I got involved in food, so I knew it was a good food town. Restaurants like FIG and McCrady's come up, and there were a lot more things happening here. We had a big party and invited friends from New York and then traveled for seven and a half months. We did that and came back and didn't know what was going to happen. We had some friends in Shanghai and thought we might move overseas, but we started doing pop-ups here and sort of came to the idea of Xiao Bao. We thought it was really unique, and we thought our Asian comfort food was really unique to Charleston.
Joey: As opposed to fusion. Don't use the word fusion
Josh: We started doing pop-ups, and we didn't know Charleston that well. We thought, there's similarities between this and Southern cuisine, but do we need to showcase that to explain the relationships? The great thing was, when we started doing the pop-ups, we got a great response. We didn't tone down spice levels. We didn't dumb anything down. We kept going from there, and we did enough of those, and it was going well. We wanted to stay in Charleston to open a restaurant, and that's how Joey and I met.
When we met Joey, not only was he complementary on the wine and beverage side, but he was from Charleston and had the big idea of traveling and other cultures of food, like Latin America, for which there were a lot of similarities. We were both the same age, and when we got together and talked, things really jelled, and it was great to have similar interests, and he helped us navigate Charleston. And then we found this old space, this gas station—the walls look as same as the do now, as well as the ceiling. We thought this was great for what we wanted to do now. We wanted great food without the fuss and have a location with enough of that funky character that allowed for what we did.
Is this the first building you looked at?
Joey: We seriously looked at four or five that we got outbid on, on this street, but we hit it off with a building owner that was friends with the owner of this building and he recommended we walk down the street and take a look at it. Josh talked about the things they saw in Asia, and it was similar to my travels in Latin America. We both saw abandoned buildings that were left for dead, but people still use them to live in and use them as central points in their communities, so we saw the potential in that. We walked to the corner of our parking lot with our real estate guy and the owners and they were trying to talk us out of it. They thought it wasn't a good corner and the building was too rough around the edges. At that point, nobody but the three of us got what we wanted to do. Josh said, "Do you like it?," and I said, "I love it." We walked back in here with broken tiles, old tires, discarded soda bottles, a baseball bat and an old air compressor in the corner, and we said, "This is the one." Everyone in the room thought we were crazy. And that was the same response we got from everyone those first four or five months.
Can you remember the first day?
Joey: Yeah, the actual first day, one of our favorite publications Eater and a couple of other sites announced that we would be open that Friday and to expect a big party. Josh and the guys were here feverishly setting up and I was at the City Office—we opened at 5:30 p.m., and I was in the City's Office at 4:45 p.m., still without a business license. We knew, no matter what, there were going to be 100 people here. I texted a friend at The Belmont to set the bar up, because Josh and the guys were in the kitchen and couldn't help. I got back here at 5:15 p.m., and by 6:30 p.m. we had 115 people here. The bar was five deep and people were passing plates around—that was our first day. Josh had been training the staff at his house, going over the menu, telling people about the okonomiyaki that Josh and Di [nickname for Duolan] had on a farm while working in Japan. Back at that point, it was just another strange word to train our staff to memorize, and now it's such a central part to the restaurant. That wasn't the intention. Josh didn't think we'd open and sell 900 okonomiyaki a month.
Josh: No, I didn't.
Has the restaurant changed since the first day?
Josh: We've changed a lot. As the restaurant got a little older and as we got more staff, and we progressed, it was a chance for us to bring out the shared plates aspect to the menu. I think for us, that was a huge change—it was four or five apps and four or five entrees, and then we started re-envisioning how we wanted the experience to be. Most meals in Asian are family style, which means, everyone has their bowls of rice, a bunch of stuff gets thrown at the table and everyone gets to eat a bunch of little dishes. For us, that meant you get to experience more about what we do. The menu is constantly changing and people haven't tried much of it before, so that was a great way to reimagine what the dinner experience should be like.
[Ed. Note: At this point in the interview, Duolan walks in with her parents, visiting from California, and everyone greets and hugs. They all sit down with the staff and pitch in to help make dumplings, without skipping a beat. It's beyond heartwarming to see the entire family working together as everyone chats.]
Joey: With the old format, if you came in over the seasons, and Josh was changing it up, you got to realize what it was like to eat Thai food versus Vietnamese food versus Northern Chinese cuisine and even dipping into Laotian. Everyone back in the kitchen is always researching the cultures we draw from. With the new format and the smaller dishes, now you can get six or seven things and see the difference in the cultures in one night. Thailand versus Vietnam and Japanese versus Northern Chinese cuisine. That speaks to the mind of our respected travels, where you can walk up to a street stand and get a delicious dish. There are no reservations at that sort of place. We like to have that vibe. People come in and they feel like they've discovered something. We like being off the beaten path.
Any other surprises besides the okonomiyaki?
Josh: Obviously, that's one of the most popular items and dumplings, as well. I think we love how adventurous people have been, in terms of spice level, and all that other stuff. We can cook the way we want to cook and it's not like people deal with it, it's stuff people genuinely enjoy. We can kind of do what we want, and people respond well to it. That's all we can ask for.
Joey: One thing that surprises me, from the very beginning, Josh would make food at his house, and I'd bring over beverages and it was a bit spicy, but I loved it from the beginning. As long we let the staff know the really spicy stuff and explain how the Sichuan peppers are different than the Thai chilies and chile de árbol and habaneros and jalapenos. There will be some people that are scared off, but there are some people that are addicted to the spiciest items on the menu, and that's been a surprise. We hoped it would be that way. People will come in and brag that they ate the mapo doufu every day that week. Even if they're sweating and I give them a glass of Taiwanese coconut milk, just in case.
Can you remember the first big accolade?
Josh: I think the first big one was, New York Magazine wrote a travel piece about Charleston.
Joey: That was even before we opened—that was the pop-up.
Josh: Coming from New York, I just felt getting recognized by New York publications was cool and getting that validation felt good. The New York Times article the Lee brothers wrote and Bon Appétit. I think the cool thing is, you don't have to be in New York anymore to get that recognition. If you looked at the top 50 list from Bon Appétit, this year, it was great, because it wasn't as tied to New York, L.A. and San Francisco. Places like Memphis, Nashville and Charleston were popping up and getting recognition. It's an export of people who had worked for a great chef or in big cities and chose to go to other small towns.
Joey: I think the other cool thing is, looking at this space, it's a converted gas station with not a drop of paint on the outside or a sign anywhere. We play hip hop and Daft Punk and do whatever within the context of the concept. We don't dumb down or try to make it broadly appealing, and it's not just the journalists or foodie people that love this place, it is a broader demographic that loves this place. We have negligible college kids, but people from the suburbs drive in two or three times for lunch and they bring their friends. They are big ambassadors of our brand. At lunch, when I'm checking in on tables, I've got a guy probably in his 70s sitting at the bar and telling some kids, our age from Atlanta, in the industry, about us and being a big advocate for us. That's crazy. Never in a million years would I expect that. About how great we are. I never expected that.
What's next for y'all?
Joey: We're going on vacation!
Josh: Just for year two, we obviously haven't had any vacations in year one, so it's a chance to go back and get reinspired and have some experiences we didn't have the first time and also a chance to take along some of our family. Joey has never been, and our sous-chef Patrick [O'Cain] has never been. It's a good way to go into year two and it's a way to get excited. For us, the holidays are a perfect time of year to do it
Joey: We were brand new last holiday season and January is historically slow in this town. The original idea was to go to Tokyo first, but we thought, heck, if we're going to go all the way over there to check out the bar scene in Tokyo, we might as well see some other spots. Josh and Di brainstormed some of their favorite places that were reachable and not too expensive to spread that trip out a little. We liked the idea of fleshing out more of the food and beverage side, especially for me. The cocktail scene in the states is really amazing, especially after spending time at places like The Belmont and Raval, so many people in my side of the industry compare what we do to the Japanese bar culture and it's just a different level of elegance and a different style of priorities and a different guest experience I've admired for a long time, and you don't see anyone really focused on that here. It's good to be professionally informed on that first hand and see what it's like to sit at a bar in Tokyo versus a bar in New York or San Fran or Chicago or Charleston. To see what they're talking about. The cocktail is essentially an American creation. And they're making classic American cocktails but with even better ingredients and better care, so to see that in action was important to us. We also like the rustic side to places so we'll go for Tokyo to Taipei to Shanghai.
Josh: [laughs] Maybe we won't come back.
Duolan: It's cool because I like the idea of going back to Asia every year to source new recipes, and to be inspired. I didn't think it was feasible to do that until year three or four, but it's cool because we're making it happen and hopefully it will be a regular yearly trip.
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· All Xiao Bao Biscuit Coverage [-ECHS-]
· Southern Exposure [NYT]