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Susan Axelrod

Susan Axelrod's food writing career began in the kitchen; she owned a restaurant and catering business for 15 years before turning to journalism. By day, she is the social media editor for Portland Press Herald. To relax, she bakes, gardens and hikes with her husband and their two dogs, preferably followed by a cocktail or a Maine beer. Susan can be contacted at 791-6310 or saxelrod@mainetoday.com On Twitter: @susansaxelrod

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Posted: October 20, 2014

Bao Bao Dumpling House in Portland’s West End opens TONIGHT

After a jam-packed “soft opening” weekend, chef Cara Stadler’s casual Asian restaurant is already on the hot list.

Written by: Susan Axelrod
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Bao Bao Dumpling House, 133 Spring St., Portland. All photos by Susan Axelrod

Yes, it’s true. The long-awaited Portland restaurant from chef Cara Stadler will finally open to an eager dining public on Tuesday, Oct. 21 at 5 p.m.

Many of those who flock to new restaurants in Portland like tourists descend on Red’s Eats in Wiscasset have already been to Bao Bao; the 36-seat restaurant at 133 Spring St. was packed for its “soft opening” nights Thursday – Saturday. Even in Thursday’s pouring rain, the wait was more than an hour for much of the evening.

“We were super shocked,” said Stadler about the size of Thursday’s crowd, all of whom received a email invitation in which they were asked to keep the preview from the press. She said the shakedown cruise weekend did exactly what she expected. “You think that something makes sense in your head, and then you see how it works and you have to shift.”

In the works for nearly a year, Bao Bao, which means “wrapped treasure” in Chinese, is the second restaurant for Stadler, who was named a Food & Wine Best New Chef 2014. She and her mother, Cecile, also run the celebrated Tao Yuan in Brunswick.

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The focal point of Bao Bao’s dining room is this copper sculpture, which glows at night.

Seated under the back-lit copper dragon sculpture or at the low-slung bar, this weekend’s lucky first patrons tucked into dumplings with a variety of fillings, ranging from the simple pork and cabbage to beef and yellow curry, and lamb, black bean chili and peanut. Prices for an order of 6 dumplings — available boiled or pan fried — range from $6.08 to $8.08. In fact, prices for everything on the menu end in .08. According to travelchinaguide.com “Because Eight (Ba in Chinese) has the similar pronunciation with 发 (Fa, meaning wealth or fortune), this number is very welcome among Chinese people.”

Asked if anything on her menu came as a surprise to her early guests, “the (Bejing black vinegar) peanuts are a little different,” Stadler said. “At restaurants in Bejing, we’d have the peanuts and beer while we decided what to eat.”

While there are Japanese and other influences, “95 percent of the menu is Chinese,” Stadler said. She expects the dumpling list to stay pretty consistent, but will offer specials. And late night customers will be in for a special treat: deep fried pork buns in aioli with scallions and togarashi (Japanese spice powder) will be on the menu only from 11 p.m. – 1 a.m.

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The opening menu.

The cocktails at Bao Bao lean tiki style, with Vic’s Mai Tai, Spring Street Sling and a Scorpion Bowl for two on the list. The beer line-up features local and Asian beers, including some you may have heard of — Kirin and Sapporo — and some you probably haven’t — Hitachino Red Rice and Lion Stout from Sri Lanka.

Stadler credits general manager Sami Smart with the drink menu. “We just wanted to have fun with it,” she said. It’s supposed to be a very casual atmosphere.”

As of Wednesday, Bao Bao will be open every day except Monday from 11:30 a.m. – 1 a.m., serving the same menu all day with a lunch special offered 11:30 a.m. – 2 p.m. The restaurant  takes reservations only for parties of 8 or more and doesn’t yet have a website. For reservations, call 772-8400.

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Artwork in the dining room.

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Cecile Stadler designed the ceiling lighting fixtures.

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