All photos Laura Hayes
All photos Laura Hayes

The drinks at Bar Bao, opening May 11 in Clarendon, go down real smooth. Many of them contain shōchū, which can sneak up on you. One called “Choji’s Breakfast,” comes in a frozen melon and is composed of the clear Japanese spirit plus gin, melon, and an apple-pepper syrup. Another, the “Hidden Leaf Swizzle,” is served in a ninja mug and marries shōchū with rum, yuzu, lychee, and chrysanthemum syrup. Beverage director Joe McDevitt calls it an Asian mojito.

“We want to introduce everyone in Clarendon to shōchū,” McDevitt says. “I put it on the happy hour menu to show them that shōchū and soda is just as good as a vodka and soda.” He’ll take a similar approach with sake, even serving it on draft.

The bar replaces Mad Rose Tavern and is from Social Restaurant Group, which is now responsible for a triplet of restaurants in the Arlington neighborhood. Bar Bao is next to Spanish restaurant Pamplona and a beer garden called The Lot is on its way. Owner Mike Bramson says the restaurant group performed market research and found that, “Clarendon was missing fun, trendy Asian cuisine.” Off they went with a concept revolving around bao buns.

The bao come in a mix of traditional and non-traditional flavors ($6-$8 for two) including bulgogi cheesesteak, tamarind shrimp, and fried avocado. And they’re further stretching the potential of the soft, squishy buns by serving them fried for dessert and as the vehicle for eight different versions of “bao Benedicts,” at brunch.

But the offerings are far more extensive than bao buns. Laotian chef Donn Soul has created a menu stacked with Asian drunk food to pair with the bar’s playful cocktails. Think wonton nachos, bulgogi fries smothered in short rib and kimchi, five spice chicken wings, dumplings, fried rice, and fried chicken. (Full menu below.)

Soul also has two entrees that are close to his heart. The crispy, herb-broiled tilapia is his mother’s recipe and includes dill, which is popular in Lao cuisine. Then there’s the “hangover soup,” which Soul calls a Lao take on Vietnamese pho. “What differentiates it is all the condiments,” he explains, referring to fried shallots and extra hot chili oil. “When I go to Vietnamese restaurants, I sneak them in.”

The first thing you will notice when you enter the expansive, 200-seat bar separated into two rooms is the street-style art by Mike Pacheco and Rodrigo Pradel. The mural that snakes its way through the whole building starts with the words “rise up” at the main entrance because it tells the story of Tang Sai’er—a female rebel who led a peasant uprising during the Ming Dynasty. According to the artists, Sai’er was motivated by the desire to ease the suffering of the people under the rule of early Ming Emperor Cheng Zu

Sprinkled throughout Sai’er’s stories are images of tigers. Bramson says gua bao translates to “tiger bites pig” in Taiwanese, and bao buns are one of the most popular street snacks in Taiwan. You’ll also see the bar’s motto incorporated into the mural—feed your soul.

In addition to the two indoor dining areas, Bar Bao also has a 70-seat patio featuring an indoor/outdoor bar. Like some of the restaurant group’s other concepts, such as Provision No. 14 in the District, there will be a nightlife vibe fueled by DJs after the kitchen closes. 

Bao Bar’s grand opening is set for May 11. Dinner will be offered Sunday-Thursday from 5-10 p.m. and Friday-Saturday from 5-10:30 p.m. The bar area will be open later (until midnight Mon-Thurs and until 2 a.m. Fri-Sat). 

The following Monday, Bar Bao will launch weekday lunch (11 a.m. to 3 p.m.), and then weekend brunch will kick off May 20 (11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday). 

Happy hour featuring reduced priced bao and drinks will be offered daily from 3-7 p.m.

Bar Bao, 3100 Clarendon Blvd., Arlington;