The Curious Case of Optimist Hall’s Xiao Bao Charlotte
The infamous "warm cabbage salad"
Josh Walker isn’t an asshole, he just plays one on social media.The chef-owner of Xiao Bao Biscuit, the insanely popular Asian-ish eatery in Charleston whose ravenous fans include singer Michelle Branch, opened a smaller offshoot at Optimist Hall in March. Xiao Bao Charlotte, like its Biscuit brother, specializes in a type of Asian street food that exists in an alternate reality where physical borders and centuries of culture are effortlessly pushed aside to make room for sometimes tasty things that Josh and his partners think you should eat instead.
Or, as their menu puts it more neutrally: “Xiao Bao is comfort food from throughout Asia that you’ve probably never had before.”
This read like a dare to me, and I saw it as my responsibility not only as a food critic but as a food critic who spent 16 years of his life living across Asia, to check things out.
My first visit was confounding, if not entirely unpleasant. I wrote in an Instagram post that, “The secret to enjoying Xiao Bao … is to remain oblivious,” primarily because words on the menu don’t always mean what they’re meant to mean. In fact, their promise to have food from throughout Asia turned out to be literal, but not quite in the way you would think. No one particular Asian cuisine informs the food here and depending on the dish, you might see glimmers of Vietnam, China, and Japan all in one bite.
When that cultural commingling is successful, it’s transcendent. “Fried mochi balls” take their cue from a version of a Chinese jiānduī, but the filling is a sweet, spicy, and herbaceous caramelized pork mince that is straight out of Southeast Asia by way of Taiwan. I’ve had them on four separate occasions now, and they’ve been more delicious, their flavors more robust and pungent, each time.
When it’s less successful, it’s a disaster, and woe to the food critic who points that out.
Xiao Bao’s signature dish is okonomiyaki, which the majority of the food world will tell you is a savory cabbage pancake from Japan. It may have different toppings and slightly different seasonings or sauces depending upon one’s taste (in Japanese, “okonomi” literally means “as you like it”), but, to quote Hannibal Lecter, the greatest foodie of all time, “First, principles. Of each particular thing, what is it in itself?” – okonomiyaki is still a pancake.
In my post, I suggested that Xiao Bao Charlotte’s version was a failure because they didn’t understand this – there was a whole lot of cabbage, but no pancake – and that before they move on to adapt or reinvent it (like they did so perfectly with the fried mochi balls), they should understand first principles. Without the pancake, what they’re actually serving is nothing more than a warm cabbage salad.
And that’s when shit hit the fan.
Take it to the ‘Gram
Almost as soon as I posted my critique, the main Xiao Bao Biscuit Instagram account, which is run by Josh, pounced. “Let’s all please pay attention to my hurt feelings,” he wrote, “and tag anyone and everyone you know in Charlotte to get their opinion.”
His 24,000 followers rallied to his defense: “RUDE whoever insults this okonomiyaki shall be forever cursed,” “The Applebee’s of America has food critics that have comparable taste,” “They don’t know amazing food when it hits them straight in the mouth.”
When one of his followers deigned to agree with me, he responded, “I could talk for an hour or more about restaurant economics and prices and defense defense defense but I’ll pay attention to your hurt feelings and say sorry you felt ruined.”
This went on for weeks. “Warm cabbage salad” became a hashtag (#wcs) in his many posts and Instastories that trolled my critique, one of which bizarrely featured his toddler daughter. At one point, in a post meant to advertise Xiao Bao Biscuit’s partnership with Goldbelly, the nationwide premium food shipping service, Josh even asked (publicly, no less) for my mom’s home address — ostensibly to have Goldbelly send her some okonomiyaki.
The DMs I received were basically in agreement: “Did he just make the equivalent of a yo mama joke?”
After weeks of this outlandish behavior, Josh and I finally agreed to have a Skype call. That’s when I came to the realization stated above: Josh Walker isn’t an asshole, he just plays one on social media.
“To me, it was just funny,” he said. “I thought ‘warm cabbage salad’ was just a great description. Like, I didn’t think Trump was a great president, but I think he had a lot of great one-liners.”
“You’re comparing me to Trump?” I asked.
“I’m not gonna not give him his due when he says something amazing,” he replied in a stream-of-consciousness style that dominated our conversation (and never really answering the question).
Josh is a self-taught chef and self-anointed “creative” who has dabbled in the arts for much of his life. He moved to New York City in the early 2000s to pursue an artist’s dream that never quite came to fruition.
He ended up doing odd jobs for established painters, sculptors, and musicians, and at one point even built a website for an artist, which was perhaps an early sign of his future social media savvy. But he quickly grew disillusioned with the freelance life and eventually found himself inside a kitchen.
“I love the kitchen culture,” he said. “I was the type of kid that would have definitely run to Canada rather than fight in Vietnam, right? Like, I didn’t appreciate hierarchy or authority very much at all my entire life. And suddenly, in the kitchen, it was like a sneaky way to get me exposed to all of that in a way I was OK with.”
His creativity, tempered by this newfound appreciation for structure and discipline, and his observation that food brings people pleasure, are what led him to realize he could be both an artist and a chef. Outside of his work in a restaurant near Madison Park, he and his friend would host Monday supper clubs, which would often feature Asian dishes.
“That was the first time outside of, like, working with quote-unquote Asian ingredients, with my friend actually showing me all of this Asian food I had, like, never really experienced.” It piqued his interests as a chef.
Walker got married in 2009, and after working at the restaurant for a year, he quit his job and went traveling through Asia with his wife. It was on a stopover in Japan where he discovered okonomiyaki.
Appreciation or appropriation?
I lived in Japan for 10 years and never saw okonomiyaki the way Josh makes it at his Xiao Bao locations. Which is not to say, of course, that it cannot or should not exist in that way, but can you imagine dosai without the dosai, just a pile of masala potatoes? Or Suzette sans crêpes? It goes back to first principles.
I even spoke to several friends in Japan to ask if I was missing something, if pancake-less okonomiyaki, in fact, was actually a thing. One of their replies roughly translated to, “What the actual f*ck are you talking about, Tim?”
On the menu, Josh says his okonomiyaki is based on a version he had while working on a rice farm in Japan. I was cynical at first and just assumed this was a clever bit of marketing, but it turned out to be part of a work-experience-like program where foreign visitors to Japan could stay and work on a farm.
In Josh and his wife’s case, it was a small organic rice farm just outside of Osaka run by a single mother.
“I felt bad for this lady because she was a single mom, and she had two kids that were terrible disasters,” he said. “We were a good source of labor for her, but she didn’t really want us there and kept wanting us to work more than eight hours a day.”
Despite this, she made them okonomiyaki for dinner.
This was the first time Josh had ever had okonomiyaki, it turned out, and it was an experience he would aim to recreate for customers when he eventually returned to the States and settled in Charleston to open Xiao Bao Biscuit. In that regard, he has been successful.
One of his many adoring followers had commented something along the lines of, “I love this okonomiyaki, but I’ve never had it anywhere else.”
“What’s your reaction to a comment like that?” I asked. “Do you feel any responsibility as a chef cooking food from a culture you didn’t grow up in, especially for customers who have never had it before?”
He deflected. “For nine years, we just sold so many of these and continuously had nothing but good feedback, and for our Charlotte experience, everyone had a certain expectation of what okonomiyaki should be, and when that expectation wasn’t met, people were bummed. But it’s not like it’s a bad dish.”
“But doesn’t labeling a dish as okonomiyaki by default create expectations? Whether that’s fair or not, I think the word actually matters,” I said.
“Look, my first experience of it was a personal thing, and now I’ve inadvertently given some powerful gene boost to my weird, warm cabbage salad version of okonomiyaki, right? Like, it is really funny that this version, which was my first version, now inadvertently has probably been pushed on a lot of people as their first version. And it’s really taken off!”
I asked where he thinks the line between cultural appreciation and cultural appropriation lies, and how, if at all, he tries to stay on the right side of that line.
After a long, thoughtful pause, Josh replied, “I think when you really love something and have an affinity for something, you know, I do want to live in a world where that’s OK. My responsibility as a lover of food is to try to do interesting food, food that I think people will love.”
For his part, Josh remains on track. Over the course of our Skype call, his aggressive social media persona slowly melted away to reveal a sensitive, charming, and bumbling aesthete. People certainly love his food, but perhaps he’s gotten so caught up in these adulations that he never stopped to think why, or for the odd man out like me, why not.
I will confess that the new KFC (“Korean Fried Chicken”) sandwich on the Xiao Bao menu in Charlotte is phenomenal (“Goes well with WCS,” reads one of his Instagram posts); it’s massive and massively marinated, encased in a Hawaiian roll, and a sheer pleasure to eat.
When I had the okonomiyaki again, my opinion of it did change. The egg on top was sloppily presented, with the white separating from the yolk, and the okonomiyaki was so overcooked that the entire top layer was black. This was no longer warm cabbage salad, I said aloud to my dining partner that night, this was burnt cabbage salad.
This work by Queen City Nerve is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.
Wow this seems more like a petty feud between two people then a helpful, legit review. I’ve been to Xiao Bao and thought it was delicious. No thanks qcnerve.
ditto. we need less “news” focused on what people say in comments on social media.