The Good Bao, located on Henry Street near the Greater Binghamton Transportation Center in Downtown Binghamton, is unassuming from the outside, with only a sleek sign to indicate it is there. But stepping into the space, there is an undeniable change in the air from the grayness outside; this is partly due to the yellow highlights against the dark walls, and partly because the menu is surprising for a restaurant Downtown.
Soal Sotivongsa, ‘12, and his business partner, Steven Lounsavang, opened The Good Bao two months ago — but the work started long before that. Both men grew up in the Binghamton area, before serious dining came to the Downtown area. Sotivongsa, who studied economics at BU, spent his teenage years driving to fast food chains. It was not until he moved to New York City after college to work for an investment banking firm — and tried his first bao — that he started to think about how he could bring better food options to his hometown.
“The only time I had any free time [while living in New York City] was just to go out to eat for lunch, and so I would go explore all these different eateries around New York City,” Sotivongsa said. “I’ve always wanted to come back to Binghamton at some point to do something. I wasn’t sure what it was, and then I said, ‘You know? Let me try this. Let me bring this [bao restaurant] over here.’”
Sotivongsa partnered up with Lounsavang, whom he knew from childhood. Together, they split the responsibilities of running the restaurant, with Sotivongsa managing the branding and front-of-house operations, and Lounsavang in charge of the food. Neither of them had formal training in food service or hospitality, but rather they combined their experiences to create the menu, with Sotivongsa bringing his experiences from his time living in New York City and Lounsavang’s training coming from being a self-proclaimed “mama’s boy” and working in the kitchen of Thai Time.
The bao in the name of the restaurant refers to the light, steamed bun that is the foundation for the offerings on the menu at The Good Bao. According to Sotivongsa, he and Lounsavang treat the bao like “an Asian hamburger,” but he said they also draw their inspiration from countries and cuisines from around the world.
“Our chicken is Laos-inspired, because we use a lot of lemongrass,” he said. “The beef is Korean bulgogi sauce, so we marinate that in a house bulgogi marinade … and the pork belly is authentically Taiwanese. And we do fried fish, we do tofu, but every protein on our menu was inspired from various places that we’ve eaten and various relationships that we’ve had. We have friends from across the world, so they always have these stories … from those experiences, we said, this is an opportunity for us to infuse those things into our menu.”
The men put together the menu for The Good Bao themselves, developing their core offerings over two to three months and maintaining a flexible approach to updating it with specials. They also said they keep an ear to the ground for customer feedback, which has helped them drop some of their less successful items, like Philly cheesesteak baos, and add some of their hits, like their fried chicken bao. The latter was developed during a slow day for the restaurant and posted to its Instagram; when people kept coming in asking for it, they added it to the regular menu.
And the food is delicious. There are rice bowls, Asian-inspired beverages and the natural star of the offerings: the baos. The pork belly bao, which Lounsavang said almost always sells out by 3 p.m. or 4 p.m. every day, lived up to its hype with a slight kick and The Good Bao’s signature spread. The Korean barbecue beef bao is also terrific, with a sesame flavor and a sauce that is sweet but not overpowering. Other baos on the menu come topped with an Asian slaw that is miles beyond basic coleslaw and paired well with whatever it is served on.
Sotivongsa said that one of their goals at The Good Bao was to be able to get high-quality, fresh ingredients at a low price point. That mission, coupled with the taste of the food itself, is what he suggests is part of the reason the restaurant’s menu is able to find fans across ages.
“Before this, I was doing a lot of research on the flavor palates of upcoming generations and more than ever, I think, this time, I think people are more open-minded to try different cuisines, especially, I think, older crowds,” he said. “You know, one of my friends’ mothers, she just tried pho for the first time like last week and that was an experience for her which she’s more open to now than she was maybe a couple of years ago. I think food has become such a conversational piece.”
The ultimate goal of the men at the helm of The Good Bao is to begin franchising the restaurant, including establishing an outpost on the BU campus. For now, Sotivongsa said, they’re focusing on getting students — and other community members — to come to them. He said they hope to host student events and club meetings at their space on Henry Street, and the restaurant boasts a bulletin board already filling up with community postings. They are also starting a scholarship in tandem with the Educational Opportunity Program at Binghamton University, which Sotivongsa was a part of during his time at BU, called “The Good Scholarship.”
Sotivongsa and Lounsavang chose the name “The Good Bao” for the message it sends about the quality of the food, but also because they hope the name is a memorable one for people who visit the restaurant.
“We’re just two good guys trying to make good food for good people,” Sotivongsa said. “[We want people to] remember where they had their first bao — or their first Asian hamburger.”
The Good Bao is located at 58 Henry Street in Downtown Binghamton. The restaurant’s phone number is 607-237-0445. It is open from noon to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and noon to 6 p.m. on Sunday.