Consider the bao. Chinese in origin, it’s most easily described as a steamed bun filled with something savory. Yet, like the American concept of a sandwich, the bao exploded into a flexible format of untold bounds — served at any meal, filled with you-name-it, completely closed or wide open, with endless regional variants from across Asia and far beyond.
“We like the idea that it’s generic because we can do whatever with it,” explains Peter Lee, co-proprietor/chef of Secret Bao, which he just opened with his fiancée, Felicia Medina, on the corner of Anapamu and Anacapa streets after nearly a year of pandemic-prompted pop-ups. “Our bao itself is kind of Chinese-style, but the inside is everything.”
“Everything” on the intentionally modest menu currently runs from the maitake bao (a crunchy tempura mushroom amped by ginger, scallion, and sunomono cucumber) and the fried shrimp with sweet chili and sesame slaw to the six-hour roasted pork belly with pickled pineapple and the KFC, a Korean-style fried chicken with dragon sauce that would draw lines if that were all Secret Bao ever served.
But they serve more than bao, with flavors stretching from Tokyo to Rome. “Snacks” include prawn chips, gyoza, baby bok choy, and kalbi meatballs; “Rice” rocks bibimbap, bacon kimchi, miso black cod, and katsu options; and “Noods” delivers japchae, udon carbonara, and curry yakisoba noodles. There’s also an extensive kids’ menu that may inspire age-fibbing: PB&J bao, grilled cheese bao, sticky noodles, and the ever-satisfying chicken and rice.
The Korean influences are rooted in the upbringing of Lee, who was born in Seoul but grew up from one year old in Cupertino, where his mom only made traditional food and the family rarely ate at restaurants. The polished techniques and gastronomic flare, meanwhile, come from Lee and Medina’s professional career in Michelin-starred kitchens under such names as Joël Robuchon and José Andrés.
“Neither one of us have worked in an Asian restaurant, so this is very new to us,” said Lee, who was the opening executive chef for Loquita in Santa Barbara in 2016, where Medina also worked as executive sous chef. “The style of how you run the kitchen is very different.” While fancy New American and haute Mediterranean restaurants prep a lot of entrées, sauces, and so forth in advance, Asian cooking is much more “à la minute,” combining the raw ingredients only when something is ordered. Said Lee, “We’ve been throwing away everything we’ve learned.”
Both have learned a lot, both about international cuisine and cutthroat kitchen culture — the latter occasionally presenting painful lessons for a Korean male and Cuban/Chinese-Mexican/Indigenous female working as minorities in fine dining over the past 15 years.
Originally from the San Gabriel Valley, Medina grew up loving the food of her grandmother while her phlebotomist mom and electrician dad worked long days. Grandma was from Cuba, married to Medina’s Chinese grandfather, who fled his homeland and opened a restaurant and laundry in Havana. (“He got on the wrong boat!” quipped Lee of swapping one Communist regime for another.) “I appreciate that kind of food,” said Medina, recalling childhood Cuban meals of lechon and arroz con pollo, “that homey, super-rustic, stick-to-your-bones-type food.”
She excelled in a home economics class in high school and was encouraged to take an advanced class in which students prepared meals for teachers every day. That led her to Le Cordon Bleu cooking school in Pasadena, and then to Sandals in Jamaica for her mandatory externship, where she met Lee.
By that point, Lee had already lived quite a life. He’d ditched his economics major at UC Davis — last straw: shadowing a grad whose favorite part of his cubicle-stuck day was deciding where to eat lunch — and then enrolled at Le Cordon Bleu in 2006 after taking a quick tour. “Man, that salesman was really good!” said Lee, who was not super into food, but thought it would make an interesting career. “I enrolled literally a week after.”
Then his father, who’d worked for Samsung in the Silicon Valley for decades before starting his own hardware company in China, decided to buy over a Wienerschnitzel in Lancaster. Two months into the corporate training, his dad suffered from a brain aneurysm and went temporarily blind. Lee, being the 21-year-old son with less on his plate than his brother, offered to take over.
“I found out very quickly that everyone there was stealing from the previous owner,” said Lee. “We lost everybody.” He stayed three years, and then trained his recovered father. “I hated fast food — I just did it for my family,” said Lee, who had things thrown at him by customers “because I was the Asian guy in Lancaster.”
He returned for a final class at Le Cordon Bleu and then headed in 2009 to Sandals in Jamaica, where the people pulled their eyes back into squints every day to make fun of him for being Chinese. “I’m Korean!” he’d have to correct them, even occasionally showing them a map. It was a horrible few months, and he declined taking a full-time job. “I think it prepared me for what was coming in kitchens,” he explained. “They could have at me all they wanted.”
They returned to California together, only able to find jobs at chain restaurants before moving to the Avalon Grill on Catalina Island, where they excelled for more than two years. Then the couple worked jobs in Sonoma, Los Angeles, and Las Vegas, which is where they were plotting a move to Chicago or New York City when the call came from the Acme Hospitality team to help open Loquita in 2016.
They only expected to stay in Santa Barbara for a couple of years, but got sucked in, and started to look at every available restaurant space about three years ago. Preparing to pull the trigger, they gave the Loquita team a year of notice before leaving — and actually stayed longer than that — while preparing to take over the former Downey’s space, briefly occupied by Roost. The fine dining concept was to be called Prolific and serve the creatively boundless New American cuisine they knew so well. After all, as Lee explained of their combined ethnicities, “We are the New Americans.”
Cue COVID-19, and Prolific was kaput before it started. “We had this concept in our back pocket,” said Lee of what became Secret Bao, inspired by the Asian-inspired family meals they prepared over the years for the staff at Loquita. After a month of pandemic pondering, Lee and Medina started making five-course takeout meals in their 600-square-foot Coast Village Road apartment, running down the stairs for curbside pickups.
“It was a secret because it was in our apartment!” said Lee of the Secret Bao name, a weekly meal offering that was quickly selling out within hours. “We had no more of our own food in the fridge,” said Medina, laughing as she remembered the 45 pounds of Korean hibachi that Lee grilled on their patio hibachi one week. “They thought our apartment was on fire,” she said. “That’s when we said we had to find somewhere else to do this.”
Secret Bao’s trial run at Handlebar Coffee Roasters on De La Vina Street led to perhaps the café’s busiest day ever. The owners let them set up shop in their kitchen, and Secret Bao thrived from Friday to Sunday for seven months, powered primarily by social media.
Their evolution to brick-and-mortar is happening on the normally bustling corner across from the library, county building, and courthouse in the longtime home of Coffee Cat, which briefly became Café Ana. The Ana owners spruced up the place, but the Secret Bao menu required pricy investments in equipment, namely the Rational iCombi Pro oven — which can slow-roast pork belly, quick-steam bao, and do everything else in between — and a dough divider-rounder, which cuts 36 bao per minute, formerly a multi-hour task. “More than anything, this will allow us to have a very consistent product,” said Lee.
The fast-casual, affordably minded Secret Bao formula is designed for these current pandemic-emerging times, but nothing is set in stone. “As things get better, we will evolve as needed,” said Lee, who envisions a future morning menu of upscale Asian pastries and reenvisioned Mexican conchas, among other ideas. “We want to start small so we can control the concept and then expand.”
Given their experiences, Lee and Medina are striving for a nontoxic kitchen environment with a tip system that benefits everyone. But expect some friendly competition among cooks to get their own items served. “If their thing is on the menu, they’ll care more about it,” said Lee.
For a couple that’s had to manage family tragedies and racism/sexism from both customers and fellow cooks, opening a restaurant during a pandemic is more blessing than burden. “Having to do this is like nothing,” said Lee. “We have a lot of money on the line, but it’s not life or death. Life is just too short to be angry.”
1201 Anacapa St.; (805) 259-3226; secretbaosb.com