Located on 1201 Anacapa Street, Secret Bao is a modern Asian cuisine restaurant in a quieter part of downtown Santa Barbara.
Just like most restaurants in this area, Secret Bao is unfortunately closed on Mondays, Tuesdays and 2:30 to 5 p.m. Service is casual: customers order at the counter and seat themselves, and because there is a smaller staff, the menu is also smaller. During slow lunch hours, customers can watch the staff prep for dinner: mass chopping shiitake mushrooms, refilling the bar and even hand-pleating dumplings.
Walking into the restaurant, the ambiance exceeds expectations. Wine bottles stand in neat lines, art dangles on crisp walls and a wide variety of music — like BTS and Imagine Dragons — plays in the background. They also offer dog treats and water bowls for any furry friends you choose to bring.
On the other hand, their full-service dining for dinner is exciting. Their patio seating has fairy lights, creating a romantic ambiance. Because it is full-service, reservations are recommended.
Secret Bao also has an impressive selection of both alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks. They have a few beers on tap, an assortment of teas, coffee from Handlebar Coffee Roasters and a variety of cocktails with Asian twists. My favorite non-alcoholic drink is their CBD ginger lemonade, from VYBES. It is a very mellow drink with a gentle spiciness.
I have ordered almost everything on their menu, but because they have a lot of dishes inspired by local and seasonal ingredients, the menu often changes. If I am ordering for one, I like to order a bao as an appetizer, an entree and a dessert. I usually go for their japchae, chili noodles or udon carbonara. I’m a noodles kind of person, and Secret Bao makes noodles like nobody else.
With a group, my favorite way to dine is by ordering a bunch of food and sharing. I love splitting a kalbi bossam, hamachi tartare, seasonal dumplings, gyoza and their specials with friends.
You cannot leave this place without ordering one (or all) of their iconic baos, which are made fresh everyday. Bao selections include pork belly, Korean fried chicken, shrimp and Spanish octopus. During Pride month last year, they dyed their baos rainbow. Always ask them what their secret bao is. Sometimes, it’s my favorite fried mushroom bao.
Their desserts are stunning and always changing. I have loved their matcha créme brûlée, Mexican chocolate pie and sticky date cake. I always get their bingsu, a Korean shaved ice, which can only be ordered when dining in and changes flavors often. I have also previously tried their matcha strawberry and orangesicle flavors. Right now, run for their mango sticky rice and churro & horchata flavors. If you are celebrating a birthday, they send a complimentary house-made chocolate.
Next time I go back, I hope to bring more friends to share their amazing demonstration of modern Asian food!