Goubuli restaurant in Tianjin: a bao history lesson

Entrance of Goubuli Restaurant

Marathon eating is my motto, but last summer’s media fellowship to China took things to another level (or should we say another stomach?) Travelling with seven journalists and the Canadian Chinese Business Council, I visited five cities in eight days, eating in countless restaurants — each table piled higher than the last with every imaginable dish. I was so excited to try anything and everything! Consulting my iPhone notes post trip, I realized during the week I consumed: fish stomach soup (delicious), chicken feet (weird texture but good flavour), frog legs (amazing), duck tongue (nope) and the infamous century egg (somehow I don’t remember eating, but there’s a picture).

Goubuli restaurant in Tianjin was the third stop on this whirlwind tour. Thirty minutes by high-speed train from Beijing, this coastal city is home to a gorgeous river promenade, historic buildings (it used to be a major trading port) and 15 million people. On our first night in Tianjin, we were scheduled to eat at Goubuli restaurant and I had no idea the adventure I was in for. Stepping out of the minibus, I tried to get an Instagram shot of Goubuli’s blinding exterior which looked like it belonged on the Vegas strip. But it was too big. Too shiny. Too glorious.

Goubuli is a wonderland for baozi lovers: a five-story mega restaurant packed with loud tables, waiters balancing stacks of bamboo baozi baskets, and pushcarts set up in the middle of the restaurant folding boa — all must be folded at least 18 times each.

As one of the most famous restaurant chains in China, Goubuli restaurant in Tianjin dates back to 1858, but now has many locations (the chain has become a global phenomenon, opening its first location in Toronto in 2016 and a second, fancier location on Spadina Avenue last year.) Before walking through the revolving door, the onslaught on the senses started. Neon lights and flashing signs welcomed us from the street and at the entrance television screens showcased famous patrons while candy makers spinning hot sugar wowed everyone at the threshold.

VIP stands for Very Insatiable People

For the first few days of the trip, I thought we were getting the VIP treatment — chartered limos, fancy hotel rooms and private dining for every meal. I soon discovered the latter is actually a typical way of eating in China. Every restaurant we visited had at least a few private dining rooms for families to enjoy dinners together or for groups to conduct business: even the smallest hole-in-the-walls in Shanghai had a series of rooms filled with mammoth round tables.

When we walked in our private room already had snacks on the table: traditionally there are cold plates and snacks at the beginning of the meal while you wait (a great way to start a meal if you ask me). Typical Tianjin-style snacks like smoked meats, cold noodles and pickled vegetables filled the rotating tray in the centre — another Chinese table staple! No one has to say “pass the dumplings” you just spin the tray and your favourite dish appears before you.

Private Dining at Goubuli Restaurant
smoked meats at Goubuli Restaurant

The most minute of details was something I took great interest in when dining in China. The private dining rooms, the order in which dishes are served, even the way napkins are folded. Something I rarely come across in my Chinese food dining experiences in North America is these ingenious reusable chopsticks. Decorative chopsticks sat topless on ceramic doggies (emblematic to the name of the restaurant, but more on that later) waiting for guests to pop in the disposable tips.

A few rounds of beer later, the wheel started spinning. Dozens of dishes were loaded up onto our rotating tray and despite my dextarity for typing notes on my iPhone, it became impossible to note the names of dishes — all I know now is that they were all delicious! We packed saucy beef stirfry into crispy sesame pockets, marvelled at the bubble of popcorn that accompanied whole fish encased in sticky-sweet sauce and dove into sizzling pots of tofu swimming in gravy.

One of my favourite dishes of the meal had a flair for the dramatic. At first, I thought this brown dome was just a pile of rice until the server handed a big metal spoon to one of my dining companions, who proceeded to give the toasty mound a hard TWACK and unveil the sticky-sweet orange chicken underneath!

rice dish at Goubuli Restaurant

Those famous buns

The plates began to pile up, swirling like a spin-top on our table and amidst groans of satisfaction the conversation shifted towards the name of the restaurant and it’s most famous dish — goubuli. These simple, steamed buns (baozi) have a minimum of 18 folds to hold in the flavourful meat filling. Chuck, one of the only journalists on the trip who spoke any Mandarin brought up the odd name of the buns.

The name Goubuli dates back to when the restaurant first opened in the 1880s and there are several legends surrounding its origins. The most common tale recounts the life of the owner, the son of an elderly rural farmer, named Gao Guiyou who was nicknamed Gouzi, which means baby dog. Gouzi moved to Tianjin at 14 years old to learn to make steamed buns and later opened his own stall selling pork baozi. His stall quickly became popular and Gouzi never had time to chat with his customers so people began using the phrase “狗子卖包子,不理人” ( “gǒuzi mài bāozi, bùlǐ rén”) which means: “Gouzi sells dumplings and doesn’t pay attention to people.” and soon his baozi became known as 狗不理包 (gǒubùlǐ bāo).

Another story recounts them being called Gou Bu Li meaning they were not tasty, so not even a dog would pay enough attention to the baozi to eat them — this couldn’t be further from the truth. Needless to say, countless were buns consumed in our private dining room that night.

Goubuli restaurant

In celebration of the Olympics in 2008, Goubuli adopted the name “Go Believe” as their restaurant name to gain better recognition with visitors, much to the chagrin of locals. Whatever its etymology, Goubuli restaurant in Tianjin is worth the visit: buns, buns and more buns, please.

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