The Irritable Bao is a Chinese restaurant in downtown Auburn that has quickly (in almost three years) outgrown its first two forms– it started as a food truck and has moved on from its first brick-and-mortar location.
Whitley Dykes and his wife, Kunyu Li, own and operate the restaurant. Dykes went to high school in Auburn and attended Auburn University for two years. He would eventually graduate from UAB with a degree in international studies and Chinese.
“When I came back from [studying abroad in] China for my final semester, I was praying on it a lot and finally felt like I got the go-ahead to go back to China,” Dykes said. He lived there for eight years, then he and his wife moved back to the United States.
Dykes said that operating a food truck was something he and his wife had joked about for a while before taking it seriously. At the time Dumps Like a Truck, the couple’s first experiment in the food business, was born (Dec. 2017), Dykes was working at Auburn University with Auburn Global.
“That was my ministry . . . working with international students, making them feel welcomed and loved, like they’re at home,” he said.
The food truck, and now The Irritable Bao, was an extension of the ministry Dykes and Li were already practicing. Part of the purpose of their work was to give the substantial Chinese population of Auburn students a place to go that felt like home. Dykes likened it to his frequenting Starbucks while in China.
He recalled talking to his wife about operating a food truck. “‘Let’s do a themed truck, something unique around here, something authentic to China. Something that you’re really good at, which is dumplings, and let’s have a cause attached to it and make sure we can be impactful in the way we feel called to be.”
Another purpose Dykes and Li found beyond satisfying cravings for their food (those cravings are now labeled “Irritable Bao Syndrome”) was to give to charities doing work in Asia. Empowering Young Warriors Asia is a program that, according to its Facebook page, serves disadvantaged children between the ages of 11 and 14 and with which The Irritable Bao has partnered.
Less than a year after Dumps Like a Truck started, the Irritable Bao opened its first location. Li went back to China to be trained in making bao, which is similar to a dumpling in that it is a filling wrapped in dough; the main differences are that the dough in bao is much thicker and fluffier and that the whole thing is generally larger than a dumpling.
“She would be on the bus like two hours [to the restaurant where she was being trained] and two hours back in the dead of winter,” Dykes said. “And it gets to be like -40 [degrees] there.”
Although the restaurant was initially created so that some international students would have a place that felt like home, The Irritable Bao now serves that purpose for a much more broad demographic.
“We just wanted to love people well and serve good food,” Dykes said. “We just made it all about the people, took pictures of the people, tagged them in it, they started tagging of their own accord.”
Dykes is comfortable attributing The Irritable Bao’s success to its popularity on social media and to its becoming, as a result of that popularity, the “cool” place to eat.
He’s less comfortable taking credit for that popularity, even though he and his wife have created an atmosphere (comprising good food, big smiles and genuine care about the restaurant’s patrons) that all but guaranteed the restaurant would feel like home. College students clearly find that pretty cool.
Photos By Hannah Lester