Yum Bunz is like the Panda Express of dim sum. Bao from China, coconut soup and papaya salad from Thailand, rice bowls from ... America? The new, fast-casual Asian concept from Guy Wong and the Real Chow Baby founder Mike Blum offers a grab bag of pop-Asian cuisine watered down just enough to appeal to the masses.
Located a block from Bocado and Octane Coffee on the Westside, Yum Bunz has a vibrant, industrial feel. In the dining room, cartoonish murals — such as a girl happily holding a bao bun — are set behind a line of white wooden booths on the left. A row of pale wood picnic tables extends down the middle of restaurant. A few round tables, with dark wood chairs reminiscent of classic Chinese furniture, flank the windows on the right. Overhead, curvy red lamps form a line down the center of the restaurant and UFO-esque white pendants add even more light to the already bright and heavily windowed space. It feels like a modern cafeteria, but more museum-ish and less Piccadilly.
The fact that you order from a cashier and not a waiter intensifies the food court feel. Get in line and choose from the menu posted behind the counter. While you wait, you can peruse the open kitchen where shiny silver steamers tower and hiss as the buns are made to order. The food comes out quickly but not so quickly that you question its quality like you would at a drive-thru spot. Seat yourself, and they'll bring out your order as soon as it's ready.
Bao "bunz" are obviously the star at Yum Bunz. In general, the problem with steamed yeast buns is that they get gummy or are too heavy, which makes them a gut bomb when you factor in the traditional full-flavored fillings. Yum Bunz actually does a good job at replicating the ethereal texture you'd expect in such a treat. The fillings, however, are a mixed bag and the ratio of "stuff" to bao is off. The quintessential char siu is heavy on five spice and tastes more like sweet American barbecued pork than Chinese specialty. The Szechuan chicken has a decent amount of heat, but, again, tastes more like spicy shredded chicken from your corner 'cue joint instead of Szechuan food, which is more nuanced and exciting. Pass on anything with curry because both versions — the red and green — lack complexity. Perhaps a bit less coconut milk and more curry paste would remedy the situation? The unorthodox peaches and cream dessert bun was a favorite. It reminded me of those steamed egg custard buns you get at dim sum restaurants, but tangier and more fun with bits of chopped fresh peach coated in sweet cream.
The buns come a la carte ($1.59 each, $8.69 for a six-pack) or in combos with your choice of side. Two medium-sized buns and a side — I sampled a decent, albeit slightly sweet, kale salad — for $6.29, however, do not make a meal even for the daintiest of appetites. Wong and Blum need to add a third bun for the combo to feel more substantial.
My experience with the rice/noodle bowls has been middling at best, although I do find the quality of the brown rice and chewy noodles to be excellent. The same goes for the soups, which are watery and a waste of calories. If I return, I would happily make a meal out of the grilled chicken and noodle salad — huge, juicy pieces of chicken breast atop fat and chewy egg noodles doused in a peanut dressing — and the pork dumplings — traditional gyoza style filled with ground pork and chives. On most days, the skins are tender and the filling perfectly seasoned. There is also a surprisingly good green salad with a vibrant ginger dressing.
The restaurant earns big points for using naturally raised meats and sourcing local vegetables "when possible." I also like how the paper that protects all of the buns from the steam tray doubles as a label marking the flavor of the buns by name. So, when your friend says the inevitable: "How do I know which one is mine?" Simply flip the bao and smirk. Yum Bunz does serve alcohol - margaritas, wine, sake, and beer - and, oddly enough considering its proximity to Coke's headquarters, Pepsi products.
Is Yum Bunz the next great dim sum restaurant in Atlanta? Absolutely not. Does it provide a passable version of Asian food in our ethnic-starved ITP? Yes. The restaurant gets you in and out quickly without any intimidation or a high price point. Go to Yum Bunz on your way to a movie at Atlantic Station or for a quick Westside lunch when a trip to Buford Highway is out of the question. After all, when you're hungry and the food court is convenient, even Panda Express will do in a pinch.