Soon to be located between Moe's Original BBQ and Little Italy pizzeria on Magnolia Avenue in downtown Auburn will be an authentic Chinese dumpling and bao ("bou") restaurant that has gained a large following in its first year of business.
The restaurant started with a Chinese dumpling food truck, Dumps Like a Truck, in December 2017 and expanded to a brick-and-mortar location, The Irritable Bao, in October 2018. The storefront, which mainly serves bao and hosts the occasional dumpling pop-up, is currently located at the corner of North Donahue Drive and East Glenn Avenue in a tight 800-square-foot space.
At lunchtime on any given Wednesday, Thursday or Friday, it is not unusual to see a line of customers winding out the door and down the sidewalk as students and community members wait to pick up some bao — steamed rolls stuffed with a vegetable or meat filling. Many of those customers have been coming around weekly since the food truck opened two years ago.
"When it comes to authentic Chinese food in a small town in Alabama ... there’s really nothing that is cheap, quick and available and still maintains incredibly high-quality food and care. This is it," said Jonny Bradford, Auburn University student and a long-time customer. "And they infuse different American things as well. I don’t know anyone in the U.S. that’s doing something similar."
All of the food is prepared by Kunyu Li, who owns the restaurant with her husband, Whitley Dykes. Li grew up in China making dumplings with her family and later sought training there on making bao.
The limited menu, which regularly features staples like the Green, Eggs and Sam Bao (a zucchini, scrambled egg and glass noodle bao named after a friend of the store), Braised Pork Bao and Buffalo Chicken Dip Bao also features items like the Chinese Tea Egg and couscous porridge.
"She kills it. People have no idea how hard she works," said Dykes of Li. "The filling she makes, she's just grown in her culinary abilities over the past year and a half. She's always been great, always, but the stuff that she puts together, I'm so surprised at how it works; she's incredible."
More than just food
Whitley Dykes never thought he'd end up back in Auburn.
He grew up in the city, but after leaving and living in China for about eight years doing ministry work, he wasn't even sure he wanted to go back to the U.S. Going back to the states felt like going back to his past.
"My former life, I had a lot of memories connected with who I used to be. I felt like if I ever lived in Auburn again, God would really have to redeem Auburn," he said.
While he was living in China, he met Li. They dated, married in 2010, and talked casually about what they would do if they did move back to America. After all, she could make a mean dumpling.
"I love her dumplings, and we talked about, what if we move back to the states, what we would do, but we weren't in a hurry to come back," Dykes said.
In 2016, the couple did end up moving back to the Auburn area, and Dykes started working for Auburn Global, a branch of Auburn University that assists international students.
"When I started working for the university with international students, that was it for me," he said. "I was getting to spend a lot of time with these students and to really love them and welcome them to the U.S. and be an integral part in helping them transition."
Dykes found he was passionate about mentoring young men and forming connections with anyone and everyone. These days, he can almost always be found at the front of The Irritable Bao, holding his 9-month-old daughter Odeyah Arrow and listening to customers' stories.
Bradford said that Dykes' energy keeps him coming back just as much as the food.
"It doesn't get anymore energetic, caring and intimate than Whitley Dykes and his capacity to love people and invite people into what he has created," Bradford said.
It was a longing to serve the community by bringing authentic, handmade Chinese food to the international students in the area that spurred Dykes and Li to start the food truck in 2017. At first, Dykes would help open the truck on his lunch break, then go back to work after the lunch rush. Li had already quit her full-time job to concentrate on the truck. When she took a trip back to China to further her cooking skills, Dykes felt called to "go all in."
"I felt like God was saying, 'The time is coming for you to go all in. Leave your job,'" Dykes said.
So he did. And the truck took off.
"People would always come out and we always had a good crowd and got a good reputation, and we just tried to love the community really well and offer good food and keep it interesting," Dykes said. "Then, every time we would do bao,we’d sell out in 30-45 minutes."
On Oct. 26, 2018, The Irritable Bao opened its doors to accommodate demand and provide a space — albeit small — for people to gather together over food.
For Dykes and Li, the business was always about more than food. They wanted to make connections and create community, but they also wanted to give back to that community. Portions of their sales go to Empowering Lives Asia to sponsor children in Asia and the Philippines who live in poverty.
On Wednesdays, single moms, pregnant students or student moms all eat free, and it's not out of the ordinary to hear Dykes tell a police officer or hungry student not to pay for his food today.
"At the end of the day, I think Jesus said, those who are forgiven much love much," Whitley said. He paused, sitting outside of the restaurant with his daughter asleep on his chest. "It's weird how telling your testimony can bring out all these emotions.
"I think God has put a love in my heart just for people. My past has been redeemed. I've had so many chances in life and some of these people don't even get one chance. They just need somebody to step in and fight for them."
He said the children they have sponsored through their business are able to get out of the cycle of poverty, attend school and have careers. Their families also benefit from the program.
"From the beginning, this has been all about serving people, and we don't want to reduce that to just selling food," Dykes said.
In Auburn's 'heartbeat'
Moving to downtown Auburn will give Dykes and Li more space for outreach.
Their new restaurant, which will be about 1,600 square feet, could open as soon as January, and the front 1,000 square feet will be used for dining.
"I'm excited to finally have space for community stuff," Dykes said. "We just want to do community outreach and have a headquarters for that."
The shop will likely be open Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, and the plan is to also open a late-night dumpling window.
"It matters for us to be there. People say, 'You're going to get a lot more business,' but we just don't look at it that way," Dykes said. "We get to be part of this community that I really care about now.
"I'm excited about being in the heartbeat of Auburn. It feels right."
Dykes said he has already been approached about being franchised, but for now, he and Li want to focus on Auburn.
"We're just not in a hurry right now for anything," he said. "I think one day you'll see us in different cities, but not right now."
Follow Dumps Like A Truck on Facebook and Instagram to see the Irritable Bao's daily menu options.