Austin in a Pocket: Plow Bao
Joyce Ni takes inspiration from working at Plow Burger and her grandmother’s dumpling recipe
By Regine Malibiran
Photographs by Mackenzie Smith Kelley
Plow Bao is one of Austin’s newest food trucks, sitting ironically between a vegan and a meat-based barbecue truck on Buzz Mill Shady’s lot. Adjacent to the eastside newcomer is Infinite Monkey Theorem, because what’s more Austin than a food truck lot sandwiched by a coffee shop bar and an urban winery? Plow Bao serves Chinese cuisine, but with a twist. All of their offerings are plant-based, even their latest entree addition, Beef Chow Fun.
Joyce Ni opened Plow Bao last year after exploring the idea with her boss at Plow Burger.
“He posted a picture of this very rustic-looking shumai that he made and I messaged him — only very much half-serious — like, ‘I think it would be cool if I ran a dim sum food truck called Plow Bao,” Ni recalls. “And he responded, ‘What are you doing Thursday? Let’s talk.’”
At the time, she didn’t know that Plow Burger provided their employees with an employee-to-entrepreneur accelerator program, Crop Seed. Once she started the program the turnaround was rapid for Ni. She began working at Plow Burger in June 2019 and by December she was serving dumplings in her own truck.
Plow Bao’s first menu item was the pork dumpling, which is one of her grandmother’s recipes.
“My grandma is from northern China and dumplings are a staple of her hometown,” shares Ni. “She would do everything from scratch. On a weekday afternoon she would make the dough and roll it out with my grandpa. At first the dough would be in a long rope. She’d cut it in pieces and hand fold every single dumpling. She’d make 300 or 400 at a time. That’d be our dinner and then she’d freeze the rest. It was a lot of fun because it became a family activity.”
Instead of using pork like her grandmother, Ni uses meat alternatives from Beyond Meat and All Vegetarian Inc. Ni has been a vegan for six years and though she thinks it’s unrealistic to push for a completely vegan diet for everyone, she sees Plow Bao as an entry point into a more plant-based diet.
“People think they’re sacrificing texture and taste [when going vegan] and that’s something I’ve addressed in all of my food at Plow Bao,” says Ni. “I believe in progress over perfection. Not everyone can be vegan because of their resources or their lifestyle. Maybe they’re not in a place in their life where they can buy all organic and local. It’s about small steps and making progress.”
At 24 years old, Ni has a number of accomplishments under her belt. In the midst of her learning how to run a food truck business, she’s also in the process of obtaining a Master’s degree in Energy, Policy and Climate from Johns Hopkins University. Though she initially applied to the program to appease her parents (her mother has a Master’s and her father a Doctorate), she’s eager to use her education to advocate for food sustainability.
“A lot of the global climate change problems can be solved with food. In a large part of the world, citizens are eating two to three times a day. If we just implement one or two plant-based meals throughout the week instead of meat, [our carbon footprint] is already down by a good percentage,” says Ni. “Food is so important because it touches every single aspect of our economy. If you can find a way to make plant-based eating or more local eating more affordable and appealing to people, I think that’s when you start seeing change.”
Armed with generations’ worth of cooking knowledge, a consistent effort to continue learning and strong community support, Ni strives to show diners that you don’t need to compromise what you like about food in order to eat more plant-based meals or to be an environmentally conscious eater.