Chinese American Sauce Line Bowlcut Focuses on Ingredients and Big Flavor

Founder Crystal Ung drew inspiration from her family’s restaurant when she developed her chili crisp and char siu barbecue sauce.

bowlcut chili crisp sauce char siu dumplings
Bowlcut's chili crisp pairs perfectly with dumplings. | Photo courtesy of Bowlcut
Bowlcut's chili crisp pairs perfectly with dumplings. | Photo courtesy of Bowlcut

The iconic bowl haircut is a nostalgic fixture in many Asian Americans’ lives. While comedian Atsuko Okatsuka makes it look chic, the childhood versions were more a cut of convenience bestowed upon the unwilling children of immigrant parents than a style statement. The cut feels universal—something that links Asian Americans together. It’s why Crystal Ung decided to call her sauce line, which includes chili crisp and jarred char siu barbecue sauce, Bowlcut.

“We wanted a name that really represented a shared experience that Asian Americans have that’s also kind of a wink,” Ung explains. “It’s meant to be fun and playful, which is core to our brand, too. Food should be fun.”

Ironically, Ung has never rocked the bowl cut, but that doesn’t stop her from understanding the intimacies of running an Asian American food business. After all, she first started as a restaurant kid.

Growing up in San Diego, Ung has countless memories of a childhood spent at her family’s Chinese restaurant. “I like to say that my saucier days started early on because I was literally helping to make sauces, especially chili oils, chili crisps, hot mustard,” she says. “My dad had me standing on a box of soy sauce to reach the register because I was so short.”

Ung didn’t expect to work in food, though, despite her years of experience. Following business school, she spent time in New York working in fashion, far from the San Diego kitchen where she once tallied totals. But in 2020, with the uptick of violence against Asians following the Covid-19 pandemic, Ung pivoted. “I wanted to work on something super meaningful and compelling,” she explains, “and that went back to food, my first love.”

bowlcut sauces sauce chili crisp char siu
Bowlcut currently has three sauces: char siu barbecue, chili crisp, and spicy chili crisp. | Photo courtesy of Bowlcut

Ung returned to the West Coast and got started on Bowlcut. She gravitated towards sauces upon realizing that Asians and Asian Americans consume the most sodium out of all ethnic groups. “I started to make the connection with my dad’s health problems, his high blood pressure, with sauces and condiments,” she says. “He’s consuming these sauces every day and there wasn’t a way for me to help make him better, healthier choices.” She decided to formulate them herself.

There are currently three sauces available from Bowlcut: char siu barbecue and two chili crisps, a regular version and a spicy version. Her chili crisp clocks in at 45 milligrams of sodium per serving; this, compared to beloved chili crisp brand Lao Gan Ma, which carries 280 milligrams of sodium per serving, is a stark difference.

Ung is intentional about ingredients and wants to reshape preconceived notions about Chinese cuisine. “This is an opportunity to address the stereotypes around Asian cuisine and specifically Chinese food,” she says. “People say, ‘Oh, it’s unhealthy, it’s greasy,’ but when you really strip away the commercialization of Asian food, it’s rooted in this notion that food is medicine, it’s nourishing, and there’s so much care and effort that’s put into preparing this kind of food.”

The ingredients in Bowlcut’s sauce line are all easily identifiable and Ung makes choices, like using beet juice powder in her char siu sauce instead of red 40 to give it its distinctive red hue, that stay in line with her vision of creating a healthier and more ingredient-driven sauce line.

bowlcut char siu barbecue sauce corn dog
The char siu barbecue sauce can be used on pork, pizza, and even corn dogs. | Photo courtesy of Bowlcut

That doesn’t mean the flavor isn’t there. Ung drew upon her parents’ culinary expertise when formulating and developing the sauces, ensuring that they taste just like her childhood spent in the restaurant. “The sauces are based on family recipes and I worked with my parents on them,” Ung explains. “I thought back to being a child and helping my family with their restaurant and now, fast forward decades later, they’re helping me. It’s a full circle moment.”

Now, Bowlcut is on the table for every meal in Ung’s home. Although you can conventionally use the char siu barbecue sauce to make char siu pork, Ung likes to experiment, creating char siu barbecue chicken pizza and nachos. The chili crisp is also drizzled on everything, including the upcoming feast Ung will be having for Lunar New Year.

“We always have roast duck, as well as these chive dumplings that are Teochew, which is the region and dialect of Chinese that I speak,” Ung says. “And wontons, which of course we’ll be using Bowlcut sauces on those.”

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Kat Thompson is a senior staff writer of food & drink at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @katthompsonn.