Bao began life as a humble streetfood stall, set up by Erchen Chang and brother & sister Shing Tat & Wai Ting Chung, selling their fluffy, white steamed milk buns (gua bao). After enjoying a long bout of roaring success, the trio have now taken the next leap and launched a permanent bricks & mortar site in the heart of London’s Soho.
This is a modest, no-nonsense Taiwanese streetfood joint with a menu centred around their speciality, the steamed gua bao, & supplemented by an inventive range of small-plates & sides. Be Warned: the site is small and they don’t take bookings – so expect queues….
On this particular Friday evening, it snaked down the street. We eagerly joined the back, and over the next hour, it got chillier, we got hungrier and that eagerness faded.
Finally, leaving the cold behind, we stepped inside to a small eatery kitted out with simple wooden panelling. There’s nothing much to see in there, the focus is all on the enticing little plates emerging from the kitchen hatch. One thing to note, Bao’s tiny backless stools are far from the most comfortable of seats – although i suspect this is a clever tactic on their part to discourage diners from overstaying their welcome & helping along a high turnover!
Bao’s brief menu is attractive, made up of 6 bao, 9 small plates & 4 sides. In our ravenous state post the hour-long wait, we were tempted to order all 19. Sensibly, we refrained.
You order on a little paper checklist, much akin to the dim sum ordering process – either order everything in one go, or space out your requests and add to your checklist as you go.
Dishes are churned out steadily from the tiny kitchen, just exposed through the little hatch at the restaurant’s rear.
The Classic Bao – this little beauty arrives filled with succulent shreds of braised pork topped with fermented greens and then sprinkled with peanut powder (on the side for us, to accommodate an allergy) & fresh coriander. Super satisfying, it’s a must-try.
The Pork Confit Bao – in contrast to the classic, this one is stuffed with a tender slab of pork belly topped with a sticky sauce & crispy fried shallots. A very enjoyable combination of flavours & textures.
The Fried Chicken Bao – this one’s more like a slider than bao (owing to the different flour it’s made of) & contains soy-milk-marinated fried chicken, sichuan mayo & kimchi. Although very tasty & moorish, i found the chicken dry and i just couldn’t help but compare it to the Korean fried chicken slider at Jinjuu, which i prefer for its moistness & tenderness.
Overall, the bao’s are definite winners – i’m looking forward to trying the lamb shoulder bao & also the vegetarian daikon bao next time (which i’ve recently heard is in fact their bestseller).
THE SMALL PLATES
40 Day Rump Cap, Aged White Soy Sauce – a simple plate of 6 slices of finely carved steak each adorned with a juicy layer of fat. Probably the thinnest carved steak i’ve had, it was beautifully tender and packed with a wonderfully sweet & delicate flavour from the aged soy. The white soy is specially imported from Pintung in Taiwan and is made from yellow beans (as opposed to black) & comes from the first pressing. This steak was thoroughly delicious, clean & elegant.
Beef Soup with Braised Daikon arrived steaming, and each sip was as soothing as the last. It delivered a really impressive flavour, and reminded me of a beef consommé in a French restaurant.
Scallop with Yellow Bean Garlic – the huge, meaty scallop came attractively presented on the shell. It was perfectly cooked and i have no idea how they make that accompanying sauce, but it’s fantastic.
Trotter Nuggets – although soft & moist inside, and delicate & crunchy outside, they were a little slimy in texture and a tad greasy for me. I suspect this is a dish you’ll either like or loathe.
Taiwanese Fried Chicken with Hot Sauce – i expected more from the fried chicken. It was rather dry inside and the hot sauce didn’t add much flavour – as mentioned earlier, i much prefer Jinjuu’s Korean fried chicken.
Guinea Fowl Chi Shiang Rice – although a good-looking bowl of food, it was pretty underwhelming. I wanted a lot more flavour from it (the meat in particular) and it didn’t deliver.
A miniature glass of Peanut milk was luxurious & comforting. Packed with a strong taste of peanuts, yet still alike to the texture of milk.
The Fried Horlicks Ice Cream Bao – a generous scoop of ice cream is sandwiched between two halves of a deep fried bao. My excitement for this was huge (having fallen in love with Yum Bun’s ice cream bun recently).
I was sadly disappointed. Why?
– I’d expected the bao to be more doughnut like – it was kind of dry inside & not crisp enough outside (although on the plus side, it wasn’t greasy at all).
– The ice-cream needs a stronger flavour – I could barely pick up the Horlicks.
– The whole thing needs another texture dimension, whether that be a drizzling of sauce, or a sprinkling of crunchiness – as it came, the textures were not distinct enough for me.
So for me, Bao’s dessert needs some fine-tuning & doesn’t yet stack up against Yum Bun’s.
Service is slick & efficient, and surprisingly friendly & relaxed – the whole operation comes across as if it has been trading for years. The waitresses were perfectly nice and delivered service with a smile, albeit an awkward one at times! Owing to this organised service, tables do appear to turnover reasonably fast – a salvaging thought for when you’re at the back of the miserably long queue.
Dips Bites: Given all the raving reviews I’d read & hype surrounding its opening, I’d expected my meal at Bao to be phenomenal – it was definitely very good, but it wasn’t phenomenal (i guess that teaches me for setting my expectations too high).
The bao, scallops, soup & steak were the stand out foods for me, all packed with excellent flavours & displaying a clear quality of cooking. Overall, I admire the creative menu from a kitchen that is clearly pushing boundaries in the Taiwanese streefood realm, and equally, the slick execution of the entire operation. Bao’s uniqueness is something London should be proud of & it’s absolutely worth trying.
P.S. I walked by on a recent Thursday evening and the queue was 3 times as long as the one i had waited in – which seemed crazy. I reckon that my 1 hour wait to get in was probably just about worth it, but much longer and i’d suggest going back on a less busy day or turning up a lot, lot earlier.
53 Lexington Street, Soho, W1F 9AS
Monday to Saturday 12-3pm & 5.30-10pm