It's been a while since I donned a restaurant queue but I knew I had to make an exception for the newly opened Bao in Soho. Following in the steps of many a street food legend like Pizza Pilgrims and Bleecker Burger, Bao have moved from food truck to a permanent restaurant in the heart of London's food centre. Their speciality is of course bao, or to be more specific Taiwanese gua bao i.e. pillowy soft, steamed milk buns, packed full of delicious meaty fillings. I've sampled these beautiful buns at numerous street food markets such as KERB and Street Feast but it had been a little while since I'd seen a Bao market stall, Yum Bun seem to be more present these day, so I was looking forward to reminding myself of their deliciousness.
Last Friday I finished work early and was in central London for 5pm, I decided to get myself a place in the queue for Bao before it opened at 5.30pm. I knew the restaurant was experiencing mighty long queues and whilst this is great for them it isn't great for me. At 5.15pm there wasn't a queue to be seen, there were however a few people milling around the pub next door. I grabbed a half pint of cider and waited for Steve. A few minutes later someone walked up to the restaurant's front door and within a blink of an eye a 20 person deep queue formed. I quickly found a place and to be perfectly honest was a little annoyed I hadn't bagged myself a better spot but alas, once the kitchen opened we were in for the first sitting. Unless you're prepared to queue for hours you really need to get there before opening, or try popping back later in the evening.
You're given a little paper menu where you write down how much you'd like of each dish. The menu is split into small sharing plates, bao (4 savoury and 1 dessert) and small side dishes. A waitress comes over and pops the order into a fancy iPad thing and you wait for your food to arrive plate by plate. The restaurant is tiny but despite a lot of people being crammed into a small space, the simple airy wooden interior doesn't feel claustrophobic. I love that the walls are lined with hooks, making it easy to hide your coat away. A small hatch at the back of the dining area allows you a peak inside the busy kitchen. I've not been to Taiwan but I image Bao have done a great job of recreating the simple Asian vibe in London.
Steve had a beer whilst I enjoyed a slightly sweet but refreshing Yarlington Mill cider. You're automatically brought tap water which is a nice touch and there's wet wipes to clean your hands with before and after the meal.
Scallop with yellow bean and garlic - you only get 1 scallop per portion but at £3.50 that's hardly a surprise for this delicate shellfish. Tender and perfectly cooked this was a lovely bite seasoned with intense Asian flavours. Scallops are generally cooked in delicate flavours to bring out their subtle taste so the dramatic yellow bean and garlic may have been overpowering but it still worked well.
Taiwanese fried chicken and hot sauce - perfect crispy whilst remaining succulent in the middle, this chicken was delicious. The hot sauce added an intense heat but because the meat isn't swamped in chillies the overall heat was very pleasant.
Aubergines and wanton crisp - the smoked vegetable was delicious, cooked to a soft pulp this was textural delight when eaten with the crispy wanton. This reminded me of middle eastern cooking, especially since I made a very similar Persian dish the previous weekend, the addition of chilli makes this more Asian and a mega tasty dish.
Trotter nuggets - these were one of our highlights, succulent and meaty, melt-in-the-mouth porky nuggets with a little kick to them, simple but heavenly.
Pig blood cake - Steve has just declared this was his favourite and for very good reason. Black pudding still leaves me feeling a little squeamish (as it did with the neighbouring group of girls) which is ridiculous because I know how good this stuff tastes. You mash the meat and blood with the egg yolk yourself which provides a rich and deeply flavoursome taste.
40 day rump with aged white soy - this may look like a simple plate of perfectly rare beef but the tender, melt-in-the-mouth rump was a taste I had never experienced, due to the white soy I guess. This was definitely an unusual taste but one that was certainly enjoyable. For such a small portion this packed a hell of a lot of flavour.
Turnip tops with salted egg - I hated this, we both did. The turnip leaves were coated in the intense crumbled egg that was too much for me but I'm glad I gave it ago, sort of.
Finally, on to the actual bao!
Confit duck bao - I order this over the classic bao. The soft bun was full of rich, fatty, tender pork in a sweet and sticky BBQ like sauce. Piled high with crispy onions this was a joy to eat.
Classic bao - less rich than the confit pork bao, this is just as delicious due to the additional salty peanut crumbs and fresh salad leaves. The pork is just a tender and the bao is just as fluffy, delicious.
Fried chicken bao - I love that this bao resembles a little burger, the rice flour is different from the previous pillowy soft buns with this version having a crisper edge to it. The chicken is tender with a good kick of heat but it's in a slightly lighter batter compared to the bunless sharing plate.
Fried Horlicks ice cream bao - I feel awful for saying this, but this dessert did not live up to the hype surrounding it. The malty ice cream was lovely, the sweet fried bun was delicious but for some reason I had been expecting a hot bun much like the fried coconut ice cream bao Yum Bun does. This was still a very enjoyable dessert but if the bao had been hot, thus allowing the brutally cold ice cream to melt a little I think this could have packed some real wow factor.
Bao was excellent, I had such a wonderful meal and I can totally understand why people are willing to queue down the road to get their hands on the delightful soft buns and sweet meaty fillings. The turn around is fairly fast so hopefully you don't have to wait too long but I don't think the queue won't be dying down any time soon with positive reviews coming in thick and fast. Steve and I went in thinking we would be having a cheapish meal so were a bit taken aback when a bill for £77 (including service) was presented to us, but as you can see from above we did order most of the menu. I'll definitely return, soon I hope, as I'd love to sample the rest of the menu.