The Taiwanese snack food gua bao, known simply as bao, has become the ‘it’ snack food. With the likes of Yum Bun dishing them out to long waiting queues at street food markets, more and more Asian restaurants are offering them, and even Nigella Lawson included them in her last BBC series. King among the London purveyors of these ‘tiger bite pig’ or ‘Taiwanese hamburgers’, as they are known in their homeland, is Bao. Set up with JKS Restaurants, the company behind Michelin star-awarded restaurants, Gymkhana and Trishna, as well as the Lyle’s, Bubbledogs and Kitchen Table, it’s no surprise its become so successful.
So popular is Bao that there are now three of them, it’s packed by midday and it has a queuing system outside as people are prepared to stand and wait come rain or shine. Who can blame them, given how great Bao is at using Instagram to entice people to its door? And so, passing the Soho outlet the other day with a friend, and I too being seduced by their photography, we joined the queue to see whether it lived up to all the hype.
After only a short wait, we found ourselves seated on little backless stools at the three sided wrap around bar that makes up the front dining area, behind which are sharing tables and a large open serving hatch showing off the kitchen. Ordering couldn’t be more simple; given a list of the items and a sheet to describe each of the bao, you mark a number next to each dish you want on the list, hand it over and away you go. They suggest two bao per person and anywhere from one to three of the xiao chi (Taiwanese street food) dishes per person, with all items ranging from £3 to £6.
What to Eat?
Bao wise our order was the classic pork bao, the confit pork bao, the fried chicken bao, and the lamb shoulder bao, all to be accompanied by the xiao chi of trotter nuggets, the eryngil mushrooms with century egg, and the scallop with yellow bean garlic.
The easiest way to describe the dishes is to run through each at a time, a dull approach but I promise to be quick and hopefully not too soporific about it. Pork maybe the classic stuffing for bao, but they were the least impressive; the confit pork was surprisingly lacking in flavour, while the classic was better but I was crying out for some spicy heat from it. The lamb and chicken, on the other hand, were really delicious. The chicken was like a succulent and spicy chicken slider, while the lamb shoulder was a happy surprise with the coriander piled high, and the soy pickled chilli was something I’ve never had before and was perfect with it.
The trotter nuggets were spot on and the scallop perfectly cooked while its sauce, which we were told to drink after eating the scallop, was full of eastern promise (whatever that means in this instance – other than that the sauce was really really good). The best dish by far, though, was the eryngil mushrooms with century egg. The mushroom was meaty and chickeny while the chopped century egg and sauce were beautifully piquant.
Turnover is fast but you aren’t rushed. Our dishes arrived as and when they were ready, which worked well as nothing takes long to eat, but nor does it come so quickly that you have food piling up or so slowly that you are left with empty plates waiting for the rest – a fine balance and a difficult one to get right but they have achieved it.
Costs worked out at £50 for the two of us, including a £7 cocktail each and service, so food cost was really £15 per person, which I though was reasonable. I will defiantly go back and it’s the perfect pit stop if you’re in the area – that is if you’re not distracted or diverted by all the other great restaurants surrounding it or the Berwick Street market. But when I go back, I won’t bother with a cocktail and I’ll stick to two or three of the xiao chi and only one bao; and it won’t be the pork bao. Frankly that was disappointing compared to other pork bao I have eaten at competitors, even though they were clearly made with love and attention like everything else Bao serves.
London Lamppost Score – 4/5
Bao – various locations