Bao’s origin story is well-trodden by now, so I’ll keep my recap brief: it’s the success story of a street-food upstart who gained well notoriety, awards, and a dedicated following – all very deserved – by doing what only the best street-food upstarts were able to do – introducing something genuinely new to their audience: Bao. To the uninitiated that’s slow cooked meats with assorted pickles and toppings, all folded inside the type of steamed bun that sends food writers clambering to find a new synonym for “pillowy”.
Flash-forward a few years and they’ve gone all bricks-and-mortar on us. Praise for the 30-seater restaurant in Soho has been rolling in exponentially and the queue outside reflects that – at busy times dozens of would-be diners snake down Lexington Street, waiting patiently adjecent the restaurant’s glass front. It’s become a bit of an in-joke in itself, so I was more than happy to pay my dues and get the full experience, besides I’ve stood in bigger queues for less promising pay-offs in the past – this would be a breeze compared to 12 hours to get into Reading Festival 2005.
Turning up 10 minutes ensured us a respectable 11th and 12th place in the queue, 20 minutes later we’d been seated and placed our order, I don’t see what everybody’s complaining about. The decor is minimal and no-frills, lots of light wood and neutral linen – if you highlighted Shoreditch dive bar Beer & Buns and pressed cmd+I to invert, what you’d be left with would look a lot like this (By the way, while the experience is a world away from this one, Beer & Buns is well worth a visit for wings, sake bombs and noisy games of pinball). Visual stimulation where we were sitting came from the tea-bar, where the servers methodically brewed tiny pots of tea and made concoctions like oolong foam tea – it was a pleasing distraction, but not quite to the extent to prevent me unsubtly rubbernecking other people’s orders as they were brought from the kitchen.
Our time soon came though, and plates were brought out in no particular order – first was the Taiwanese Fried Chicken, generous breast and thigh meat soaked in soy milk before being fried in a thick, crisp crumb which yielded at just the right moment – is there anything worse than taking the first bite of some fried chicken and having half of the coating come off the rest of it, like a magician whipping the cloth from under a set table? (No). We ate two portions.
I don’t usually ask how things are made for fear of being suspected of corporate espionage, but I made an exception for one dish here. The aubergine dish – a punchy, salty, hot version of baba ganoush served with shards of wonton crisp to scoop it up with – is the best thing I’ve seen done to the vegetable, and I couldn’t risk wasting another one by not knowing how to make it in the same way. I must have a trustworthy face, as three of the staff kindly told me in great detail how I can achieve it myself (I’ll take it to the grave).
If there’s one regret I have about the visit it’s that eating out anywhere at midday – particularly after the night before (coughcough I was out late accepting the Guild of Food Writers Blog of the Year Award coughcough) – I’d usually be in comfort-brunch territory, and so I passed up some of the more adventurous small eats. Any other time and I would’ve lapped up Scallops, Century Eggs and Trotter Nuggets, but on this occasion though I settled for the infamous (short for Instagram famous) Pig Blood Cake. In fact the day before we visited it was included on a Guardian list of Cult Food items, much to the annoyance of the Guardian’s comment section.
It looks a bit like a slice of that rubber brick from primary school swimming lessons, topped with the most impossible, proud, soy-cured golden egg yolk on top. If that brick tasted like this though, I’d swim halfway down the Mariana Trench to retrieve it – familiar in that it’s got the same DNA as black pudding, but with more sophisticated spices. Did I manage to get a good photo of it? Of course not, but plenty of more competent photographers have posted their efforts for you to get a better idea – @allthingsmeaty‘s effort features the best yolk-porn I’ve come across. I’ll add “get a better photo” to my growing to-do list when I visit again.
Firmly at the top of that list will be eating the Lamb Shoulder bao: a fistful of immaculately cooked meat with garlic, fresh coriander and a soy-pickled chilli in various forms to give your senses a right good wallop, a real contrast to the sweet, bosomly steamed buns. The Classic – braised pork, fermented greens that get you right in the sinuses and peanut powder which gives a strange sensation of tasting familiar but brand new at the same time – is a classic for good reason, but the Lamb Shoulder bao is on record as one of my favourite things I’ve eaten all year.
Four Small Plates and Four Bao was plenty for two of us, and with drinks and service the bill came to £45; great value considering the quality of what we ate and highly recommended. Embrace the queue – it’s worth the wait, and you might even annoy a Guardian commenter.