Review: BAO Soho

Bao Review Restaurant Front

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. Read more

Trinity Kitchen – 10 Highlights from the First Year

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It’s a common pop-cultural phenomenon for near-identical movies to come out at around the same time – I don’t just mean copycats which wear their plagiarism on their sleeve, but actual massive coincidences like Deep Impact and Armageddon, The Prestige and The Illusionist, Mean Girls and NOTHING, because Mean Girls is one of a damn kind.  But what about Sharks Tale and Antz coming out so close to Finding Nemo and Bugs Life?

It’s not just films – the current UK Top 40 contains no less than 39 songs that are about bums; or have videos with a tracking shot of somebody’s bum for 4 minutes; or come on a bum-shaped picture-disc which looks like the artists’ bum, and has an anus in the middle where you put the spindle.  Admittedly those 39 songs are more tasteful than the other charting record though, which has the misfortune of carrying Ed Sheeran’s face on the cover.

In October 2013 this phenomenon spread to food, and it was a good month for Leeds city centre.   Before you had chance to wipe the Dough Boys sauce off your face at the newly-opened Belgrave, Trinity Kitchen was opening just down the road – a new kind of food court which snubbed the typical “Fast Food-Fast Food-Harry Ramsdens-Spud U Like-Fast Food” roulette, ingrained in the DNA of shopping centres across the country.

Headed by Richard Johnson from British Street Food, TK hosts a changing line-up of street food vendors from around the country, lifting their Ambulances and Citroes vans in through the ceiling with a great big crane, and putting a roof over their head for a month at a time.  There are a few permanent residents as well, including Chicago Rib Shack, Burrito, Chip & Fish which give a bit of consistency to the place, and provide more familiar food to bring in big groups of people and make sure nobody goes hungry, regardless of how fussy an eater they are.
It isn’t completely without fault – there’s often a lot of overlap with several similar vendors on the same or consecutive months; line-ups can sometimes seem regimented and formulaic, I’ve worked out it’s usually 1 Meat, 1 Pan-Asian, 2 Spicy and a token Dessert; and I’m yet to meet the person who wants to be interrupted by a loud DJ set when they’re eating dinner, but the good far outweighs the bad.  Vendors are queuing up months in advance to reserve a pitch, the quietest I’ve ever seen it is “Contently buzzing”, and it’s given local businesses a lot of valuable exposure while bringing in new things that a local audience wouldn’t have discovered on their own – it’s a credit to the City, and Leeds is lucky we didn’t have to settle for a Subway and a sit-down Greggs.
Here are my highlights from the first 12 months, in no particular order:

1. Pho

Confession: For the first 3ish months of Trinity Kitchen, I didn’t bother any of the vans with my custom, and that’s because Pho was (and is) so good.  The freshest Vietnamese dishes of noodles, soups and salads served quicker than you’d imagine possible for around £20 for 2 people, including sides like fried squid and summer rolls.

Cafe Moor has been toiling away in Leeds for years, serving authentic and cheap Middle Eastern and North African food without any gimmicks or pretence from its 10am-5pm plot in Kirkgate Market.  It was wildly popular among a new audience in Trinity Kitchen and benefitted hugely form the exposure – they’re now in plans to expand on their market stall and open a restaurant in the City Centre.

3. Original Fry Up Material

So universally well received that they’ve found a second-home in Leeds, seemingly popping up at every other event, so keep an eye out for them.  Some nice dudes with a funny name, serving consistently good food – including the best version of a Blue Cheese burger I’ve eaten – and many would say the best burger there’s ever been at Trinity Kitchen, which might upset…

4. Meatwagon

One of the best things about Trinity Kitchen is discovering new businesses that you wouldn’t have usually crossed paths with.  Meatwagon’s arrival was a whole other game, everybody’s heard of them and the rumours that TK had got such a huge name created a lot of hype and genuine excitement.  As PR goes they didn’t get off to the best of starts (see the review), but it was handled well, and the visit turned out to be a successful preview of the new, very welcome MEATliquor restaurant just downstairs.

5. Dorshi

Meatwagon was good, but it wasn’t the main event in March, that title belongs to Dorshi – probably the best thing there’s ever been at Trinity.  They might be all-conquering award winners now, but I was gushing over their West Country, Southside UK take on Sushi before they were cool.  A certain fondness will always be reserved for them, for introducing me to Kewpie mayo.

6. Pembermans

If Ice Cube was at Trinity Kitchen on the first day that May’s traders opened up, he’d say “Fuck the Goodyear blimp, this is a good day”.  Pembermans might have looked like any other pulled-meat van, but their breakfast and lunch Bento boxes were something special.  There’s no round-up, or even any pictures from May because I was just too busy eating for the whole month.

7. Cheese Truck

This is what it’s all about.  Looking at all the previous Kitchen lineups I don’t think anybody would have anticipated something as original as a gourmet cheese toastie van, but anybody who heard about it, saw it, or ate anything from there lost their minds.  I’d love to see more risky choices like this in the future.

8. MeiMei’s Street Cart

The final pick from TK’s finest month, MeiMei’s brought Chinese street food like you’ve only heard about in blogs from places like London.  Comfort-dishes like sticky ribs and wings (the sauce from which relegated several top-tier t-shirts to the “stained loungewear” drawer), and their amazing signature Jian Bing; a savoury crepe filled with umami sauces, fresh salad, Pork, Duck and crispy wonton.

9. Rolawala

Another heartwarming success story:  Turning up in April and selling naan wraps filled with flame-grilled meat or vegetarian curries, Rolawala became one of the most popular visitors ever.  Fast forward to this week, and they’re preparing to open a permanent spot where Notes Cafe used to be.

10. Madeleine Express

Considering the insistence on having a token cake van every month, I had to include one sweet highlight.  Madeleine Express is far from a token choice though; also known as Noisette Bakehouse, Leeds’ local Sarah consistently comes up with incredible recipes combining non-conventional flavours and classic formats, as well as the very best versions of traditional favourites like Salted Caramel Brownies and (naturally) Cinnamon Madeleines.  All without a glob of buttercream icing or a twee sprinkle of edible-glitter in sight.

Leeds Indie Food unveils bid for a crowdfunded food festival

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Leeds is hardly lacking food festivals, every weekend we’re presented with the opportunity to attend a particular venue’s “Food” “Street” “Feast” “Market” and “Festival” (circle as applicable) to the point where unique combinations of the words are running desperately low.

A new collective of Leeds restauranteurs, food bloggers and general pie-fingerers are setting themselves apart by throwing in a new adjective – Independent.



Leeds Indie Food will champion the city’s crafty, artisanal underbelly which people like you (cool, handsome influencers who click lots of adverts and share my posts on social media) knew about before it was cool, but gets underrepresented at corporate-sponsored festivals like Leeds Loves Food, because Bulmers have a new limited edition flavour to market and they can afford to pay more for a pitch.

Events will take place over the course of two weeks next Spring, with tasting menus, brewery takeovers, film screenings and workshops as well as the obligatory street food event(s).  They’ll be individually ticketed, but if you’re really eager or you just love itchy fabric brushing against your delicate arms then wristbands will be available to grant access for the whole fortnight.  All money from these tickets will be distributed back to the independent traders and venues, making sure it’s not only open to businesses that can afford to sacrifice an evening’s takings to take part in the event.

Among some of the 20 names currently involved are Fish&, Bundobust, Laynes Espresso, Belgrave and its impeccable food lineup, Trestle, and The Greedy Pig.  They’re looking for £6,750 as start-up capital to cover costs of advertising, design, videography and the launch parties – judging by the pedigree of businesses involved and fact they’ve raised over £1,000 in less than a day, it seems safe to assume they’re going to smash it.  If you want to get in on the ground-floor you can donate to their Kickstarter HERE.

As well as the usual stuff like “gratitude” (you can keep it, hippy) and an invitations to the launch party, rewards for pledging include totes, tea towels and prints designed by Passport and Hungry Sandwich club (who have done the current stylish-as-all-hell branding), and a personal pop-up dining experience from Trestle if you’re a true baller.

Review: KFC Pulled Chicken Burger

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“If pulled pork was the dish of 2014″ begins KFC’s press-release – presumably typed with one hand while the other one fumbles around, trying to keep a finger on the pulse – “then 2015 will become the year of pulled chicken”

And with that, middle-class journalists and bloggers let out a collective scoff and churned out think-pieces and tweets ranging from dismissive nonchalance to disdain to the extent that you’d think they were reacting to the news of a new Royal baby.
I hadn’t seen such a negative response to a fast food promotion since 2009, when KFC (US) brought semi-pro level gluttony to the masses with its release of the Double Down – kicking off a trend of replacing the boring components of fast food meals – empty carbs like bread and crust – with more “EPIC” things like some meat, and some meat with some cheese on top of it.
There was an argument for the Double Down’s vilification though – replacing a bread bun with two pieces of fried chicken isn’t conducive to anybody’s healthy diet besides that of an Olympian in training, or an alligator.  Its critics critics had an angle, at least.
With Pulled Chicken though, KFC are guilty of a much more serious crime than promoting excessive consumption – they’re trying to be cool.  They’ve seen a new type of fast food emerge over the past couple of years – served in repurposed warehouse spaces and NPC car parks on Friday nights, they think it looks fun, and they want to join in.  The response they’ve been met with is a resounding “You can’t sit with us”.

In the spirit of investigative journalism, I went along to KFC and ordered the Pulled Chicken Ultimate Burger Meal – if you’re not familiar with KFC’s definition of Ultimate, it means that it comes with a slice of cheese.  The Paprika slaw is perfectly adequate – in fact better than some of the versions I’ve eaten in dedicated BBQ restaurants a few doors further down Otley Road – and the two mini-fillets are obviously brilliant, as KFC chicken tends to be.  They didn’t become as big as they are by accident.

Sadly, the mini-fillets are the main attraction of the burger, and the Pulled Chicken comes in such a measly portion that it can only really be considered a condiment in its own sandwich.  So much for the dish of 2015.  As for the bun; glazing a bread roll to try and disguise it as a brioche is the most literal application of “polishing a turd” I’ll (hopefully) ever encounter when it comes to dining.
It’s not an awful burger, and at £5.80 including fries and a drink it’s not bad value either, but the criticism was never levelled at the quality of the food – I seriously doubt any of the critics will ever even try the thing.  I understand see where the confrontation stems from; posh fast-food developed organically from seemingly nowhere through a lot of hard work – it’s a lot of peoples livelihood, and contains a lot of close-knit communities.  But this isn’t the first time “big-business” has nicked the “pulled” idea from the posh fast-food.
Greggs released a BBQ Pulled Pork Pasty a few months ago.  I tried it, and it was disgusting; like eating a pastry full of sweet, sticky moss; nobody kicked up much of a fuss over that though, because it was a fairly low fanfare item which received little promotion.  KFC’s attitude and approach to marketing is what has ruffled feathers – they’ve seen the glossy buns, chalk-board menus and other aesthetic nuances of the movement which people have worked hard to cultivate, and appropriated it in a pretty lazy way.  What’s more their press-release is rife with anachronisms; Pulled Pork was so 2012!  Scoff.

Belgrave Street Feast 4 Round-Up

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If both of the people who read my blog were paying special attention last month, they would have noticed that I neglected to review Belgrave’s March Street Feast.  This wasn’t because I forgot about it, or due to a lack of dedication to the cause – rather I had become a victim of its success.

When I got there at 4pm, it was the busiest I’ve ever seen the venue; a 20-foot blockade of people queueing up for the last morsels from Papa Ganoush gave the game away as soon as I arrived, so after penetrating their forcefield and realising that all of the visitors had sold out of everything, I got a few tinnies from the bar; a burger from Patty Smiths (which in the month since first trying them had come on leaps and bounds, and is now probably the best burger you can get in town), and watched Matilda with some kids.
As enjoyable as it was, I can’t run a moderately successful food blog by drinking lager and trying to contact OFSTED to perform an emergency inspection on Miss Trunchbull, so this time I made sure I’d have something to write about.
Initial research had suggested that Arepa!Arepa!Arepa! were my priority – Jules and Bailey run one of my favourite food blogs Good Gobble as well as this Arepa stall, and I respect that they get their hands dirty and create something as well – it adds a kind of legitimacy and credibility to their criticism that you just don’t get at other blogs such as this one.
I went for a Sobrebarriga (£4), which is a Steak and Beer Arepa, which is actually what I chickened out and asked for.  And I’m pretty sure I even pronounced that wrong.  I was given a big handful of beery, spicy, tender, stringy beef and vegetables inside a fresh grilled maize Arepa – essentially a portable stew inside a dumpling – and it was awesome.  
I stood around for a few minutes waiting for a friend before I started eating it, and by the time I’d finished extracting all the beef with my fork (I wasn’t going to risk gravy-beard by eating it with my hands and face) the arepa underneath was saturated with beery gravy, so I was able to relive the former glory again.  The parts of the dough which hadn’t been imbued with juice were surprisingly light and had a satisfying crust where it had just been fried.
Also from A!A!A! was the Plantano Y Queso (£3) which was a dish of fried plantain with cheese, and a choice of Guava jam or a savoury option – which escapes my memory at the minute – on top.  I went for the Guava jam, which was almost unbearably sweet, but balanced against the sharpness of the cheddar worked perfectly.  I have to commend the choice of cheddar – it would have been easy to try and truss the dish up with some kind of posh cheese, but keeping it simple really benefits the dish.  I remember by Mum telling me that my uncle used to eat cheese and jam sandwiches when he was a kid and I would grimace – in the days before chicken and waffles and donut burgers, I thought this mixture of sweet and savoury was an abomination – but having eaten pretty much that, slathered on plantain, I now see that I was a narrow-minded idiot, and he was somewhat of a visionary.  So well done Uncle Clive.
Top marks to Arepa!Arepa!Arepa! as well, can’t wait to try them again.
Regulars Fish& were upstairs in the snug with their ever-adapting menu this time offering Beach Burgers (£5) – pan-seared cod, caper and parsley patties, then cooked in a spicy tomato sauce.  This had a lot of flavour for something with such a simple list of ingredients.  I usually find cod kind of bland, but in this case it complimented the rest of the flavours, as well as contributing its own distinct – almost smoked – fishy hint (I’m pretty sure I’ve seen “Fishy Hint” on a gig listing).
I’m a self-confessed seafood novice – when I look at a menu in a restaurant, I pay such little notice to the fish options that they might as well have been blacked out by the Ministry of Truth – but I find myself going back to Fish& again and again whenever I see them at an event, excited to see what they’ve managed to come up with each time.
Next door to Fish& was Taco Wall, the first installment of Belgrave’s Street Food Lab, pressing fresh corn tortillas, and serving them up as Fish Tacos (£3.5).  I thought it could do with a little tweaking – I thought there was a too much batter on the fish, considering the size of the taco – but everything else about it; the presentation; the pineapple salsa; the scotch bonnet and grapefruit sauce, proves that they know what they’re doing.  This was only the first time serving to the public, I’m confident they’ll have nailed it by the time I try it again.
The Street Food Lab itself seems like a brilliant idea, I’m a little unclear on the specifics of how it’ll work, but if it means more in-house vendors are going to join Dough Boys, Patty Smiths, Fu-Schnickens and now Taco Wall, then I’m massively in favour of it.
A few weeks ago I went to the Briggate World Food Fair and intended to eat loads and write a round-up of the day.  I didn’t manage to get an article out of it though, as after I tried Street Fodder‘s Thai Food, it started raining so I just grabbed a bag full of cakes from Madeleine Express and went home.  Both traders were at the Street Feast on Saturday (Madeleine Express going by the alias Noisette Bakehouse), and while I didn’t get anything from them then, I’ll quickly mention that Street Fodder’s Summer Rolls and Chicken Satay are some of the best I’ve had in Leeds, and the fact anything as wildly imaginative as Noisette’s creations taste as amazing as Noisette’s creations is a miracle – and there’s not a lame cupcake or lazy buttercream in sight.
BONUS PARAGRAPHS!
The day after Street Feast 4, Belgrave hosted a Game of Thrones quiz, which I took part in – not because I wanted to win, because I didn’t even want to win, I’m glad I didn’t win and I’m not even bitter so shut up – so I had a reason to try the Game of Thrones-themed food tie-ins.  Dough Boys Slice and Fire (£1.4 before 7pm, THAT OFFER IS STILL CRAZY TO ME) featured black pudding and pork belly with chilli apple jam and fresh sage leaves, and tasted like a £22.95 Gastropub meal wrapped inside dough.
Patty Smiths avenged Bobby Baratheon by topping their Valar Morghulis burger with Wild Boar sausage, then dialling-up the exuberance by piling on braised oxtail, bearnaise sauce, and a big pile of crispy shredded leeks.  I hope you’re sitting down for this, because it’s a big statement:  It was the best speciality burger I’ve ever had.  Ok joint-best with Patty & Bun‘s pork-belly and teriyaki smothered Mr Miyagi, but that’s still super-high praise, especially as they’ve only been in the game for two months.

Trinity Kitchen April Round-Up

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Unless you’re the type of anarchist who works their way around Trinity Kitchen in an anti-clockwise fashion, Rolawala (@rolawala) is the first point of contact with this month’s vendors – and it’s a very strong start.

They’ve brought with them a small selection from their usual menu of Indian Streetfood – Coriander Chicken Tikka and Beetroot and Paneer Daal – served wrapped in a naan, and they’re not coy about letting you see it.  A towering inferno at the side of the stall grills the chicken after it’s been prepared and marinated over the course of an impressive 48 hours, and the rest of the fillings are piled high on their front counter where the wrap is lovingly constructed to your specifications – like Subway, except the finished product doesn’t taste like honey and rubber.

I tried a wrap with a bit of everything in (£7.5) which included a liberal sprinkling of Moruga Scorpion chilli powder, a substance which was housed in an unassuming salt shaker that commanded the kind of fearful reverence usually reserved for militant despots, unhinged South American cartel bosses or King Joffrey.

Luckily the tyrant-powder complimented the rest of the flavours rather than performing a coup d’etat, and allowed room for the sweet beetroot, warmly spiced chicken and tangy pickles to make themselves known.  The naan bread itself was good too – while it could easily have taken the back seat and performed a purely functional role, it has the flavour and texture of the best kind of pizza base, with charred patches, chewy bits and air bubbles really adding to the dish as a whole.

The guys insisted that I try their chilli ice cream as well (Not that I put up much of a fight) – homemade mango and coconut ice cream with a kick of the Moruga Scorpion chilli powder.  I’d become accustomed to the heat by this point so I thought it could have done with a bit more of the chilli powder, but the mango and coconut flavours were great, and made for a really well thought out palate cleanser.

Housed in the most elaborately decorated cart I’ve ever seen food served from, Fresh Rootz (@FreshRootzLeam) definitely make an immediate impression.  Before you get close enough to read the menu, you can almost guess the kind of thing Martin and Andrew serve up –  a menu of authentic world food inspired by their exotic travels, rather than the cuisine of their indigenous Leamington.

While Fresh Rootz started to fulfill a need for decent vegetarian/vegan street food, it seems misleading to define it solely as a vegetarian restaurant.  All of the meals are well-considered, hearty and tasty, they don’t feel like dishes that have had anything removed or substituted to fit any criteria; they are what they are, and it’s a happy bonus that they’re meat-free and healthy as well.

I tried the Gambian Style Groundnut Stew (£6) which was served with cous cous and slaw, and a few of their pakora on top, for research purposes.  The food was piled really high, but the variety of flavours and textures – the four main components of the dish along with sweet chilli, yoghurt dip, black sesame and crushed nuts – made it interesting and exciting all the way through.

There was 6 or 7 types of vegetables in the stew itself, and each one was distinguishable and cooked just the right amount – the cous cous was light and airy, the slaw crunchy and tart, and the pakora surprisingly crispy and fresh, some of the best I remember tasting.

Set up in a very different, but equally impressive creation were returning members of the December Alumni Bang Wok (@BangWokThai) – with huge pans of curries set up on oil barrels to make the stall resemble a steel drum circle.  

I tried A Bit of Everything (£7) when they were last here, and while I can’t remember exactly what dishes were on off then, I remember enjoying it.  On this occasion though, after eating an Indian wrap and a Gambian curried stew, I had to pass on yet more curry; in fact I worked it out, and of the 12 main courses available this month – or at least when I visited – 9 of them were a variation of a curry.  The rotation of vendors is usually formulaic – which is fine as at least there’s a breadth of variety to the offerings – but to feature three stalls serving up a similar type of main course is more than a little disappointing.  That’s not to criticise any of the individual vendors though, as I enjoyed everything I ate without exception, it would just be nice to get to enjoy them all over the course of several months, rather than all at the same time.
If curry’s not your thing, then Happy Maki (@TheHappyMaki) offers their take on Maki Sushi rolls, filled with Hoisin Duck, Thai Sweet Potato or Teriyaki chicken as opposed to the usual fish.  This is a conscious decision by the owner Anna both in an attempt to do her bit to stem the depletion of the Ocean’s resources, and out of frustration at the limited selection of fish available in the UK.  An admirable stand to make, and one which also makes her sushi appealing to an audience who would usually be put off by the thought of eating raw fish.  I’ll be giving them a full write-up in the upcoming weeks when I’ve had a chance to try them properly; judging by the sheer number of customers they were serving though, I don’t think I’ll be disappointed.

Rounding out the line-up and filling the token “something sweet” slot this month is Cake Doctor (@CakeDoctorUK) – a heartwarming Son-and-Mother team from the Midlands, baking and distributing cakes with a distinctly home-made feel from an old ambulance.  Usually my standpoint when it comes to cakes is a firm “Not arsed mate” – I’m a sucker for a loaf or cheesecake, but I find things filled with and covered in buttercream prohibitively sweet, and don’t even get me started on cupcakes.

While I was worried that several of my teeth might fall out just from looking at James’ saccharine creations, I had to try a slice of Coffee & Walnut Cake (£2.5) when I noticed it was made with one of my favourite coffee blends – Dark Arches from Leeds Microroasters North Star.  The pedigree of the coffee used was evident, giving the sponge a light yet complex flavour, as if you were eating a spongey espresso.  I’d have preferred it as a loaf without so much buttercream but that’s down to personal preference – I guess I’m just sweet enough as it is.

Have you tried Trinity Kitchen this month yet?  Let me know what you thought of the new selection either in the comments or on Twitter.