The Taiwanese snack food gua bao, more commonly know 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.
So popular is Bao that there are now three of them, they’re packed by midday, and there is a queuing system outside, with people 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? Passing the other day with a friend, I too having been 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 wraparound 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 simpler: 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.
Bao-wise our order was the classic pork bao, the confit pork bao, the fried chicken, and the lamb shoulder, all to be accompanied by the xiao chi of trotter nuggets, eryngii mushrooms with century egg, and the scallop with yellow bean garlic. The easiest way to describe them is to run through each at a time; I promise to be quick and hopefully not too soporific about it.
Pork may be the classic stuffing for bao, but these 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 went perfectly 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 is very good). The best dish by far, though, was the eryngii mushrooms with century egg. The mushroom was meaty and chicken; 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. It doesn’t 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 two of us, including a £7 cocktail each and service, so food was really £15 per person, which I though was reasonable. I will definitely 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 by 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 a pork one. Frankly, they were disappointing compared some I’ve had from competitors, and even though they were clearly made with love and attention like everything else Bao serves, they have much better on offer.