Bao is all the rage right now with London hipsters seeking casual Asian-inspired cuisine. Expect a queue, weekday or not (go during off-peak hours if you can). I visited their Lexington Street branch in the middle of Soho and found the wait to be well worth it.
The interior is a crossover between a ramen joint and a Muji shop: compact yet airy, chic and bright. The casual layout – with shared, minimalist wooden tables – felt Asian and intimate, the perfect backdrop for contemporary street food.
Ordering at Bao is simple and no-nonsense in the tradition of Chinese teahouses: you just circle the items you want on the order sheet and hand it over to the wait staff.
For first-time diners, the friendly staff are happy to introduce their signature dishes on the menu. I was pleasantly surprised by the variety of small dishes (called xiao chao, ranging from £3 (US$3.78) to £5), in addition to the baos (buns) for which they are famous.
Not for the faint-hearted, pig’s blood cake was an exquisite dish and a labor of love. I relished its exotic texture of black pudding with glutinous rice, and an almost-raw egg yolk sitting on top. This is best mixed with the blood cake for flavor.
The beef broth with white radish was a nourishing affair full of meaty flavor. The scallops proved to be restaurant-standard, extremely fresh and tender, cooked with garlic, bean sauce and seasoned with a hint of seaweed powder. Expect one huge scallop per order.
Often seen on Instagram and Twitter, their steamed confit pork bao was soft, fresh and tender – exactly as it should be. The bun was stuffed with a generous filling of marinated and extremely juicy pieces of pork, served with lots of fried shallots on top.
The bao was so appetizing, in fact, I could have settled in and polished off dozens of them. Other bao versions include the rich and aromatic lamb shoulder as well as a vegetarian option. The only possible criticism is that the portions are extremely small.
The rich peanut milk drink tasted more American than Asian, but blended well with the street-style food, even if I was not particularly convinced of the need to serve it in a ceramic bowl.
Asian street foods have earned a somewhat deserving reputation for lack of presentation and abundance of grease.
At Bao, I found street food reinterpreted with a fusion sensibility and elevated to a level of sophistication to make it nearly unrecognizable.
Bringing the tapas tradition to Asian eats, Bao stands apart from its competitors for its combination of fresh ingredients, delicate tastes and innovative presentation.
Bao has three locations in London: Bao Soho, Bao Fitz in Fitzrovia and the Original Bao Bar in Netil Market.