21 October 2015

Let's Talk About Bao Baby, Soho, London

"Let's talk about Bao baby
Let's talk about Bao and me
Let's talk about all the good food and the bad food that may be
Let's talk about Bao"
Just to clarify there was no bad food at Bao. Literally none, nada, nicht kaput. Or should I say nei kaput, seeing as I just got back from Iceland, which was incredible! And I'm still recovering from the fact that we actually did have to come home, I would move there in a heart beat. Just need to master my Icelandic first, which so far is ekki gott (thanks google). Having been heart broken at returning to England there's only one thing that can make me feel better. Food and lots of it. Which is where Bao comes in.
When we were students and sick of eating leftover roast chicken in various guises and pancakes for weeks on end, my friends and I used to head to China town to eat as much dim sum for as little money as possible. The most notable dish being the deep fried chicken feet we sampled (not something I'd rush out to try again) and our absolute favourite dim sum taking form in the char siu bao. A sweet, marshmallow soft steamed bun or bao to those in the know, filled with sticky bbq pork;  pure heaven. A lot has changed since I was a student spending £8 on our weekly food shop for one of my housemates and me (this actually happened, I'm not sure how but it did) but I'm still in love with bao or as I should say Bao. The street food stall turned restaurant that now has two permanent venues where they serve up their fluffy bao stuffed with moreish fillings with some quirky little sides that is Bao, has fast become my favourite bao eatery.

My friend Alex (who you might have seen creeping about in my blog posts here, here and here) and I decided to head to Bao's Soho branch one Saturday for a lot of goss and even more food. I'd been at a festival  and stupidly not eaten anything all day (very unlike me), and when you've got that food head ache there's only really one cure: Chinese/Japanese/Korean/Thai/Vietnamese food with the paracetamol/ibuprofen combo and San Pallegrino (other sparkling mineral waters are available). So when Alex rang me and told me she'd just walked past Bao and there was a 20 minute queue, and asked if I could get there asap? The answer was to sprint across town from Victoria, grab some drugs (paracetamol and ibuprofen only folks) and voila we were seated in Bao.

You might think I'm a bit crazy for running across town to get to Bao, but maybe you won't judge me when I tell you the average queue time is anywhere from an hour upwards! The first time we tried to go the queue was 2 hours long. I mean I love bao but 2 hours is a long time to stand outside waiting for it, plus by then I would have been incredibly hangry (hangry; han-gr-ee: when you're hungry and angry simultaneously). Anyway now seated, Alex and I proceeded to order off the paper tick box menu setting ourselves up for the meal with the final part of the headache cure (sparkling water) and the tiniest tea pot of green tea you will ever see. You feel like you're playing with a doll's tea set...not that I have done that ever...I'm in my twenties yeah. Moving on, while we waited for our food, Alex and I caught up on the four core chat groups (holidays, work, friends, bitching) and surveyed the room.

Bao, the restaurant not the food, is small, really small. I wanted to take some shots of the inside, but doing so would have been a bit too intrusive as the restaurant was packed and you're in such a small place I could have taken a photo up the guy opposite's nose. It's all bare wood and white walls which some people find quite cold but I really enjoy the clean lines of it all. We sat at the bar that takes up the main part of the restaurant, although there are a couple of tables if you're wanting to go in a small group (we're talking no more than 6 per table at a squish). There's also one restroom, so if you need to go you have to keep a watchful eye on your fellow diners for when it's free. You can't wait outside the restroom as you'll be encroaching on someone's table and they'll probably end up asking you for more mineral water. Then you'll be stuck because you have no waitering experience, so you'll bring them the wrong drink and a fist fight will assume. Just don't do it, remain vigilant and you'll be fine.

Taiwanese Fried Chicken with Hot Sauce

40 day aged Rump Cap with Soy Sauce

Sweet Potato Fries with Plum Sauce

Scallop with Yellow Bean and Garlic

You might be mistaken going to Bao, in ignoring the side dishes they have on offer. This is the biggest mistake you will make. Ever. In your whole life. The crispy fried chicken in panko style breadcrumbs with hot sauce are succulent on the inside, crunchy on the outside with the right amount of punch from the hot sauce. The 40 day aged rump camp slices aka super rare beef in soy sauce is divine, Alex and I had a Mrs Fat and Mr Lean situation going on where I gorged myself on all the fatty bits of this dish and it was just gorgeous. I then became selfish and ordered shellfish for one in the form of a scallop grilled in the half shell with yellow bean and garlic, it was delicious with a great charred flavour, I didn't going solo on this dish and nether did Alex (her motto is fish are friends not food). All of these dishes were great but there was one side that ruled them all. The tempura sweet potato fries with plum sauce, when people ask me about Bao it's the first dish that springs to mind.

I'm convinced every restaurant has that one stand out dish that you'll always order (ahem crab churros at Pachamama), and at Bao despite it's name I think it's the sweet potato fries that are my stand out. You see, sweet potato fries on their own are not new, they're on most menus in some guise, but never have I seen a guise that would tempt me into eating them as much as this one. The plum sauce is something I've been on/off dreaming about ever since visiting. It's tart fruity tang goes well with the sweet salty tempura fries. If you go to Bao, don't skip on it's namesake but make sure you leave a decent sized whole for these cheeky fries. They're 100% worth it.

On to the main event. If you've never tried one of these sweet pillowy buns your first bao is mind blowingly good. We went for all four of the meaty options on offer (the vegetarian option is daikon; a radish that can be coerced into various forms), from left to right these are the classic pork bao with cabbage and peanut powder, the lamb shoulder with green chilli, the confit pork belly with crispy shallots and the fried chicken in a sesame bao.

If I was to pick a favourite out of these four it'd be a toss up between the lamb shoulder bao and the fried chicken, because who can resist succulent on the inside, crunchy on the outside fried chicken, and any dish with lamb is my go to and this one gets extra points for spiciness. I enjoyed all four though, and I implore you to order the four yourself and work out which one is your favourite. Except if you're veggie then stick to the Daikon, although if I'm honest there are probably some better places to eat out at with more options if you're veggie than Bao. With pig blood cake and trotters on the menu it's not the most vegetarian friendly restaurant in Soho (try Ethos and/or the Coach and Horses).

Fellow bao lovers, have you ever had a sweet bao? I've had three, one filled with nutella which was average to poor, one filled with egg custard which was revolting and then this one. A deep fried sesame bao filled with a scoop of malted horlicks ice cream. It sounds unpleasant and medicinal, it tastes awesome. It's so good, the hot bun with the cold ice cream is a taste sensation to put your teeth on edge but who can refuse when it's looking at you with its big creamy scoop. It's so good, its only a matter of time before someone starts a sweet bao stall, I'm thinking PBJ bao (aren't I always), a matcha tea bao and of course good old fashioned nutella and banana. Someone needs to get on that. Pronto. Street Feast/Kerb/Other Street Food Markets that are Available sweet bao needs you.

Go to Bao, try all of their namesakes, pick your favourites and get some sweet potato fries on the side. Maybe some pig blood cake for our more adventurous readers.

What's your favourite place to eat bao? Now I'm back from Iceland I'm trying to conserve my pennies. That doesn't mean I'll stop eating out, more that I'm going to be a bit more choicey about my dining options. If anyone has any restaurant recommendations, bao or otherwise drop a comment below and hook me up. Life's been quite full on recently, so if I haven't replied to your comments/emails, I really appreciate all the lovely comments and will do so asap. In addition, I'm not sure if I mentioned it but I just got back from Iceland, so expect me to go on about that for a couple of months...or at least until December when the topic will change to my birthday and the C word. If anyone has any travel recommends as well, let me know, I'm suffering from post holiday depression and need to book another one stat.

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