This Taiwanese Street-Food Joint Has Londoners Queuing Down the Road
The queue along Lexington Street in London's Soho is the first clue to the popularity of Bao, a no-reservations Taiwanese street-food joint in Soho.
The line forms before this tiny new restaurant opens for lunch or dinner and doesn't ever seem to diminish during service. Latecomers are politely turned away at closing time. The minimal, blonde-wood covered dining room is crowded with happy eaters perched along a counter where tea is prepared or squeezed into tables at the back, near the kitchen.
And it's all about a little Chinese bun—the bao—which is made with milk. It may be the best lactic treat you've had since your mum. It's fluffy and soft and white like a hotel pillow. All it's missing is a little chocolate wrapped in foil.
The menu is short, with nine small plates; six types of bao, including a dessert version of fried Horlicks ice cream; and four sides, including a drink of peanut milk. The drink list is shorter, with beers and sake. I wish they had wine, but I guess that would slow the flow of punters to a dribble.
But the buns—oh, the buns: They come loaded with beautiful meat, perfectly seasoned. All are delicious, yet each is distinctive. Lamb shoulder comes with a fragrant coriander sauce, a spiky garlic mayo, a hot soy-pickled chili. It flirts with your taste buds, moves through something a little more physical, and reaches the full When Harry Met Sally faster than you can sneeze, "Yes, yes, yes ...."
Then the confit pork belly takes charge, crispy shallots providing a crunch contrast to the soft meat. The classic bao features peanut powder along with fermented greens and our old friend coriander for a balanced mix of salty, sweet, and fresh.
The most expensive bao—fried chicken and lamb shoulder—costs 5 pounds ($7.83) apiece. At least, they do for now.
It's a family team of a husband, wife, and sister who run Bao, back and front of the house, where the service is knowledgeable and efficient, as well as being completely charming, from the woman who comes out to chat with people in the queue to the chap who makes tea with the kind of concentration normally reserved for precision engineering (or seduction).
Bao started as street food, but there is an experienced restaurateur behind all this. He's chef Karam Sethi who, with his family, is enjoying a remarkable run of successes, with Trishna, Gymkhana, Bubbledogs, and Kitchen Table, plus Lyle's, where he backs chef James Lowe.
You don't have to eat bao at Bao. The Taiwanese fried chicken has a crunchy coating, soft meat, and a hot sauce that is distinctly punchy. Slices of 40-day rump cap come with a nice layer of fat and aged white soy sauce. It's beautiful meat (from Cornwall) with great depth, which is fortunate because you don't get much of it for 6 pounds. The soy sauce is from Pintung, in Taiwan. It is made with yellow beans rather than black and comes from the first pressing. It is aged for a sweet and mellow flavor.
Pig blood cake is like a rich, moist, and fatty slice of black pudding and is topped with a soy-cured egg yolk for a bite as rich as a lottery winner. Nothing is left to chance at Bao, where care meets creativity and the two decided to have fun together.
Don't go expecting fancy food. Don't go for a leisurely meal. Just go.
Bao is at 53 Lexington Street, Soho, London, W1F 9AS; baolondon.com
Richard Vines is the chief food critic for Bloomberg. Follow him on Twitter @richardvines.