The transition from street stall to permanent site is not an easy one. Many successful street food traders simply lack the skills for staffing rotas, spreadsheets and hitting slim profit margins. That’s why the three founders of Bao cleverly teamed up with more experienced and deeper-pocketed operators – the team behind Trishna and Gymkhana – to smooth the journey from market pop-ups to permanent Soho establishment.
This Bao-Trishna marriage seems like a happy one. There’s a slick Japanese-looking interior and relaxed yet efficient service. But most strikingly, the tantalising menu is fresh and innovative. While it’s based on Taiwanese street food dishes, the kitchen pushes far beyond those boundaries.
Chef David Chang did something similar with Korean food in New York – the Momofuku founder’s steamed buns became a cult food item. Subverting and reinventing dishes, Chang targeted a new generation of novelty-seeking urban diners.
Bao is London’s equivalent of Momofuku’s Ssäm Bar. The restaurant’s name derives from gua bao: fluffy white steamed buns, in this case filled with braised pork, sprinkled with peanut powder, and yours for £3.75. Other sorts of bao (bun) are more slider-like, such as little burger baps wrapped around soy-milk-marinated chicken, sichuan mayo and kimchi. There’s even a dessert bao – made with doughnut batter and filled with Horlicks ice cream – that echoes the malted cereal milks at NYC’s Momofuku Milk Bar.
Yet buns are only half the story. Xiao chi (small eats) are given equal prominence, reflecting their cult status in Taiwan, where much culinary innovation comes from street food stalls. Pig’s blood cake – a neat little block topped with a lightly cured egg yolk – tastes of soy sauce and black pudding. Vegetarian dishes are enticing: oyster mushrooms are cooked with jade-coloured fragments of century egg; intensely savoury dice of roasted aubergine have a slight garlic kick.
What lifts this diner from merely great to sublime is the drinks list. Sakés, artisanal ciders, well-matched beers and hot oolong teas vie for attention alongside creations such as foam tea – a chilled light oolong artistically topped with foamed cream.
Arrive hungry; leave happy. But be warned: as Bao is small and doesn’t take bookings, we predict Momofuku-style buzz. And queues.