Anyone with a social media account knows what a bao is by now: these fluffy white pseudo-sandwiches occupy more collective screen space than the aubergine emoji. The tipping point came last spring when street food trader Bao opened a dedicated restaurant in Soho and created the sort of queue you’d associate with Alton Towers.
Twelve months on, Taiwanese snacks are now a full-on London food trend, and first to the punch in south-east London is Mr Bao, a pocket-sized restaurant from one of the owners of Miss Tapas, which serves better-than-solid Spanish food on nearby Choumert Road. It’s not just the food that’s on-trend – between the naked bulbs and functional decor, this looks exactly how you’d expect a buzz-surfing restaurant in a fast-gentrifying area to look. It’s becoming a tired aesthetic, but souvenirs from the Far East and an Asian-only beer policy add character.
But how about them buns? The first thing to note is their size – they’re a good 50 percent bigger than you’d find in town, yet are similarly priced around the £4 mark. There are five to try, plus a selection of sides and gooey bao s’more for dessert. They even do brunch. Fillings focus on pan-Asian flavours: shiitake mushrooms with teriyaki and fried chicken with wasabi mayo and kimchi. Options like slow-cooked lamb with mint or prawn with guacamole reveal international influence. I tried the whole lot and found not a dud among them; every single ingredient – from zingy pickled bits to punchy dressings – makes its presence felt, while the steamed milk buns are soft and light, just the way London likes them.
Service, if anything, is a touch over-efficient, which doesn’t help the hurry-hurry vibe of what’s clearly intended as a high-turnover operation. And while Peckhamites may feel that queueing for their dinner sets a dangerous precedent, thankfully there’s the option to put your name down and go for a pint while you wait.
Offering a slice of Soho in SE15, Mr Bao delivers great value, modish Taiwanese cuisine and – like it or not – the slightly stifling buzz that comes with it.