Taiwanese street food brought in from the cold
Claim to fame: ‘Xiao chi’ – small eats – elevated to fine dining status
Reason to go: You won’t find better bao (steamed buns) in the Occident
To look out for: The orderly line has become a Soho landmark, and makes it hard to miss
Bao started out as a moveable feast. First it was a street stall, then a pop-up; devotees followed it from one site to the next. Then, the three founders, young members of the Chung family, with Taiwanese connections, found a deep-pocketed backer, and Bao metamorphosed into this perfectly formed Soho café.
There’s little Taiwanese about the looks; the clean lines, pale wood and elegant design is borrowed from Japan. But the menu, printed on a kitsch checkbox-style slip of paper, is an homage to the traditional method of ordering Chinese dim sum.
Pick three or four dishes per person to get started. Don’t skip the the bao: these wheat flour buns are perfectly springy and only very slightly sweet, a good foil to the richness of the fillings. The classic is gua bao, easily distinguished by the addition of ground peanuts over slow-roasted pork belly, coriander, and a sliver of pickled lettuce. One bao barely fills a palm, so order two – perhaps the daikon version, which is vegetarian but has a meat-like savory quality despite the starchiness of the root.
The xiao chi ‘small eats’ part of the menu is inspired by Taiwanese classics, but far more refined than anything you will find at the Shilin Night Market in Taipei. Pig blood cake resembles the black puddings of Europe, but has a softer, more unctuous texture that dissolves in the mouth. It’s topped with a cured egg yolk, proving that a winning ingredient combination can be discovered no matter which continent you’re on. Grilled scallop is served in its shell, but heavily dusted with green seaweed powder, mostly for visual effect; the real flavors of the dish come from the bean and garlic sauce, plus the meaty texture and sea coast aromas of the scallop.
The devil is in the details. Pickles are made in-house, and might include brown sticks of cured cucumber, darker brown nuggets of fried tofu, or simple rounds of sweet vinegary daikon. The customary side dishes of Chinese vegetables have been swapped for the far bolder flavors of cavolo nero, steamed, then topped with fine gratings of salted egg. Thin slices of huge king oyster mushroom are garnished with a delicate dice of century egg and roasted aubergine. The marriage of East and West is hugely successful here, as exemplified by the ‘fried Horlicks ice cream’. A yeasted bun is pre-fried, and then chilled before sandwiching a scoop of Horlicks-flavored gelato. The creamy malt filling complements the doughnut-like bun, bringing out fermented notes.
Bao isn’t so much a restaurant as a sophisticated café, and the excellent selection of soft drinks reflects that. The oolong style teas – neither black nor green – originate from Taiwan, accordingly they’re given suitable prominence here, with top quality leaves correctly served in dolls-house-sized teapots and cups. Peanut milk is popular in Taiwan, where many people are lactose-intolerant; it resembles soy milk, but with a distinctively fresh peanut aroma. In a real Taiwanese street food venue the booze would be generic lager; at Bao you’ll find a choice of artisanal ciders, good Japanese sakes, and a couple of craft beers that complement the food. No one seems to mind the cramped tables, or the restricted legroom; the coziness allows diners to gawp at neighboring dishes, and strike up conversations.