Forever one to get just a little anxious when there’s food to be had and queues to be avoided, I found myself at Gordon’s Wine Bar, clutching my glass filled to the brim with ‘Fat Bastard’ pinot noir, irritably shaking my leg while The European slowly and delicately sipped her Pinot Grigio. It was half-past eleven in the morning, and we had both booked a little mid-week vacation day off. Exploring London whilst most of the city is at work or school is heavenly – space to walk, room on the Tube and a seat in Gordons (well, that might be simply because we elected to ‘start early’).
The latter is perhaps the greatest benefit to exploring off-peak; the potential to be able to walk into restaurants which are both popular and operate a no-booking policy. I firmly believe that there’s a special place in hell for the people who operate such establishments, but I do get their logic – if you’re popular enough to fill tables four times a night, a booking system will allow tables to go unused while you wait for people to arrive. When there’s money to be had… pourquoi?
BAO is one such restaurant. Their famed Taiwanese steamed buns were first sold in London’s Netil Market in 2012 by siblings Shing Tat and Wai Ting Chung, and Erchen Chang (BAO BAR is now what that stall is called). BAO’s first actual, restaurant opened in Soho – on Lexington Street – in 2015, and there are now a few more, in Fitzrovia (this one takes bookings, can you believe it!), Borough (karaoke in lieu of bookings), and Xu, a teahouse and restaurant in Soho (bookings AND Mahjong!). BAO is lauded across the city for the quality of its food, but also for arguably less agreeable accolades such as a recent mention in TimeOut’s recent ‘London’s best no-booking restaurants’ listing. On the way into town, we had decided to eat at BAO Soho – it opened at noon and I wanted to be there then, to guarantee a seat – and to my earlier point, we were still drinking wine at Gordon’s at quarter to the hour, and it was a half-hour walk to the restaurant… most likely longer as The European would be Magpie-staring at every jewellery shop we would pass.
If you head onto BAO’s website, the cover image is an overhead sketch of the Soho restaurant, in the evening. In the picture, a dimly-lit Lexington Street, complete with some drunken revellers outside the John Snow pub next door, gives way to the golden lights of BAO, and the bright ‘munching man’ sign in the window. There are patrons inside, eating and drinking merrily, and smiling waiters all around. The picture speaks a lot of truth, apart from one thing – in the sketch there are empty tables.
By some stroke of luck, by the time we arrived, at around half twelve, we bagged pretty much the last table in the house, in the window, by that munching man sign (you have the choice of some standard tables at the back, some stools around the bar and two cute window seats which allow you to stare out at Soho living its best life. Part of me kind of wanted to be at the bar, at the heart of the action, but the restaurant isn’t a particularly glitzy place to be – white walls, plain wooden counter tops, slightly uncomfortable seating and little décor – so we sure didn’t get a bad deal. The greeter was also our waiter – a non-stop Smile Machine, who was probably dealing with the front section and the door for a reason, as moments after we arrived his grinny “HIIII! Table for one/two?” script changed to a no less cheerful “HIIII we currently don’t have any tables but if you leave me your name and number?…”
In-between telling hungry salarypersons and tourists to go away and come back in an hour, the Smile Machine took our order (you check off what you want to eat with a pencil, and hand the paper menu back to the server). It didn’t take us long to choose as the menu is tiny, with food chucked out of the kitchen at breakneck speeds. Within ten minutes of sitting down, we were tucking into BAO’s classic pork buns, their fried chicken buns (a larger version of the one we had at the scam which was Bundance, but a full quid cheaper – mental note, ever go to a burger festival ever again), a lamb shoulder bun to share, Taiwanese fried chicken, sweet potato chips and guinea fowl Chi Shiang rice.
This is soul-comforting, feel-good food at its best. The fried chicken bun was as good as ever – crispy, pull-apart chicken with a hint of kimchi, hugged by that very unusual steamed-style burger bun (the sad thing was that the separate dish of Taiwanese fried chicken was exactly the same, without the bun, so we didn’t really need to order that, but hey, a problem I was happy to deal with). The classic pork steamed buns are kind of what made BAO famous in the first place, and whereas The European had tried them before, I had not, and they blew me away. The shredded pork, smothered in crumbly seasoning, melts in the mouth. We chowed them down in appreciative silence. The lamb bun – a gamble, as we don’t much care for lamb – was also really good. Again, the meat was shredded, taking away a lot of the stringy texture I despise so much about lamb. It was coated with a tangy, smooth mint sauce which, as the remnants of it dripped onto the plate, was good enough to be mopped up clean with the rest of the bun. The sweet potato chips (note these are fries, not potato chips) and the rice were surplus to requirements, as we were now already full, but the rice in particular was astounding – full of rich, fatty guinea fowl and bound together with egg yolk. As The European said, “I love how if I’m full, but find some other food tasty enough, I always find room for it”.
All this joy was washed down with BAO’s own ‘Lonely Moon Beer’; a fantastic session-style golden beer that’s light and easy to drink. You’re never feeling not looked after, and the hemmed-in seating (in our case, close proximity to the door and a good view of the ever-growing queue outside) means that you’re also never feeling not part of the action. The Smile Machine even had time to talk us through the type of rice that we ate, and where to buy it nearby (in case you’re interested, a Korean supermarket called ‘oseyo’ on Charing Cross Road).
So yes, we left BAO very happy indeed, an hour after we entered (we felt bad at the end, sitting and not eating, looking at all the hungry, miserable souls waiting outside). We also left £sixty lighter, which – considering BAO’s menu is full of small, cheap eats – is a little pricey, but then again, as I said, we ordered too much. So there was only one thing for it: to head back outside to the calmness of mid-week London, and find some frozen yogurt and a beer for dessert.
BAO is at the northern end of Lexington Street, next to the John Snow pub. Nearest station is Oxford Circus.
- Comfort factor: 6/10
- Returnability factor: 9/10
- Taste factor: 9/10
- Screaming kid factor: 7/10
- Wow factor: 8/10 (for getting a table in the first place)
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