I first tried the bao at the eponymous Soho restaurant a couple of months ago after a few false starts that invariably ended in a cry of, ‘Bugger this for a game of soliders, let’s go to the pub!’ I’m late to the party, I know, but fuck waiting two hours for tiny Asian burgers. I’d be up for it if they used a digital queuing system like most of the other no-res restaurants in the West End, so you can go for a swift one somewhere nearby, but they don’t. Turnover is too fast to accommodate dilly-dalliers who need more than a minute to down the rest of their pint. So would-be diners are instead left – literally – out in the cold, lining up next to a modified Temporary Bus Stop sign across the road.
The one time I went, I power-walked from my office in Covent Garden and was in the queue at 5:55pm. We were sat down at 6:20pm. This is considered Not Bad, and the food itself was very, very good. (For the uninitiated, bao are little Taiwanese sandwiches of spiced, meaty fillings in clamshells of steamed dough. Everyone is going potty for them.) But the rest of the experience was a bit shit. The second you sit down, a server is at your elbow to take your IKEA-style order sheet. You cannot buy a whole bottle of wine, lest you spend too long drinking it, and although quick service is always appreciated, food is churned out of the kitchen with such head-spinning efficiency that you find yourself bolting down your dinner just to keep up. The overall experience is the restaurant equivalent of the game Kerplunk: an hour of setting up for ten minutes of play.
Certainly, if you’re eating at an odd time or don’t mind queuing hours for fast food, give Bao a bash. The food is fantastic, after all. But what to do when you want proper bao in a proper restaurant? Why, you go to Peckham, to Mr Bao.
Unfortunately, I don’t live anywhere near Peckham. But I had been promising to visit Hannah there for ages, so last week I made the trip. And I didn’t have to worry about queuing because you can reserve a table; we sat at ours for a good two hours, and at no point did anyone try to chivvy us out, even though it was packed. We didn’t have a whole bottle of wine, but we could have. It was lovely.
And the food…! It’s wonderful. Possibly the buns are slightly thicker and therefore a smidge stodgier than its high-rent competitor in Soho, but really I’m nit-picking. In the interests of trying as many fillings as possible, we decided to divide and conquer, even though splitting bao can be a messy business.
The sweet potato fries (£2.70) came out first with a drizzle of wasabi mayonnaise that I wish had been served, in vast quantities, in some sort of gravy boat. A tureen perhaps. Or a bathtub. I wondered if they charge for extra mayo. I would have asked but the fries themselves were so utterly wonderfully crispy-crunchy we managed to smash the un-lubed nether fries before I had a chance.
Edamame (£3.00) came splashed in a soy dressing that I wished was a little thicker (but who cares, it’s three quid). Pork dumplings (£3.20) were well-stuffed and juicy, and came with a price tag that left me wondering if I’d spent the last five years dining out in Central London getting mugged off. I’d question the quality of the meat if a) it wasn’t so damn fine and b) I didn’t know it came from posh local butcher Flock + Herd.
We chose five bao to split between the two of us, eschewing only the tofu and the chicken. The beef brisket (£4.50) was a special I predict will make it onto the main menu within a matter of weeks – it was our mutual favourite along with the surprisingly satisfying shittake mushroom bao (£4.50), which you could feasibly eat yourself to death on if you weren’t careful. The meaty mushroom filling is carefully laced with a potent combination of teriyaki, miso mayonnaise and crispy little shallots, but non-vegetarians will be tempted to skip it. Don’t.
The signature slow-braised pork belly bao (£3.90) smattered in peanut dust was similarly moreish once I’d removed the homemade pickle, though I’m sure if the taste of cucumber didn’t make me want to chew off my own tongue its crispness would have been a great counterpoint to the velveteen slabs of meltingly soft meat.
The duck (£4.60), also a special, was a textural wonder, all soft and shredded with coriander and pomegrante seeds blushing prettily from under its pillowy bun, but didn’t do enough for me on the flavour front. After that magnificent mushroom thing, I wanted some wallop. I was most looking forward to the ‘Drunken Prawn’ bao with pickled mooli (£4.50), expecting plump, bouncy bodies smothered in spices, but was a bit disappointed with what amounted to scampi in a bun. I mean, I certainly wouldn’t kick it out of bed, but I’m positive the guys at Mr Bao can do better.
Hannah is a Mr Bao regular and has a sweet tooth, so we had to order the unadvertised Bao S’more (£4.00), which consists of a toasted marshmallow atop a butterflied bao, deep-fried and drizzled with dark chocolate. It isn’t on the menu, but after ours came out the two tables on either side asked after it, and soon we were all eating them.
It took me an hour to get home to my flat in Islington, which was a bit of a dick but never mind, we can’t be near everything, eh? I’ll certainly be making another pilgrimage south soon; even from North London, it’s still less faff than queuing for two hours in Soho.
Mr Bao, 293 Rye Lane, Peckham, SE15 4UA
Author: Emily Gibson
Emily is an urban adventurer, blogger and
glutton foodie on an epic quest to uncover the best things to eat, drink and do in London. She lives in East London and loves ceviche, cycling and magic shows. Lifelong nemeses include beetroot, beards and wine served in tumblers.