Quality versus hype: finding a winner in Bao

Instagram. It is a wonderful thing.

Through the utilisation of such a seemingly simple application, I have made a wide-reaching group of London friends (which, believe me, is harder than it sounds in such a highly spread, hugely diverse city). It has also been one of the key drivers in the search for my ultimate ‘go-to’ places. Those precious few establishments that pop into mind without much thought when I am craving something in particular. Places that I know will not let me down.

So here is where my love affair with Instagram gets a little cloudy. Sometimes, quite simply put, it becomes that friend who I just love to hate. We get along just fine. And my love, before everything, is very real. However, as soon as the opportunity comes along to have a good bitch, I take it and run for the hills. Call me a bad friend, call me whatever: I.just.can’t.help.it.

What I am trying to say is: Instagram (or, more accurately, my fellow users), stop sending me to places I never really wanted to go in the first place.

Perhaps the fault is my own. I know that when I am scrolling through hyped-up declarations of love for relatively pedestrian fare that I am going to be no more impressed by a dish placed in front of me than I was on my iPhone screen. But by that point, it is too late. I have seen it once, twice, three times – and now I have to have it.

Which brings me to Bao. If you live in London, chances are that Bao has popped up somewhere on your newsfeed. Probably more than once.

It certainly had on mine. And finally feeling as though I had become the last person to join the party and the only person in London to not have pranced through its inviting little entryway, I dragged The Influencer into the hour-long queue one Friday evening. (It is worth noting that this is not nearly as tedious as it sounds if, like me, you enjoy standing on street corners downing sake. Yippee! A reason at last).

We finally got ushered into the warm wooden surrounds and perched ourselves on bar stools behind the front window before getting to work on the little paper menu.

First up was a single perfect scallop with yellow bean and garlic. Plump and juicy, it sat in a deliciously savoury sauce that we slurped straight from the shell. I could have easily had ten.

The pigs trotter croquettes arrived hot on the tail of our bivalve friends, which saved me from myself and the urge I had to tongue the shells clean (always the picture of elegance). We quickly inhaled the little nuggets – so quickly, in fact, that I forgot to take a photo. But they were just so tasty! A crispy golden shell encased a satisfyingly rich, slightly gelatinous, delightfully porcine filling.

Next was arguably my favourite of the small dishes – pigs blood cake with soy-cured egg yolk. Nom. Forever a sucker for blood pudding, I would line again just for this.

But then again, I also loved the forty-day aged Cornish beef rump cap with aged white soy (aged soy? Who knew!). Strong beefy goodness. I would cheat on my blood cake and return for this alone…so long as I didn’t have to share.

We moved onto the bao. Admittedly, I enjoyed the array of small dishes far more than their namesake steamed buns (with the exception of the fried chicken bao, which was up there because, well, fried chicken). I liked the classic bao, with slow braised pork belly, coriander, fermented mustard greens and peanut powder. However, my meal was not vastly improved by the addition of the confit lamb bao and I could have gone without it.

To finish, we had the fried bao with Horlicks ice cream. I used to eat the malted powder by the spoonful growing up, so the attached flavour memories meant it could do no wrong in my books. However, I did end up de-constructing it and eating the delight that was Horlicks with chopsticks for fear of tooth sensitivity that was likely to result from biting into a wall of ice cream.

I like Bao. I like it a lot. Would I go there with a group of friends to catch up over dinner and drinks? Probably not. Nor would I venture to Bao with more than one friend in tow. Majority of seating is counter-style, deeming conversation in excess of two people awkward…not to mention making wait times invariably longer (heaven forbid when I am hungry). To me, Bao is more of an in-and-out place that caters to quick, self-gratifying satisfaction. Taiwanese street food at its best – and it doesn’t parade itself as anything different.

I really had high hopes for the direction of this post. Just to clarify, my intention was to showcase that hype can often be a horrible, horrible thing. Thanks a lot for ruining that for me completely, Bao. Hype wins this round…

Perhaps I need to be a little less cynical moving forward.

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