The queues snaking down the street from BAO, a new Taiwanese restaurant in London’s Soho, are testament to the treats that lie within. The menu is small—just five signature baos, or buns (around $5 each), and a handful of larger dishes (think hand-sized earthenware bowls filled with sticky rice and seasoned guinea fowl)—and the minimalist space is tiny (bench seating and six tables), but the attention to detail and commitment to ingredients has won BAO a legion of fans since it opened in April.
BAO began life as a street food stall on a working market in Hackney in 2012. “It was just an experiment—it wasn’t super high risk, but it just took off,” says founder Shing Chung, who came up with the idea after travelling in Taiwan (post-art degree) with his friend Erchen Chang. Along with his sister Wai Ting, the trio launched the stall with just three types of buns—sticky sweet dough and comforting meat fillings covered in clouds of peanut dust that became the moreish must-try of London’s forefront-seeking foodies.
Word of mouth steadily spread until meeting demand became close to impossible. People were travelling from across the city and beyond. “We had someone come all the way from Heathrow and we’d just closed. They were SO upset,” says Wi Ting of the path to opening a bricks-and-mortar restaurant. Handily, one of the market stall’s customers was Karam Sethi, from lauded Michelin-starred restaurant Trishna in Mayfair. They teamed up to create a more permanent prospect: BAO the restaurant, which brings the ethos of fine design and culinary skill to a wider audience.
After only two months, the restaurant has captured the imagination of London’s foodies, elevating interest in Taiwanese ingredients and techniques, while retaining a very democratic price point (no dishes are more than $7). Gooey, dark fermented egg (it takes months to make) and daikon (a type of radish) don’t appear on many menus in the capital (or, indeed the world outside Taiwan), so BAO straddles that fine line between excellence and innovation that fuels the city’s food scene.
“Some of the dishes are authentic, some are our interpretation of Taiwanese dishes,” says Erchen, referring specifically to the aged rump cap (a type of steak) from Cornwall. It is served with aged white soy, a sweet and complex dipping sauce so rare it’s almost impossible to get hold of outside of Taiwan. “We have to order it through my mum, who used to live near where it was made in Ping Dong. They only give the first skim to friends and close customers.”
The rice, too, is very selective—a short grain from the Taiwanese equivalent of Champagne. “Each bag has an edition number so no one can fake it,” Erchen says. This painstaking attention to sourcing means imitators are rare (chancers can’t jump on this bandwagon like they can with mac and cheese), making the BAO founders de facto figure heads for Taiwanese food in London.
“There aren’t many Taiwanese places in London,” says Shing, hinting that he doesn’t think much of the competition. “We like a bubble tea place called Share Tea (Shaftesbury Avenue, and Hunan in Kennington is good.” But for now, Bao’s strict opening hours and fast sittings (you’ll be in and out in 45 minutes) are the best way to experience not just Taiwanese food, but the dishes at the forefront of a trailblazing new approach to Asian cuisine.
Emily Mathieson is on the U.K. beat for Travel + Leisure. Based in London, you can follow her at @emilymtraveled.