BAO London Fitzrovia Review - Food-Spotter
After consuming Taipei’s finest Bao on the regular whilst living in Taiwan – I thought it woud be nice to finally try out the infamous BAO London, which I had walked past an umpteenth number of times outside its Soho branch where you always notice a retro bus stop sign painted with the Bao logo and a long line of people queung up patiently. It’s safe to say that the average wait time maybe close to the hour mark(!).
“I always wonder if a food place with such a long line and wait is a sign of greatness, hype, or the blind following the blind…”
I check the BAO London website for branch information and notice that while I’ve been away in the Bao motherland (Taiwan), they have now opened up another BAO London branch in Fitzrovia AAAAND that branch takes reservations.
With the reservation made for early evening, it’s time to get my Bao on! Staff seem friendly and I get a seat by the central bar as pictured in Bao’s cute Japanese influenced drawing…
The menu is relatively simple, and for those that do not know, a nice Taiwanese touch! This form of ordering is typical in Taiwan when going to local spots to eat – some places have a laminated piece of paper and a crayon (save the trees!).
I’m here just to try the Gua (Pork) Bao, although I see the other options they just served a distraction as I wanted to see if the staple is anywhere as good as the queue/hype/reviews this place has received.
Time to compare, Bao for Bao. ROUND 1…
If i’d never eaten this before I would think this is rather cute. Small fluffy steamed bun, filled with lean shredded pork, topped with miscellaneous greens and crumbled peanuts. Perfect to hold in one hand and nibble away.
*** insert disastrous record screech sound effect ***
But the reality is that the Bao is on the small side (ok, maybe closer to tiny) compared to what I’m use to. Taste wise, it’s average. It’s fairly flavoursome but the braised pork was on the salty side. The chefs at BAO London opted to use lean pork, but it would have been nice to have a mix of lean and fat pork meat.
After the let down of “The Classic”, I had higher expectations for this Bao, which uses pork belly. In my mind, I’m having visions of the soft pork fatty cuts I’ve had at a popular Gua Bao place in Taipei that I frequented while I was living in Taiwan.
*** insert disastrous record screech sound effect ***
Warning sign number one, the pork belly meat colour is cleanly visible and doesn’t seem to have been braised in the stock/sauce that usually gives Gua Bao the signiature flavour.
Taking a bite into it, it becomes apparent that this is just a cut of your standard cut of roast pork belly, with some sauce pasted on before being served. The flavour of it also gives this away. A bit lazy from the head chef(s) in my opinion.
The texture is that of your standard pork belly so it became a bit of a chew-a-thon instead of the soft, tender, fatty pork affair that every Taiwanese would know.
Deep Fried Bao with Horlicks Ice Cream
This sounded beautiful, my imagination fusing the novelty flavour of Horlick Ice Cream with the thought of a Bao being deep fried – I can’t fathom what it looks like but it sounds like so much fun!
Served up is an ice cream sandwich/burger. The fried Bao is crisp but still bread like. For some strange reason, I could not taste the Horlicks. But the item as a whole, taste/texture wise is not interesting at all. BUT, the concept is GREAT! Just sad to see it doesn’t work so great in reality.
“Its been kinda bad so far…. but what’s the fried chicken saying though?”
Curiosity made me wonder if another Taiwanese classic, Fried Chicken, was also going to be as underwhelming as the Pork Bao. Somewhere deep inside me, I was wanting there to be some redeeming factor for the food at BAO London, something to justify all these crazy long queues I’ve witnessed.
Taiwanese Fried Boneless Chicken Thigh
Arguably the best I had during my visit. The crispness of the chicken coating is very much on point. Smart use of the thigh meat means it does not taste dry. The spicy red ketchup-esque sauce has a good hot kick to it. But because of the sauce already being dolloped on before it was served, I could not accurately tell if the chicken was like that found in Taiwan which uses soy and some other ingredients to give its distinct flavour.
“DAMN HOMIE…. so you’re saying there’s a lot of suckers queing up for substandard Taiwanese Gua Bao!?”
Kind of. If you’re not familiar with the cuisine it’s a fun experience as there’s a psychology to trying lots of small different dishes – and beyond the Bao offerings, there’s other small plates which I didn’t bother with but I’m sure they have good and interesting flavours. This was strictly about the “bread and butter” of this place as the name suggests, the humble Bao.
But, if you’re in tune with Taiwanese cuisine and here for the Bao’s, ironically BAO London will let you down with its overpriced, sub-standard mini portions.
The service was okay, some smiles; when questioning the staff on the fried chicken portions (got to ask after the Bao portions), the young man working here had no grasp of how big a chicken thigh was. He was young if that’s any excuse.
On the plus side, the branding is really good. There’s a fitting theme that feels uniform from the logo, website, menu design and staff attire. In addition there are some great staff benefits for those working here.
Is it bad that the positives are not about the food but the brand image?
Save your time and money (literally) and visit this place instead for your true Bao fix. If you’re happy to eat without caring what the Bao could have been, then you can add an extra star to the rating and make your reservation right now.
31 Windmill St
London W1T 2JN
Closest Station: Goodge Street & Tottenham Court Road