London is in love with street food. Where 10 years ago, adventurous eaters might have been prepared to wait months to get their names on an impossibly exclusive restaurant reservation list, most of us now like things speedy, simple and small. The city's street food markets have proven that we have a real appetite for what might once have been dismissed as “unsophisticated”. Times have changed. Chicken wings are in vogue. Tacos are taking over. Meals are much more exciting when they’re bite-sized.
It’s this newfound hunger that has arguably helped create the perfect environment for Taiwanese street food specialists Bao and Bing. Founded by ex-Ping Pong boss Paul Sarlas and heavily influenced by the people behind big-name eateries like Chotto Matte, this new restaurant is a bold attempt to bring the backstreets of Taipei into the heart of Central London. As the name suggests, the restaurant specialises in two of the relatively tiny island’s signature dishes - steamed bao buns and bing egg pancakes. However, once you enter the restaurant, it’s obvious that there’s a lot more going on than imitating tried and tested Taiwanese classics.
Everything about the environment has been carefully considered to recreate a neon-lit, Blade Runner-esque Southeast Asian hideaway. The walls are bathed in glowing red light and plastered in fashion magazine covers and cartoonish illustrations. An impressive bar dominates the main room. Downstairs, there is a restricted area for cocktails and snacking, that comes complete with its own private drinks cabinet and easy access to the electric blue, ultra-cool bathrooms. It feels a world away from its austere Marylebone surroundings.
For anyone unfamiliar with the tastes of Taiwan, Bao and Bing provides a great introduction. Divided into several sections, customers can choose from a range of small snacks (xiao), bao buns, dan bing pancakes, Taiwanese noodles and sides. There are plenty of highlights. The shitake mushroom and panko shrimp bao, for instance, are packed with flavour and heat from added red chilli and chiu chow mayo, making them a must for anyone who can’t make up their mind. The dan bing, which comes stuffed with everything from wok fried veggies to crispy wonton skin, is as much about texture as it is taste - and delivers both in bucketloads.
Delicious, too, are the exceptional Taiwan beef noodles, featuring slow cooked beef shin, hand-pulled noodles and broth that has been gently simmered for over 20 hours. The result is a bowl of soup that bursts with flavour “developed over 2000 years of tradition”, according to the menu. Central to one of Bao and Bing’s stated aims to honour the heritage of the “food capital of Asia”, it’s small wonder that Paul Sarlas describes these as his favourite dish in the restaurant.
Traditional Taiwanese is all well and good. However, for someone looking for a little more adventure from their dinner, Bao and Bing has a few tricks up its sleeve that sets it streets apart from the competition. At the corner of the bar, for instance, sits a small metal cage, loaded with numbered white balls. Any guest has the chance to pick a number, turn the handle and attempt to beat the odds and win their meal on the house. According to owner Paul, there have been around eight winners so far. It’s the ultimate game of Bao and Bing-go. But, beyond the lottery of free food, there is another, top secret aspect to the restaurant’s repertoire that’s sure to excite anyone who has ever complained about their buns being too small.
Stuck at head height to the back wall of the restaurant sit three columns of Chinese characters. To the untrained eye, they might look like just another decorative feature, designed to add to the ambience. But, to anyone in the know, these characters are the key to unleashing Bao and Bing’s secret edible weapon. If you can translate the code and repeat it to the staff, you will be able to order the restaurant’s unique “giant bao” - a super sandwich that’s around three times the size of its smaller steamed cousin. Stuffed with miso mayonnaise, smoked chicken, pickled carrots and roasted peppers, the dish is worth a trip on its own merit. Just be sure to brush up your Mandarin beforehand.
After savoury mains have made way and customers have either finished or been defeated by the secret giant bao, there is also the chance to indulge your sweet tooth. Handmade wheelcakes, sealed and branded with the restaurant’s logo are freshly made at the bar, while the more ambitious can get down and dirty with a multilayered “Pineapple Bing” crepe cake, that tastes uncannily like someone mixed pancakes with a melted tropical Solero. In some restaurants, it’s easy to give dessert a miss. Here, it’s one of the highlights.
The combination of tradition and added extras makes Bao and Bing an altogether different proposition to the dozen or so other Taiwanese eateries that have recently opened across the capital. Using this formula, owner Paul hopes that he can expand to reach new audiences in the near future, with particular emphasis on bringing Southeast Asian breakfast and brunch tradition to Britain. Already, he and his team have started thinking about the best way to introduce a bacon and egg bao to the masses. If their current efforts are anything to go by, this situation will be well worth keeping an eye on.
Doing something different with what may already feel familiar is a challenge that faces every restaurant. Bao buns are no longer the novelty that they may have been five or 10 years ago. But, with a menu full of surprising riffs on tunes we might well have heard before, Bao and Bing certainly stands apart from the rest of the field. Whether you have a craving for big bao or 2000-year-old noodles, there aren’t many itches that this kitchen can’t scratch. As Paul himself says, “you have to twist it” to make sure your food is still interesting. Obviously, we couldn’t agree more.