Look away now, bao purists. For bao can be a personal and highly contentious subject. These steamed, milk-dough buns are often veiled in the fiercest secrecy, handed down in recipe form for generations or hunted down through the backstreets of Beijing. But the beauty of the way bao are trending Hard with a Vengeance on London’s menus this year is that there are buns for all seasons, and buns of all nations. Well, several nations. Prefer Vietnamese ca phe, Nikka whisky or Korean beer to wash down your bao? London has you covered.
Below are the painstakingly sourced best buns of London – and since man cannot live by bao alone, we’ve conscientiously covered the sides, cocktails and (regrettably) custard dumplings, too. It was our duty.
Fu Manchu Cantonese in Clapham North
Yes, you have to come South of the river for this one, and yes, it’s worth it. Named after the archvillain of Sax Rohmer’s novels of the early 1900s, the bar serves up a range of warped cocktail classics – Kwang Su Boulevardier, anybody? – to a loud soundtrack and an after-work Claphamite crowd.
Provided you’re not easily offended by people tampering with the classics, you can spend a whole meal roaming among their bao selection. It runs from the usual cha siu pork through to the lesser-spotted Ngo Shan Jin Bao – beef and Chinese greens, and fried rather than just steamed – or the Jai Lai Wong Bao, a sweet, serrated custard bun and the cause of some controversy at our table. Displeasing because it is, as mentioned, custard. Pleasing because the way the top of the bun is carved into and then deep-fried makes it look – and who knows? maybe taste – like a hedgehog.
Exposed brickwork, neon lighting, deep house on the decks – this isn’t, you might intuit, the place to take your small babies or your grandfather with tinnitus. But for those who like their steamed buns with a side of beatz, the latest addition to Clapham North’s under-railway-arch scene is a gift from the dim sum gods. Fu Manchu, 15 – 16 Lendal Terrace, Clapham, SW4 7UX. www.fumanchu.co.uk
Keu Soho Vietnamese in Soho
The latest offspring of the Vietnamese Kitchen empire – from the people who brought you Viet Grill’s painfully good Roasted Piggy Aubergine – already has an Old Street outpost. Like its more easterly sister, the Poland Street branch is informal, in the borderland between restaurant and deli, and with relatively few frills. Unless fantastic bao can be considered a frill in themselves. In which case, as many frills as you can eat, for the tiny price of £2.50 per bun.
Introduced to Vietnam by Cantonese immigrants, bánh bao are the Vietnamese twist on the traditional Chinese bao – slightly smaller, and often stuffed with pork and boiled egg. At Keu they’re mostly a corollary to the meal. We have a couple of the pork mince, sausage and yam versions between us, as a supporting act to a lemongrass chicken curry and spicy beef salad, to make it a fully-fledged meal. But Keu Soho’s location in the heart of Theatreland makes it perfect for a fast, pre-theatre hit of bao and beer to see you through to a later dinner. Keu Soho, 9 Poland Street, London W1F 8PY. www.vietnamesekitchen.co.uk
On the Bab Korean in Covent Garden
The veteran baoseeker will head straight to the On the Buns section on arrival at this second outpost from these Old Street stalwarts. As with Fu Manchu, there’s enough bao variety on offer that you could make a whole meal from the buns alone, although it’d be a strong person who could bypass the Kimchi Jeon pancake. The beef On the Bun dish is spectacular; the chicken On the Bun, although good, is so far from being the best incarnation of chicken on the menu – that award goes to the sticky, spicy Yangyum fried chicken – that you’d be better off ordering a side of wings.
And since On the Bab specialises in Korean anju plates – food typically intended to go with alcohol – it’d be churlish not to wash your Bulgogi-beef-on-the-Bun down with a Soju cocktail or a cold Hite beer. On the Bab Covent Garden, 36 Wellington Street, WC2E 7BD. www.onthebab.co.uk
Bull in a China Shop Fusion in Shoreditch
The menu at BIACS is a thing of great beauty, and slightly indeterminate nationality.
The bar-restaurant’s lineage is Chinese, the latest progeny from the Chan brothers of Drunken Monkey fame. The decor is carved wooden screens, candles, old medicine bottles: according to the press release, in deference to the early Chinese settlers of Limehouse in the 1920s. But with the balance of the drinks menu leaning in favour of Japanese (thanks to an impressive range of Nikka cocktails, and arcane Karuizawa and Akashi whiskies) and strokes of Japanese-flavoured genius cropping up on the food menu (whisky-glazed rotisserie chicken, panko-crusted chicken burger, Nikka-marinated pulled pork) you can see why BIACS is self-described as generally having ‘a subtle hint of the Orient’.
And the important thing to note about BIACS is that it’s the only place on this list with the Confucian sagacity to realise that there aren’t enough breakfast bao in London, and to take steps to fix that. Turn up at 8am on the heels of an all-night E1 warehouse rave – I believe this is a thing that people in E1 do? – and they’ll provide you with Lap Chang sausage bao for less than you’ll have spent on your glow sticks. Or if, like me and my sidekick, you’re there at closer to 11am on the way to the airport, they will also provide the best possible pre-Stansted Express ritual in the form of freshly-steamed sticky beef bao, egg and sausage muffins and fiercely strong coffee. Bull in a China Shop, Shoreditch High Street, London, E1 6LG. www.bullinachinashop.london
So there it is: official proof that you don’t have to go down, down to Chinatown anymore for the best bao in London. They are among us.