London has seen a bit of a bao explosion lately, with steamed bun restaurants seemingly popping up left, right and centre overnight. How is anyone meant to know where to go?!
Luckily we have an expert on our side - Lil B. This adorable takeaway light may be different from the baos you see reviewed here, but he knows what he’s talking about.
We took him to three of London’s best reviewed bao joints to see what he thought. Turns out it’s hard to go wrong! Just avoid the beef short rib from a certain one of these places and you’ll be okay...
Where: Spitalfields Market
Nearest tube stations: Liverpool Street, Aldgate East, Shoreditch High Street
First stop on the Bao tour was Yum Bun, a stone’s throw from Firebox HQ. If the stone you’re throwing is actually a javelin and you’re an Olympic-standard javelin thrower.
This tiny takeaway joint boasted a long queue that moved fast, thanks to the speedy service team. Even so, these buns would have been well worth the wait.
Being able to peer into the kitchen provided some nice entertainment, too. “Ooh, is that our chicken they’re frying?!” we wondered as they submerged the meat into the fryer. Turns out it wasn’t.
But 5 minutes later, it was! After doing a few laps of the market in search of a free bench, we finally managed to score a seat. It was time to chow down.
Be grateful for the images you see here because it was AGONY waiting until we had the perfect shots to get stuck in.
Buns - 5/5
Each of the buns were the same, as expected. Soft, fluffy and capacious, they were everything you’d want from a bao. No complaints.
Fish on the left, chicken on the right
Chicken - 5/5
(Japanese-style fried chicken, pickles, mayo, lettuce, chilli)
When the menu states Japanese-style fried chicken, that isn’t just baseless embellishment. With a thick, solid batter and an almost fluid centre of succulent meat, this is a bit of bird that could meet the stringent requirements of even the fussiest Japanese business man hungry for the perfect post-work snack with his beer.
The tiny shards of pickle mixed into the mayo were a perfect compliment to the chicken, allowing it to speak for itself without risking the dryness that can sometimes accompany everyone’s favourite white meat. And speak for itself it does - this was definitely our favourite!
Don’t worry if you’re not much of a chilli fan, they only added a slight kick rather than a whopping spicy boot of heat that only a pint of milk can cure.
Fish - 5/5
(panko-breaded cod, green chilli, coriander and lime sambal, lettuce, mayo)
This was the item we were most curious about. Despite the prevalence of fish in East Asian cuisine, most bao restaurants seem to lack a seafood option. Which is a shame, especially considering how delicious this one was.
They left behind the heavy batter and opted to fry these little fillets in panko bread crumbs, both delicate and wonderfully crispy at the same time. It’s very easy to overpower cod but they expertly swerved that, instead adding mayo and a herby sambal that didn’t overwhelm the subtle freshness of the fish.
Again, don’t fear the green chillies. We thought they were mild and that’s coming from people who sometimes order plain at Nando’s, so we’re hardly spice fiends.
Pork on the left, tofu on the right
Pork - 4/5
(slowly roasted pork belly, cucumber, spring onion, hoi-sin sauce)
They know what they’re doing with their meat at this place. The pork bao was another fine contender, featuring a perfectly roasted strip of meat that falls apart in your mouth as though torn from the bone and a pleasant garnish of cucumber and spring onion. A pleasant departure from other pork baos we’ve had in the past, with a giant tough steak of it falling out of the delicate bun.
We’ve only knocked a point off for the saltiness of the hoi-sin sauce, which was a little too much when paired with a meat as naturally saline as pork.
Tofu - 5/5
(crispy aromatic tofu, black bean mayonnaise, garlic choy sum, chilli pickles)
Vegan options are one thing, but GOOD vegan options are even harder to come by, let alone ones as fabulous as Yum Bun’s tofu bao.
Okay, so we didn’t vegan-ify it by removing the mayo, but the option is offered on the menu so there’s nothing stopping you from going that way.
Super crispy with a surprisingly soft centre, this tofu is a delight for both herbivores and carnivores alike. Their secret is keeping it thin to maximise surface area crunch, or so we imagine. Teamed with the tangy black bean mayo and subtle garlic choy sum, they have utilised the versatility of tofu’s flavours and texture possibilities to perfection.
If only we could make tofu like this at home...
Service - 5/5
Fast, friendly, can’t go wrong!
Upsides:Near perfect buns across the board, fresh fabulous fillings, multiple vegan options Downsides:Only bench seating and not many of them!
Lil B’s verdict:
Possibly the best baos in London.
Where: Fitzrovia Nearest tube station/s: Tottenham Court Road, Goodge Street
What kind of bao explorers would we be if we failed to visit the iconic restaurant that kicked off the trend? Some say Bao’s arrival in Soho is the move that brought baos to Britain. And thank goodness for that!
Their original venue, true to the rumours, had a massive queue, so we opted for the quieter Fitzrovia joint, a chic bi-level venue that defies its bustling London setting only minutes from the UK’s busiest high street.
We had high hopes for this one.
Buns - 5/5
Bonus points for creativity with that sesame bun.
Cod Black - 5/5
(battered cod, lemon mayo, hot sauce, NG sauce, sesame bao)
This was battered cod, but not as we know it. Banish all images of the oily amber crags of your local chippy’s batter from your mind, this is an entirely different ball game.
It was less batter and more a protective shell against the delicate flesh of the cod, providing a tantalising textural contrast to the softness of the buns and the creamy wetness of the sauces. The palate of flavours was more graceful than Yum Bun’s offering, with the sauces pulling off subtlety while simultaneously ensuring this bun didn’t veer into blandness, packing a seriously spicy kick towards the end. It was exquisite.
All this without even mentioning how it looks: a work of art. The speckled sesame bao bun stacked on the brick of blackened cod looked akin to a modern driftwood sculpture, brought back into the realms of edibility via the inclusion of the two sauces expertly drizzled across the bottom.
That said, we would be remiss not to mention that the sauces did slightly resemble the innards of a Creme Egg. It’s important not to take these things too seriously, they all look the same after your molars have been at them.
Beef - 2/5
(beef short rib, egg emulsion, fermented cucumber, crispy shallots)
We don’t want to exaggerate, but this one made us need to lie down afterwards. Obviously we didn’t actually lie down because we were in public and didn’t want to make a fuss, but it was so needlessly intense that we really REALLY wanted to.
It was severely salty. Thank goodness we were well equipped with a jug of complimentary water because the beef short rib had us reaching for it within seconds of the meat hitting our tongues.
Despite the pillowy plainness of the bun cushioning the blow, the saltiness of the meat was a real assault. A salt assault. If only it weren’t quite so extreme, this would have been a banger of a bao. The meat itself was tender and the egg emulsion added a nice bit of palliative flavour, but it was too late. The salt factor had already blown it. Not the one, unfortunately.
Confit Pork - 4/5
(aged pork belly, pork sauce, hot sauce, dried shallots)
Luckily the eponymous restaurant pulled it back with this bao. A slice of lean pork was tucked into the bun with a generous dressing of mysteriously titled ‘pork sauce’ and hot sauce. Presumably this was the same hot sauce from the Cod Black bao as it had the exact same fiery after-tang.
Each bite contained a well balanced cocktail of authentic Taiwanese flavours, leaving you with the impression that Bao know their sh*t.
The best bit? More crispy shallots than we knew what to do with.
Service - 5/5
Aside from being friendly and professional, our waiter said Lil B was ‘nice’. Rest assured he got a fat tip for his trouble, what a charming lad.
Upsides: Chic and impressive vibe without being pretentious or stuffy, authentic delicious Taiwanese fillings, convenient location Downsides: The beef short rib bao!
Lil B’s verdict:
A little slice of Taiwan amongst the hustle and bustle of central London, well worth a visit
Tiger and Pig
Where:Brixton Nearest tube station: Brixton, obviously
Tucked away in Brixton's Granville Arcade, you could be forgiven for completely missing this tiny bao restaurant. With only four diddy tables and casual communal seating, it’s not the place to bring your party of 20, but it’s a cracking joint for some quick but generous Taiwanese bites after work.
Buns - 5/5
Everything you would want from a bao: White, plump and slightly more substantial than the two restaurants above. More bun for your buck!
Pork Belly - 5/5
(with peanut powder)
This meat was BIG. A veritable slab of pork, far too big for its soft white home. But this wasn’t a bad thing. If you want this much meat AND this much tender fat then you’re going to have to compromise somewhere.
Brick of pig aside, the meat was topped with a thin satay sauce that marvellously toed the line between sweet and savoury, as well as tender pickles that wouldn’t taste out of place in a Quarter Pounder - make no mistake, that’s a good thing. Unless you’re the type to pick the pickles out, which we aren’t.
The superb cut of meat and excellently balanced sauce puts this bun at the top of the pork rankings. Nice one, Tiger & Pig.
Fried Chicken - 4/5
(panko fried with kimchi sauce and Chinese water chestnut)
You can’t go wrong with fried chicken, but this version is particularly pleasant. The fried chicken bao was stuffed full of it on top of a large helping of kimchi tucked into the deepest crevice of the plush bun.
As if mere kimchi alone didn’t provide enough fermented Korean zest to this dish, the chicken was dressed with a squirt of sunflower yellow kimchi sauce to tie it all together, an ideal finishing touch.
But no, they had to go one step further and pop two slices of Chinese water chestnut on top of the exposed filling. Don’t get us wrong, the flavours definitely work. But they seemed like a bit of an afterthought draped over the top instead of nestled inside or finely sliced.
Tofu - 4/5
Proving that there’s more than one bao house in London who can do tofu, this soy-stuffed bao was brilliant.
Featuring a slightly thicker and less crispy slice of tofu than Yum Bun, this vegetarian offering does justice to anyone looking for a kinder option. Even more similarly, you can make this item vegan by asking them to forgo the mayo.
Each bite had a lovely golden crumb to it, revealing slightly wet insides that went well with the soft dryness of the fluffy bun.
The only thing anyone could criticise this tender bun for is containing a little bit too much kimchi.
Service - 5/5
Seems impossible to run an inefficient, unfriendly bao place. Another 5/5!
Upsides: More brilliant buns, great range of sides, cosy setting Downsides: Tiny venue with small seating capacity, potential kimchi overdose
Lil B’s verdict:
I felt right at home, take me back there!
Turns out it's pretty hard to go wrong with bao buns in London!
We can't speak for the other dozens of steamed bun restaurants, but these ones are certainly bloody good.
In the interest of honesty, none of the food here was gifted or sponsored. We paid for every last crumb of peanut dust and leaf of kimchi, so you can rest knowing our opinions are 100% unbiased. Nobody can buy Lil B's approval.