Peckham Taiwanese small bites
Update 25/2/2018 – updated formatting and corrected a few typos
We Londoners like to think that we’re very cosmopolitan, open to new things and experiences, but when it comes to food we tend to prefer our exoticism in small, easily relatable bites. Chinese food is a prime example. A wealth of eating opportunities abound from that continent-sized civilisation, but the two biggest Chinese culinary imports of recent years have been comparatively conservative. Sichuanese food fits in with our Indian-primed predilection for (relatively hot) spiciness, while Taiwanese gua bao could be seen as little more than a mildly exotic sandwich. ‘Asian burger’ or not, gua bao are delicious and many of you seem to agree with a surprisingly large number of gua bao eateries opening up across the city with one of the best in Soho.
Mr Bao is a compact little place in Peckham. There are no more than 30 covers in this somewhat cramped restaurant. It’s so small, I suspect it may once have been a run-of-the-mill anglicised Chinese takeaway – many of which are still Mr Bao’s neighbours. The size of the premises has a direct impact on the evening menu which, combined with the street food-derived snack-sized portions, is short enough to be sampled almost in its entirety across a pair of visits.
Mr Bao weekday dinner
The pork bao is a classic that Mr Bao has to get right if it’s to have any credibility at all. Thankfully, the pork used here was tender and satisfyingly meaty with an unctuously fatty rind dressed in a mildly tangy and tart sauce. All the bao used here were fluffy and soft, without being excessively chewy or billowingly voluminous, with a gentle sweetness. Small, but perfectly formed.
Firm, earthy and herbiliciously sweet shiitake were used in the mushroom bao. Its character was somewhat obscured and unbalanced by the crisp and tart pickled onions though, as well as by the umami kewpie-style mayo. There’s the beginning of a good bao here, but it needs rebalancing.
At least the mushroom bao wasn’t as misguided as the prawn bao, an occasional special. A single deep-fried prawn-filled won ton was insubstantial, oily and unsatisfying while the mildly tangy sauce clashed with the creamy sweetness of avocado. This bao isn’t ‘special’ in any way.
Short, small and sliced Taiwanese sausage was lightly coarse and almost certainly made out of beef. Served in a thin and tangy sauce dotted with crisp spring onion pieces, it’s by no means bad but it’s not as viscerally pleasing as a good wind-dried Cantonese lap cheong sausage in my book.
Avocado Tofu was literally sliced avocado served on top of quiveringly delicate slices of tofu. The avocado, while creamy, wasn’t really necessary here – the milky tofu and bed of taut and firm seaweed sheaves were more than good enough on their own.
Mr Bao’s only dessert of deep fried bao is somewhat similar to the dessert available at Soho’s Bao, but with a more populist twist. The light, crisp and oil-free rice flour doughnut (that’s effectively what it is) contrasted neatly with a soft, sweet and squidgy marshmallow, but the uninspiring chocolate sauce added little.
Taiwanese root beer was less sweet than the more familiar American version and somewhat more aniseed-ish as it was derived from sarsaparilla rather than sassafras. It’s an acquired taste, one that I like.
Mr Bao weekend dinner
Taiwanese beef noodle soup is another of the island’s best dishes, but it gets far less attention over here compared to gua bao. While Mr Bao doesn’t serve this iconic dish, there is a mild echo in the noodle-less beef soup. Umami without being overwhelming or dependent on any obvious trace of MSG, the consomme-esque soup was dotted with tender turnip chunks and moreish slices of cabbage. Ironically, the tender strips of beef couldn’t hold a candle to these vegetables. If there’s one dish other than the pork bao that Mr Bao deserves credit and recognition for, it’s this heartwarming bowl of beefy goodness.
Mr Bao’s sweet potato chips was better than its counterpart at Soho’s Bao. A fluffy, crisp, light and airy thin batter gave way to reveal whole cut slices of gently, but distinctly buttery sweet tubers.
Served chilled, bitter and taut spinach was served with a moreish sesame seed oil dressing.
Mr Bao’s occasional side dish of kimchi is frankly better than the kimchee I’ve had in many Korean restaurants. Tart and sour with a tingly, spicy finish – it’s a winner.
Fried chicken was moist and meaty with a lightly crisp batter flecked with ginger and free of excess oil. Given some of the horrifically bad fried chicken you could subject yourself to in Peckham, this is nothing short of deliverance.
The same fried chicken is used in Bao Diddley, but an excess of very mild wasabi mayo and kimchi caused both the batter and the lower half of the excellent quality rice flour bun to become very soggy, very quickly. This messy eat needs a rethink.
The meat in the slow-cooked lamb bao was almost like goat in its dense, tender earthiness. The daubing of mint was a pleasing if somewhat predictable accompaniment, while the tart sharpness of the pickled red onions helped cut through the relative richness of the lamb. A good bao overall.
I have no idea why ‘smacked cucumber’ is so-named, but the cumulative tartness of these lightly brined slices was not only pleasing in its own right, but proved to be an apt accompaniment to the meatier dishes here.
Mr Bao’s kitchen clearly has some issues with consistency given the poor state of my second dessert bao. Although the marshmallow and chocolate sauce were unsurprisingly unchanged from the first time around, the deep-fried bao itself was unpleasantly oily and soggy.
While the cold-brewed green tea was lightly sweet and refreshing with a floral aftertaste, it wasn’t as bracingly cold as the cold-brewed green tea I had in Taiwan. I also preferred the latter’s crystal clear aftertaste, but this was still a good brew nonetheless.
Although the cooking at Mr Bao isn’t as well-balanced and consistently well-executed as it is at Bao, this is still one of the better places in London to get your Taiwanese bun fix. The pork bao and beef soup alone are worth making the trip to Peckham. With some refinement, this cosy eatery could be a flag-bearer for gua bao in London. But it’s not there yet.
What to order: Pork bao; Avocado tofu; Beef soup; Smacked cucumber; Sesame spinach; Kimchi; Sweet potato chips
What to skip: Prawn bao
Name: Mr Bao
Address: 293 Rye Lane, Peckham, London SE15 4UA
Phone: 0207 635 0325
Opening Hours: Tuesday – Sunday 11.30-15.00 and 18.00-23.00. Closed Monday.
Reservations: most tables kept open for walk-ins, so if you really, really need a reservation then book well ahead
Average cost for one person including soft drinks but excluding tip: £30 approx.
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“We Londoners like to think that we’re very cosmopolitan, open to new things and experiences, but when it comes to food we tend to prefer our exoticism in small, easily relatable bites.” Nailed it. I can’t see the hipsters liking chicken’s feet any time soon (although I have fed it to some English friends and they’ve actually liked it).