Eating Out: How did Bao Bun find out about the ultimate sandwich I made in 1986?
48 Botanic Avenue,
“WHAT is a BAO?” asks the capital-letter-happy website of Bao Bun on Botanic Avenue in Belfast.
“The Ultimate Sandwich!” it roars back in answer to its own question. All right lads, calm yourselves and, while you’re at it, tell me how you know about the time during the 1986 World Cup a seven-year-old me discovered the delights of putting every condiment in the house between two slices of white Ormo?
Red sauce, brown sauce, salad cream, French mustard, fruity HP sauce, Branston pickle, sweetcorn relish...
Ah, it’s coming home. I mean back. I mean... Whatever.
Anyway, it turns out that Bao Bun’s definition of “The Ultimate Sandwich!” is their gua bao, a Taiwanese steamed bread filled with, in this case, all sorts of Asian and non-Asian delights.
The place fits in well on Botanic Avenue, easily the most eclectic stretch of food options you’ll find anywhere in the north.
Inside, a few metal tables take up one wall, with a long wooden bench along the other. It’s a small space with the grey, vaguely industrial vibe you’d expect of anywhere aiming for cool, with a few bursts of red.
It seems more of a takeout place though, if you decide to stay, you can bring your own booze.
Beef, pork, chicken or tofu come on salad, rice, fries or in the bao themselves. After that you can choose from a variety of combinations, mostly with Asian leanings like the ‘hot’ – kimchi, sriracha, Asian slaw and ponzu chillis – and the ‘house’ Sichuan sauce, pickled carrot and daikon, Asian slaw and crispy shallots.
The chicken is fine, but more places need to follow the lead of burrito stalwarts Boojum – there’s one across the road – who manage to make their chicken selection every bit as interesting as their long-cooked pork and beef by using thigh rather than breast.
The stuff on the chicken is what makes the whole thing worthwhile, that and the bao buns themselves.
That mildly bonkers PR bumpf on the website assures you the buns are “only moderate with gluten, so you do not feel bloated after eating or left experiencing the dreaded ‘Food Coma’.”
They are delicate, airy and comforting, though moreish enough that you wonder just how many you could manage before approaching dreaded territory.
You get two in a portion for £5.95 and the ‘BBQ’ came with Korean barbecue sauce, pickled cucumber (some carrot snuck in there too), shredded lettuce and peanuts.
Every addition was impeccable, with sweet and savoury and sour and soft and crisp and crunch meaning all that ‘Ultimate Sandwich!’ bluster might have something to it.
The ‘sweet and spice’ rice box combined some of their deeply flavoured pork with pickled onion, ponzu chillis, cheese curds and sweet chilli sauce, all on a bed of fragrant, slightly sticky jasmine rice.
There was citrusy zip and a little heat from the chillis, and sharp bite and a bit of sweet from the blush pink onions. The slightly incongruous cheese curds added a bland freshness and the whole thing fit together beautifully.
Extra side orders of the slaw – red onion, red and green cabbage, carrot peppers and radish – and especially mixed pickles – carrot, onion, cucumber, daikon – add more freshness and zing.
Both the bao double and the rice were substantial enough – especially if it’s lunch you’re after – so the poutine fries were probably unnecessary. But, like so many unnecessary meals, especially ones involving chips with stuff on them, they hit the spot with a vengeance.
What’s they’re doing on the menu is anyone’s guess, a French Canadian sore thumb on a Taiwanese hand. Essentially a cheesy gravy chip, the original – which I haven’t tried, though it boasts a substantial enough Wikipedia page to make me consider pretending I have – consists of thickish-cut chips, with cheese curds that melt under a slick of (usually) chicken gravy.
In this one, the fries were thin and crisp, the gravy was their pork sauce, a thinner concoction with the vaguest hint of five spice, enough to tell Toto you’re not in Montreal any more, while the curds on top melted a little, but not that much. They also add some crispy shallots for luck.
It would probably make a Quebecois lose their merde, but I regret nothing. After a few drinks I could imagine regretting even less, and eating even more.
Pork ricebox £5.95
Chicken Bao £5.95
Asian Slaw £2.50
Poutine fries £3.95