WORDS BY LIZ & LJ, ILLUSTRATION BY JEN
Welcome to our new (-ish!) column wherein LJ (who lives in London) and Liz (who lives in Los Angeles) will go out to eat and order the same foods and report back on those foods, from their respective continents. Here we are with bao, hot dogs, and berry-themed desserts. (You can read Vol. 1: French Onion Soup, Spaghetti, & Doughnuts HERE)
1st COURSE: BAO
LJ: To celebrate our "one year of living in London" anniversary, Mark and I gave in to the foody bloggy Instagram publicity machine that had spent the past couple months brainwashing us into believing that our lives were valueless and would remain so until we ate dinner at London’s hottest bao hotspot, Bao, by eating dinner at London’s hottest bao hotspot, Bao. Bao was the talk of the Instagram town for most of the beginning of summer, until it was knocked off its pedestal by the jiggly magenta pork fat rectangle immersed in a puddle of different kind of fat dessert from the restaurant everyone calls “Nuno Mendes’ new place” like “Nuno” is a friend of ours who we all know personally and hang out with on the regs. In fact he is sitting across the table from me as I write these words.
I arrived at Bao a little before Mark and had expected to see a queue around the block but there was no queue! Or so I thought. It turned out that the Bao queue was positioned across the street instead of out the door, which is a deceptive place to put your queue since it tricks people who don’t initially see the queue into thinking they don’t have to queue outside a restaurant that you infamously have to queue for and that gets you extra-stoked to dine there THAT SECOND but then you’re hit with the harsh blow of realizing that you actually DO have to queue, but you’ve just gotten yourself so revved up for it you’ll do ANYTHING… I don’t know, maybe it just relates to zoning laws and I am reading too deep into things.
Anyway, the queue was not too long since it was mad early. A nice young Irish or Scottish (I forget- don't worry, I know the diff between the 2 accents) gent was tasked with keeping the queue-peoples' morale up and frequently came by to take our drink orders. He was peppy and upbeat in a really waitery way that I didn’t love but respected. I ordered a Diet Coke and he was distracted so said “Sorry, Coke, or Diet Coke?” and then I changed my order to a cider because that was obviously the Universe’s way of telling me not to get a soft drink, you know? Very cute cider, nice hefty glass bottle with the little apple-tag, the natural kind of cider that tastes like you chucked a bunch of apples into a vat of brown vinegar and then blended them up and ran the results through a Sodastream. It sounds like I am trying to describe something very disgusting but I like that taste. I love a vinegarious cider.
Mark arrived and ordered a queue beer. About fifteen minutes later, our table was ready, and the Irish/Scottish guy led us inside. The restaurant was tiny, but not unpleasantly so, and paneled in pale wood— teak? I don’t know the names of all the woods but I’ve been calling it teak in my head. Bao is aesthetically neutral in a way that a dyed-in-the-wool maximalist like myself can’t help but respond to with a resounding "eh" (I WANT A STAINED GLASS YIN YANG! I WANT AN AQUA EAMES CHAIR! BE ROCOCO! BE BY DAVID SALLE!)— but I’m not too proud to admit that it’s a decent-enough space to have spent forty-five minutes of my life dining inside. Although, as an extension of the Spartan décor, the poor waitstaff are forced to wear offensively drab labcoat-style jackets as a uniform: they’re white, buttoned up the front, with Nehru-style collars and Bao logos emblazoned on the chest. They would make anyone who wasn’t a one hundred-and-thirty pound dude look like a lump of something. Fabric, marshmallows, laundry, cake. Etc.
We ordered a bunch of little bits and bobs, as one does, in London in 2015. Bao is one of those places that gives you a little notepad and you tick off which dishes you’d like to eat, which I guess is meant to be "authentic"— but the font, and the little graphics of all the different bao flavs, were unabashedly “hipstery little bits and bobs London in 2015 place”/inauthentically the thing I think they were trying to be ("like actual Taiwan"), which I found a bit confusing. But authenticity is a pretty confusing concept, "authentic" a word that begs to be confined by a set of quotation marks and accompanied by an eye-roll and a shrug. But hipsteriness is pretty straightforward, pretty point-blank.
On the one hand, I wish Bao would pick one avenue and then go with it, but on the other, I don’t care. Bao can do whatever it wants. It's not really my prob. Bao was good enough that I would eat at it constantly if I worked across the street, but I don’t. It's majorly out of the way for me, and everything we ate there was only kind of good. Or maybe it was properly Good, but I’d been led to believe that it was going to be… not just excellent, but MIND-BLOWING, and that too confused me— were all the Instagram food blog corporate machine bloggers who claimed that these pouchy little dough-wiches changed their lives lying? Do they not love Bao as much as they say love Bao, or do they just have lower standards than I do? Or am I wrong? Was my palate off that day? Is Bao paying them money? Can Bao pay me some money?
Of all the dishes we ate that day, only three were actual bao. My least favorite bao was the fried chicken bao, which I can only describe as being “forgettable,” because I forget it, and my favorite was the classic bao, which has peanut powder on top. The bun was perfectly glutinous— a chilled-out, manageable level of wet— in a way that reminded me of either sushi rice or congealed white cheese on, say, a day-old baked pasta dish, eaten cold. Another thing that sounds revolting that I mean as a compliment. The peanut powder was cool because it tastes like peanuts and peanuts are delicious but I would have liked it better if it were just, you know… peanut butter. Or like a decadent peanut butter-oriented dessert or something more in that vein.
I think that if I could have reinvented Bao to suit my exact Laura Jane needs, I would have nixed every single bell and/or whistle, and ordered two plain buns: both served hot with a generous pat of melted butter. And I wouldn’t have queued for them; I would have eaten them standing up, problematically drunk, in my kitchen at three in the morning. I probably would have said, or hummed, “Mmmm” aloud. The butter would have dribbled down my chin, and I’d’ve thought I was going to puke before I ate them, but then I wouldn’t puke. They would have cured me.
LIZ: My bao day was two Saturdays ago, during the last gasp of L.A.'s disgusting mid-August heat wave. My friends and I had tickets to see Straight Outta Compton in the dome at Arclight early in the afternoon, so at some weird hour of the morning I drove down to Long's Family Pastry, which is a bakery in Chinatown I found by googling "best bao in los angeles." On the way I stopped at Guisado's and got a horchata spiked with cold brew and it made me feel like I could live forever.
Chinatown was a ghost town. L.A. was hot and asleep. The only other people in the bakery were a bunch of old men drinking coffee, hanging out in the ugly plastic booths. But I'm sure at some point in the day things really get hopping at Long's Family Pastry, since everything seriously costs about a dollar and it was all so yum-looking. While I was there I decided I'd go back every Saturday for the rest of my life, which is a promise I've already broken - though this past Saturday I did go to Big Sugar in Studio City and got the most beautifully gooey/salty oatmeal cookie in the world, oh my god.
So here's the part where I tell you I messed it all up: I thought I was getting black bean bao at Long's Family Pastry, but really what I ordered was black bean cake. And I have no regrets; my black bean cake was perfect. I don't even know if they have bao at Long's Family Pastry, so who knows what those weirdos on chowhound.com were going on about. Along with the black bean cake I got a pineapple bun and this crazy little can of iced coffee:
I brought the black bean cake home and ate it on the deck. On the ride there I'd listened to "Where Are Ü Now" and I had Justin Bieber's cute sad baby voice stuck in my head, which really enhanced the whole experience. My black bean cake was so fat and heavy and thick; each time I bit into it, my teeth sank so slowly through the nice gummy mochi and then the sweet crumbly black-beany paste. It was floppy and powdery and I held it with two hands and, after a few bites, peeled the top layer off: I like deconstructing my foods; sometimes when I'm eating sushi I take my chopsticks and pluck out the center of the roll, especially if it's an avocado chunk. I liked the textural experience of eating the top layer of mochi on its own, but then I missed the fatness of the intact cake and wished I could go back. I also had a few bites of the pineapple bun, which wasn't what I'd hoped for. I wanted it to be this insane thing where you crack it open and there's a whole world of pineapple inside: like, pineapple that's been smashed up and thrown into the oven until the sugar's crystallized, and now it's all sticky and sticks to your sticky fingers. Instead it was some plain old fluffy bun vaguely flavored with essence of pineapple. Whatever. This is my black bean cake btw:
After about half the black bean cake I felt full of mochi, so I wrapped the cake back up and stuck it in the fridge, then went to meet my people at the Arclight "Cineramadome." My review of Straight Outta Compton is I loved it and I mostly don't care that it's all sweetened up and sanitized. Like Eazy says to Cube: I like after-school specials. It gave me goosebumps at least half a dozen times and I cried a little and was completely unbored for the whole two and a half hours, and that all constitutes a successful movie-going experience for me.
That night my pals went to see Hannibal Buress at the Bootleg but I skipped it, since I just saw Hannibal Buress like a month ago and really I just wanted to stay home and go swimming and listen to my currently fave band, Spoon. Before getting into the pool I stood at my kitchen counter and ate the rest of the black bean cake and read the pieces about clams and vermouth from the previous Sunday's New York Times, listening to "Holiday in Waikiki" by the Kinks and "When You Dance I Can Really Love" by Neil Young and "Super Stupid" by Funkadelic and "The Bed's Too Big Without You" by the Police and "Pressure Drop" by the Clash. Then I made myself a white wine spritzer with riesling and Le Croix pineapple-strawberry, went down to the pool and put Spoon on, swam and swam and swam and swam. I thought a lot about how every swimming-pool movie scene shot from underwater is beautiful, and also about when Betty Draper says "Night swimming: it's divine" to Roger Sterling in season one. And I thought about how the shimmery-quivery thing that happens on the floor of the pool from the reflection of our Christmas lights matched up really nicely with the synth on They Want My Soul, and how I value and admire Spoon because they're so elegant about being immoderately romantic. I can't remember which Spoon songs I listened to but I'm sure I played "Anything You Want," which is my seventh or eighth favorite Spoon song right now, and maybe of all time: