Restaurant review: Boxing clever
Bao by Dead Famous: A refreshing taste of the Orient for those who like food on the go or just prefer to take it easy
Botanic Avenue in Belfast's south central heartland has suddenly crossed the line from gone-to-seed to up-and-coming. Formerly an elegant shopping street featuring the old York Hotel, the Arts Theatre and a tidy little railway station, Botanic lost its mojo over the last 15 to 20 years as top end shops moved away and something altogether more bohemian moved in.
Life is now being breathed back into the Victorian avenue. No Alibis book store has been the retail sector's shining beacon on the avenue for the last two decades, mixing book sales with cultural engagement throughout the district's economic downturn and its subsequent comeback.
But barely noticed has been the blossoming of independent, quality fast food, Asian and hipster restaurants. At the top of the street is Molly's Yard, the quality Irish offering with a hip and Beatrix Potter charm. Further down, there is French Village, All Seasons, Boojum and Build-a-burger. The Chip Company rubs shoulders with The Pizza Co, The Other Place and Kurrito. Sakura mixes Japanese and Chinese and now, possibly for the first time anywhere Northern Ireland is an outpost of Taiwan.
Bao by Dead Famous is a darkly lit, moody 'n' mean, tin-top tabled joint which manages to celebrate grime and abandoned warehouse chic while remaining spotlessly clean and weirdly cheerful.
Gua-bao is traditional Taiwanese street food (shortened in the west to "bao") which features steamed bread folded over to carry within it any variety of contents. Pork is the usual filler along with a variety of pickled vegetables and sauces. Those familiar with the Bubbacue and Boojum assembly line experience will find the Bao by Dead Famous ordering process familiar.
These assembly lines work well. They are efficient, rhythmic and predictable. This explains why hundreds of people are happy to queue for the likes of Kurrito, Slums, Bubbacue and Boojum: they know the line will keep moving.
Not only are the processes well known to punters but Bao is similarly priced and also based on food from far away. It shares that world food vibe which at first appears exotic but on closer inspection is fairly safe and without too many surprises.
The gua bao is a large fluffy cloud of white bread, six or seven inches across and half an inch thick, as white as a new Belfast jawbox and as soft, airy and comforting as a slice of fresh Ormo pan loaf. There is plenty of it. Stage two; you choose your meat. There is pulled pork, braised brisket and "hacked" chicken as well as the tofu option. Where things become slightly more adventurous is the third stage and the sauces. These are interesting. Hoisin aioli, Korean BBQ, Sichuan mayo, Sriracha, pork sauce, aioli and coriander and lime provide distinctive identities, a new set of flavours with which we are not entirely familiar. But they are very good, well balanced and fresh.
The real interest, however, is in the final punctuation mark of the assembly line: the modestly named pickles and garnishes stage. Here you will find proper fermented kimchi resonating with that peculiarly attractive Korean bitterness. The rice vinegar pickled cucumber is as vibrant and eye-watering as anything Nordic and the Asian raw slaw is a munching great mouthful of cool, finely chopped radishes and peppers, scallions and other green bits.
It wouldn't be a proper gua-bao without some crunch on top and so there is a range of crushed nuts, crispy shallots, cilantro (coriander), shredded lettuce and sesame seeds with which to crown your bulging bao.
Bao by Dead Famous is friendly enough to become a regular haunt just like the other there-and-then food counters. The food is interesting enough to warrant a return. And the choice of plain seating or takeaway provides enough of an option for those times when you're alone or with company.
The place may at first appear moody, youthful and very urban but the cartoon images of skulls and angry girls which would have been a bit daring and underground 20 years ago are now charming and mildly amusing. The important thing is that the food is good, the service is fast and friendly and apart from the poor ventilation, it's a comfortable place to be alone with your bao.
Bao box: .........................................£10.00
Bao by Dead Famous, 48 Botanic Avenue Tel: 028 9032 9686