Now don’t laugh,” began my mate Joe, peering down at the menu, in the polite, soft-lit bustle of BAO Noodle Shop. “But what actually is tripe?” It is, I think, a fair question if you are accustomed to Westernised menus. And maybe one that reveals the relative rarity of spotting this decidedly unsexy, old-fashioned offal — the stomach lining of cattle, for the record — being served at a hyped new restaurant.
Previously I would have mostly associated tripe with clichéd visions of the post-war industrial North (some of my wife’s relatives literally lived above a tripe and onion shop in Yorkshire) and the spongy, honeycombed rafts of “shaki” that are often bobbing in the lava-red depths of a Nigerian stew.
But now? Well, now I have seen the light. Now — thanks to BAO founders Shing Tat Chung, Erchen Chang and Wai Ting Chung — I think only of their crispy tripe: thin, wrinkled, golden-brown strips of the stuff in a sweet, spice-hammered crumb, served beside a cool spring onion dip. They are extraordinary; an unlikely frontrunner for dish of the year. And they may just be the deep-fried jewel in the crown of what is a very, very special opening. “Turns out I like tripe,” deadpanned Joe, dabbing at the final, almost Southern-fried crumbs.
That the BAO team are even launching another outpost at all right now feels a little surprising. Having shut Chinatown’s Xu and launched their most recent spin-off — King’s Cross’s fun, somewhat scattergun Cafe BAO — amid our interminable Covid winter, they would have been forgiven for consolidating. But no. They are back with another riff on some deep-cut, scrupulously moodboarded aspect of East Asian dining culture, in this case an ode to Taiwan’s sainted, ever-mobbed beef noodle soup shops. And if the room — a hall of glossy timber and brilliant white tile with a basement karaoke bar like something from a Wong Kar-wai film — has hidden depths, then the same can be said of the slender, tick-box menu.
Eel and smacked cucumbers, musky, vivid and sopped in a hot-sweet crimson chilli oil, offered the first open-palmed slap to the senses. Cheese rolls (practically inhalable tubes of deep-fried dough, primed with a jalapeño-flecked payload of molten Ogleshield) kept up the pace along with prawn croquette bao slicked in a black garlic glaze. And carefully crimped, bouncy cull yaw mutton dumplings showcased a kitchen capable of more than mere high-grade drinking food.
They were, ultimately, dishes that seemed to be all crescendo; dispatched in a gasping blur of raised chopsticks, licked fingers and cooling sips of crisp Taiwan Beer (I can also recommend the Slush Puppyish high camp of a coconut-infused, shaved ice strawberry daiquiri). But where I have struggled a little with the cohesiveness of BAO’s more recent launches — not just Cafe BAO but the somewhat bludgeoning, umami-forward flavours at BAO Borough — here, the main event of noodle soup (not just two beef varieties but a kelp and aubergine vegan number) offers a distinct focus and clear trajectory.
How best to convey the absorbing, richly bovine heat of the speckled Taipei-style broth, choked with tender pieces of beef cheek and short rib? Or the springy, sturdy noodles and rare-cooked sheafs of rump cap that can be dredged up from the lighter, lingeringly fragrant Tainan version? Roiling vats of hot soup may seem an exceptionally weird choice in the midst of high summer. But all I will say is that the fun, physical act of putting away one of these triumphs — the bowed slurping, the meat gnawing, the splatter and spray that possibly necessitates a log flume-style disposable poncho — feels like a perfectly timed, messy distraction from a twitchy post-lockdown atmosphere.
Ping paranoia will continue. Restaurants will be running a gauntlet of sudden, costly closures for some time. But for now, one of the most talented hospitality groups in the city has unleashed a transporting, instant classic. And temporary solace beckons at the bottom of a bowl.
BAO Noodle Shop, 1 Redchurch Street, E2 7DJ; Meal for two plus drinks around £100. Open Tuesday to Friday from 5pm to 11pm and Saturday to Sunday from 12pm to 11pm; baolondon/restaurant/baonoodleshop