From London’s vibrant pop-up restaurant scene comes a menu as rich and as varied as its heritage, Baozi where steamed buns are just the beginning. By Simon Stanley. Photos by Vinh Dao.
Baozi’s story started in England, when Chris Huynh, a Londoner born to Vietnamese parents, along with his Greek-British friend and business partner, Pablo Marks, began selling Chinese-style buns from a small food cart in the mouth-watering maze of London’s Camden Market.
The pair made the jump to bricks and mortar in 2015, setting up shop in the trendy East London borough of Hackney. Fortunately for us, Huynh soon decided to bring the concept to Vietnam. “My friends all said it would work really well in Ho Chi Minh City,” he says. “I come back here every year, so I thought there was definitely an opportunity there.”
The London influence is apparent as soon as you enter Baozi’s cosy dining room. The music is straight-outta-Brixton, flowing between soul and reggae and vintage Jamaican dub; the decor is simple and clean, and the crowd young and eager, all itching to get a bite of multicultural Britain.
It was in hiring a team of Taiwanese chefs to run the London kitchen that Baozi met with a new layer of culinary influence, picking up a few of their home nation’s cooking methods and flavours. The classic gua bao, was added to the lineup and Baozi had found its niche. “Gua bao is similar to the Vietnamese banh mi,” explains Huynh, “in that you can find it on every street corner in Taiwan.”
At just VND40,000, this fistful of moist, tender, braised pork belly, joined by Taiwanese pickles, coriander and crushed sugared peanuts, left the AsiaLIFE tasting team quite speechless. “How do you begin to describe something this good?” asked our editor. The homemade steamed bun provides a soft, springy contrast to the full-on meaty flavours within, adding a subtle sweetness that we’re all instantly hooked on. The tofu and chicken versions (VND35,000 and VND45,000 respectively) are equally as good, and with such low prices you’d be a fool not to order them all. Don’t miss the starters: a seaweed salad (VND45,000), sesame chicken wings (VND65,000), a homemade Scotch egg (VND35,000) — Wait a second… Scotch egg?
“Yeah,” says Huynh, “it’s all a bit of a mix up.”
Baozi HCMC has brought several souvenirs from home, including fried chicken and waffles, a popular trend in the British capital right now (from VND48,000).
A choice of three mains keeps things simple. The pork belly rice bowl (VND70,000) is another of the Taiwanese staples on offer, arriving filled to the brim with fried shallots, tofu, an egg yolk for moisture, and cubes of pork so tender we’re almost in tears.
While banh bao buns are nothing new in Saigon, it’s usually the sort of food you’d pick up at the side of the road or in a convenience store. “We decided to refine it a touch,” adds Huynh, “but still keep it at a good price point.”