One of these intriguing phenomena of the Hong Kong dining scene has been how, despite the mile-a-minute pace and ever-changing facade of the city and the innovative faces and flavours being played with for a raft of global cuisines – from Peruvian and Spanish to French and Japanese – Hong Kong’s Chinese cuisine has remained largely traditional.
Around a year ago, Little Bao began providing a rare, delicious exception to this rule. Starting as a small stall in the Island East Markets, focusing on her trademark Chinese burgers (Chinese-styled bao filled with braised pork belly, pickles and leek), chef May Chow brought a balance of the traditional with the new and now.
Now, the former Bo Innovation, Yardbird and TBLS chef is taking the bold step to expand the menu and open up a full-blown concept diner called Little Bao. Located past the usual stomping grounds on Staunton Street and towards the quieter stretch near Aberdeen Street, Little Bao’s vibrant storefront and big pink neon logo leads into a small, simple open kitchen, with a few bar stools facing the counter and a few facing the wall. It’s a tiny place, but full of energy and sends off a good vibe.
Before we even step into the diner, we’re wracked with questions about the concept: do they only serve bao? Do we go there for a snack or a meal? And with the word ‘little’ in their name, should anyone with a healthy appetite worry about the portion sizes? These trepidations are quickly eased once we are introduced to the menu.
On the right-hand side are the specialty baos, from the familiar pork belly to new additions like chicken, fish tempura and vegetarian. One thing they are very serious about is their prohibition on ‘bao cutting’, explaining that the burger loses its integrity and affects the experience of the bao.
While each bao is for one (and one only), there are plenty of other items on the menu built for sharing. Indeed, this is the most intriguing part of the menu. Because while the burgers are certainly Little Bao’s blue ribbon dish, we’re interested to see how Chow expands on her fusion philosophy.
First, we try the orange chicken, fried with a salted egg yolk glaze. We’re used to salted egg yolk being used pretty heavy-handedly in Chinese cuisine, but here it’s about balancing the flavour – and it works. The punchy salted egg yolk is a mere conduit to the fresh chicken flavour and any richness of the fried batter is cut away by the orange zest.
We also try the short-rib dumplings, which come paired with coleslaw. Though the ribs are tender, and the coleslaw accompaniment works well, the rib flavours are too strong to be a filling for a dumpling, leaving the casing around the meat seeming somewhat arbitrary.
The star of the sharing menu is definitely the clams in pepper miso broth. Though simple, the dish displays a perfect balance of oceany clams, buoyed by the fragrant aroma of white pepper and the salty under-note of miso.
And then there are the baos. We opt for a selection of pork belly and Sloppy Chan (vegetarian) baos to finish. The pork belly bao has just the right balance of fat and meat, with the condiments adding freshness to the flavour and the lovely juices soaking back into the bao, the flavours returning and returning again. Arguably, however, the Sloppy Chan is even more impressive. While vegetarian versions of burgers are often shunted as pale imitations of a meat bun, the meat-free Sloppy Chan suffers from no such difficulties. Packed with mushrooms, truffle mayo and pickled daikon, this bao offers an entirely unique flavour combo which resembles an innovative candy-flavoured mushroom with an almost floral back-end. It’s a new taste sensation that leaves us amazed.
Ultimately, what’s so impressive about Little Bao is how it’s taken familiar products and flavours – such as miso, pickled daikon, mushrooms and pork belly – that have been favourites in Hong Kong for decades, and given them a new, glorious life. It’s definitely a step towards a bold new Hong Kong cuisine. Lisa Cam
Little Bao 66 Staunton St, Central, 2194 0202; little-bao.com.