They say that the mark of great food is whether you remember when, where and who you were with when you ate it… Even the smell and sensation of texture can linger on… That’s not all I remember.
Memories of my bao epiphany featured groans punctuated by exclamation: “Bloody hell! That’s the best damn bun I’ve ever tasted!” as I bit into a Lucky Bao bun …or perhaps my expression was an even cruder version of the above. Soft pillows of goodness playing hungry lips around pieces of tender pork, sauce and pickle. I’d discovered heaven in a bun!
Daud Kendall, then head Chef at Social Eating House + Bar, first made his mark on Gold Coast street food when, in 2014 with his wife Emmi, he began trading as Lucky Bao, popping up first in the Miami Marketta and then in the Cambus Wallace on Sunday nights.
Daud could not have chosen a better street food to occupy our waiting mouths. We loved bao from the beginning, and gobbled them up.
Although ‘bao’ is a term used to describe any sort of Asian bun which contains meat, the dish is very old indeed, originating in China over 2,000 years ago, even before the Terracotta Warriors. Emulated in many different countries of the world for its simplicity and flexibility, gua bao (literally meaning ‘çut bread’) is made from a steamed bread traditionally sandwiched around a filling of red pork belly, pickles, coriander and chopped peanuts. It was a dish that the Taiwanese took on as their own street food, a dish they called ‘tiger bites pig’, so popular that many refer to it as ‘the Taiwanese hamburger’.
First introduced to the West by David Chang in 2004, this street food gained popularity in 2009 when Bauhaus opened in New York, going viral in 2013 with the YouTube series ‘Fresh Off the Boat’. The Gold Coast’s debut was not far behind.
It’s totally understandable that when the Kendalls secured a permanent restaurant in a suburban shopping centre, bao would form the centrepiece of their menu, with bar snacks, sides and share plates providing the wings on either side. It’s a ‘clean cut short back and sides’ shop with a mix of seating inside and out, trendy and chic.
From their opening, crowds have travelled to Mermaid to dine on bao.
Why? Firstly, it’s the buns.
“The buns are a labour of love,” Emmi tells us, “a four-hour-long process that Daud begins at 6 every morning, and a temperamental one at that. You need to use a specific flour, and the bun consistency is dependent on temperature, humidity…you name it.”
But in the end the product screams difference. They’re softer, more pillow-like than any other buns we’ve tasted.
Then there’s the filling. Lucky Bao gives us a choice of six: the semi-traditional confit pork belly ramped up with cucumber sesame pickle, Taiwanese fried chicken with slaw and chilli mayo, salt and pepper organic tofu (in the Bauhaus tradition), twice-cooked lamb rib, tempura soft shell crab and braised beef cheek, plus fillings and sauces, of course. There’s a ‘two for $15 lunch’ special from 11am – 3pm, normal price for a bao being $8 – $9 each. Well worth the money for handmade goods, served on the most gorgeous hand thrown plates.
As Lucky Bao has become more established, the rest of Daud’s menu has risen in prominence. A selection of Asian-inspired bar snacks, small and larger dishes includes such treats as Chengdu street tofu with chilli and fried shallots, twice-cooked lamb ribs Sichuan style, dumplings, beef tataki with kohlrabi and gochujang mayo, sashimi of Hiramasa kingfish and an Asian chicken slaw so delicious that it could become a daily ritual. They vary in size from a tiny wonton sandwich to a piece of wagyu brisket served with carrot star anise puree, chilli garlic crumb and bok choy, all screaming with flavour.
Make sure you don’t miss out on dessert. Though the dessert menu regularly changes, we can’t beat the pandan panna cotta topped with sago and coconut ice cream. Dip in and share it if you must.
Of course, there’s a short list of wines, a mix of more appropriate beer and Asian cocktails on offer from the bar, but really it’s all about the bao. It’s a street food like no other, in this case made by a master and served in cute surroundings.
You don’t have to be big to be great. Become a convert, and bow down to boa!
6/90 Markeri St, Mermaid Waters Ph: 07 5679 6517
Open Mon – Thurs 11am – 3pm; 5.30 – 10pm; Fri – Sun 11am – 10pm.