"It's an Asian taco, isn't it?" says Frank Yeung of gua bao, the steamed buns after which he named his South London restaurant: Mr. Bao.
"I just love them," he continues. "There are loads of places doing chicken satay or the Japanese yakitori-style, or sushi or ramen. It's an underexposed bit of food that we wanted to show London."
A few years ago, Frank left his job at Goldman Sachs after becoming disillusioned with working in the City. He started a burrito joint with a business partner but eventually had to sell his stake.
After that, Frank decided to move into more familiar food territory. He opened Mr. Bao, a Taiwanese restaurant serving dishes inspired by his father, Joe Yeung. Joe moved to the UK from Hong Kong several decades ago and ran a Chinese eatery in Salisbury until last year.
"I was always working in Chinese restaurants and the Chinese hotels. That's how I learned the trade," Joe explains. "I used to work in hotels and in French restaurants. Afterwards I opened a restaurant. I loved it."
"He's being quite modest!" Frank interrupts. "He worked three jobs at the same time to save money to open his own restaurant."
The Jade, Joe's Salisbury restaurant, was open for 31 years and specialised in Cantonese seafood dishes and dim sum. It closed in 2016 but Joe can't seem to stay away from the hospitality industry.
"It closed because he wanted to retire and now he's got bored!" Frank says.
Mr. Bao's signature slow-braised pork bao is one of Joe's original recipes and when I visit, the veteran restaurateur is on his feet, eagerly waiting tables.
Joe's many years in the kitchen also mean that he is full of useful culinary advice. So much so, in fact, that Frank has started an Instagram account to document his best pearls of wisdom. Named "Daddy Bao," a recent post shows a handwritten note from Joe that decrees: "NO hungry dogs in my kitchen." Solid advice.
"That restaurant work ethic has totally gotten into him," Frank says, "I'm a classic second generation, he's a classic first generation."
The buns at Mr. Bao are Japanese-style, comprising rice flour and plain flour at a 2:1 ratio with milk, water, salt, and yeast. They are then proven three times and steamed. Although the buns are not made on-site, Frank has them delivered fresh every morning from a trusted Hong Kong-Chinese baker. The meat for the filling comes from the Flock and Herd, a butchers a short walk away from the restaurant.
"All the little bits add up," Frank says. "If you've used a better pork and a better sauce and a good bun, it makes a big difference by the time you've used 20 ingredients."
Alongside the headline pork, buns at Mr. Bao come stuffed with fried chicken and kimchi, beer-marinated prawns with pickled mooli, and braised tofu. The weekend brunch menu is a little less conventional, featuring bao Benedict and mushrooms on toasted bao with wasabi crème fraîche. There are some things that Frank will never put in a bun, though.
"People keep asking us for a chip butty bao. Only for the particularly hungover!" he jokes.
Being in the presence of such bao masters, I have to ask Frank and Joe: what is the best way to eat one of these little steamed buns? Nobody wants to lose their roasted peanut topping to a hungry dog, after all.
"Sort of sideways. It's a bit like eating a burrito," Frank says. "It's always funny to see how people attack a bao. Do they pick it up and eat it with their hands like I would? Some people knife and fork it and then cut into it. There is a knack to it."
Frank hopes to open a second Mr. Bao soon and is angling to get Joe fully out of retirement for a weekly dim sum pop-up. In the meantime, Daddy Bao seems content to let his son take the lead.
"Well, he's good enough … " says Joe approvingly.
_All photos by Sarah Campbell. _