Quite some years ago, I took a stroll up the vertiginous incline of ‘Barracka’ (local parlance for Barrack St) with ‘The Money’, a potential investor seeking guidance, writes.
Though scruffy and beaten-up, I was convinced (and still am) it had all the potential to become a creative hotspot, a class of Bohemian quarter with huge footfall, where the right sort of food establishment could really prosper.
I make no claims to be the first to tap into Barrack Street’s potential for rejuvenation — that honour belongs to the original pathfinder, the late, lamented publican, Tom Barry, whose eponymous pub, halfway up the hill, remains one of Leeside’s most iconic drinking emporiums, for years almost the sole flickering ‘candle’ on a street grown increasingly ‘dark’.
In the years since The Money and I went a-prospecting on Barracka, Tom added a further two bars to the street’s portfolio but the real gamechanger was the arrival of Miyazaki (around the corner on Evergreen St but still very much in the heart of the ‘neighbourhood’), a tiny Japanese ‘takeaway’ that has become a national smash. Further additions include the excellent Alchemy coffee shop and Barbarella, a funky new boozer with an old school ambience, outside the walls of the splendid Elizabethan fort.
Now we have Bao Boi. Masterminded by Bryan McCarthy, Executive Chef at Greene’s Restaurant, it is an Asian-themed eatery specialising in the steamed Taiwanese bun known as a ‘bao’.
Cat swingers would be well advised to practice their craft elsewhere for Bao Boi is tiny: a compact service counter, stools lining one wall and the front window, all leaving room for little else, but tasty woodwork and a meandering mural by West Cork-based artist Corina Thornton make for a pleasant little space. The small kitchen is to the rear.
The menu is surprisingly extensive but today we are all about a bao. Our server advises that one makes for a tasty snack, two, a filling meal, so we order five and pass the time with a fresh, crunchy Asian slaw and a funky sweet/sour in-house kimchi. The bao bun is pillow-soft and virginal pale-white, the elongated oval folded back over its filling. Our first rendition is the Vegan, a sweet, rich meatless ‘ragout’ of Ballyhoura Mushrooms with a clever vegan ‘mayo’. It is easily the match of its subsequent carnivorous competitors.
We are told Market Fish Bao contains plaice but it looks more like whitefish, probably haddock, delicious breaded fish smothered in a fine Seaweed & Lemon mayo with pickled dillisk. The splendidly-monickered Bao Chicka Bao Wow features tender chicken in a crisp coating with a seaweed salad and pickles while Beef Bao hosts tender braised featherblade, pickled gherkin and wasabi adding a kick in the rear.
As one of our party is anaphylactic, a traditional Sticky Pork Bao is delivered with all the caution of a nuclear scientist handling high grade plutonium, in this case, crushed peanut, along with kimchi and Sriracha chilli sauce. Though sweet and tasty, pleasure is drained by the longing looks of the aforementioned anaphylactic, causing it to be wolfed down with scant pause to savour.
A Vietnamese-style Ban Mi baguette, with pork and beef, is authentically delivered, particularly, the fine bread from El-Door Bakery, on MacCurtain St.
I’m left on my own with the Skeaghanore Duck Hearts & Gizzards, the rest of the squad proving squeamish at mere mention of offal. Coated in panko breadcrumbs and deep-fried, they come with a dipping ‘sauce’, actually a turbo-charged dashi, but the liquid fails to adequately transfer its hefty umami to the crispy flavour bombs so I end up dunking them instead in a Sriracha mayo — every last one of them, criminally addictive little beggars blithely ignorant of my point of satiation.
On first glance, passing punters may well be inclined to dismiss Bao Boi as yet another takeaway on Barracka but it is so much more; Asian themes are brought to bear on solid Irish provenance with some mighty fine local producers (including superb Red Strand Coffee) and butchers underpinning the output, punningly dubbed ‘Corkasian’. Ally that to some serious craft in the kitchen and you have a fast food menu with a real Slow Food heart. Best of all, we’re only halfway through it, ensuring a rapid return in coming weeks!
€54 (for four, excluding tip, including two desserts, soft drinks)
Tuesday to Sunday, 12.30pm to 11pm
Bao Boi, 128 Barrack Street, Cork
Tel: 021-4311715; www.baoboi.ie