As a UCC alumnus, I can say that many of my lazier days were spent trapsing around the rebel city in search of hangover busting feasts without breaking the bank – my research was both extensive and thorough. That said, the breast in a bun years always left hearts pounding in a worrying way rather than giving me anything to write home about – sorry Jackie Lennox.
Ireland itself has become a university of ethnic cuisines, and Cork has long been a melting pot of delicious morsels from all over the world. While my memory of Barrack Street relates solely to the Barrack Street challenge (a 12 pubs style crawl I never quite made it to the end of), in recent times it has become home to Miyazaki, widely regarded as the most authentic Japanese restaurant in Ireland.
Even more recently, one of Ireland’s most revered chefs, proud Corkonian and champion of local produce Bryan McCarthy added a third premises to his portfolio which includes Greenes and Cask. This time, embracing the ever popular Asian street food trend opening Bao Boi, McCarthy set out to create an ultra casual, affordable take-away style eatery to marry the flavours of the East with world class Irish ingredients.
From the outside, this unassuming space looks like your average takeaway, but pulling up a stool at the counter you’ll quickly realise this is not your run of the mill chipper. A mural covered feature wall is as hilarious as it is eye-catching, with Corkonion characters wondering where their Local Food Hero, Bao Boi, could be. With “I love big baos and I cannot lie” emblazoned across it, we were about to find out if we could say the same of the Taiwanese street food favourite.
Sending in an order as full-figured as their graffiti homage to “Kimchi Adashian”, with the Insta-star squaring up for a selfie and pondering if her Bao looks big in this, we settled in and were almost immediately presented with a heaping bowl of house-made Kimchi(€3).
In my book, there is never quite enough kimchi, and Bao Boi’s version packed the optimum salty and fiery hit, with skinny strands of fermented Chinese leaf lending themselves perfectly to my more than dodgy chopstick skills. A deep bowl disappeared rapidly, so I was delighted to see an additional spoonful served with each of our Baos, which also made their way to us in rapid time.
Although tempted by a Vegan Bao with meaty Ballyhoura mushrooms, I wanted a real deal authentic taste of the delicacy so opened for Sticky Pork Bao (€5). Glistening pork belly was bursting out from a hand-rolled, supple and pert bao, steamed to perfection and cloud-light, allowing the meaty and moreish filling to do most of the talking with a Cork accent as clear as day, like a Karate chop to the tastebuds.
Across the counter, Beef Blade Bao (€5.50) was generously packed with strands of sweet and sticky slow-cooked beef, the humming heat of wasabi and sharp pickled cucumber. While we were advised one is a snack and two is a meal as a Bao rule of thumb, this baby was pleasingly overstuffed with melting umami-spiked blade and a seriously generous dish for €5.50.
This was definitely a fair compromise on the Miso Glazed Macroom Wagyu Bavette, which may have been a bridge too far but sounded like steak and chips perfection with a side of Young Buck Black Garlic Dirty Fries. I’ll be back for my filth fix of that most luxurious Garlic, Chip, Cheese – a more common late night order than a spice bag in the southern counties – an offer which I narrowly resisted this time.
Full disclosure: I am rather partial to a cheeky Cork accent. Equally shocking revelation: I’ve never, ever, had a Spice Bag and the offer of a Chan Chan version(€6.90), spiked with chef Kwangi Chan’s sell-out spice blend, seemed like an irresistible way to remedy my spice bag virginity.
We plumped for the traditional chicken rather than duck topping, as we had also tacked an order of Duck Hearts and Gizzards (€7) onto our long list of delights. Spice bag wise, I’m probably ruined for all others as, instead of greasy battered balls, crisp hand cut fries were slathered with perfectly cooked, tender stir-fried chicken strips, coated with the sweet and savoury master blend of spices from Kwangi. I can’t see anyone disliking this serious dose of comfort food.
On the duck front, it is safe to say this inventive street food dish didn’t steal my dining companion’s heart, served panko crumbed in a rich and flavoursome ginger spiked broth. However, I loved the use of every last bit of the gamey local Skeaghanore duck and enjoyed these best fished out of the broth and dipped in Chan Chan hot sauce to cut through the richness and maintain a little crispiness.
Our final dish couldn’t be overlooked on the menu, Taiwanese Black Pudding,(€6) a clash of cultures so tempting we couldn’t resist. We were glad we gave in, and our only gripe was not ordering two of these kebab-style beauties, seasoned with salted peanuts and served alongside mushroom scented dashi sauce and an egg yolk inviting us to dunk and destroy it, even though we were nearing defeat on the fullness front.
While we had to pass up the offer of a filthy sounding Bao Nut (a deep fried bao stuffed with ganache…) I definitely felt like many years later, I had finally conquered the Barrack’s Street challenge, managing to put away as much as we did.
This is the kind of food you would borderline collapse with joy over if you happened across it hungover. We didn’t, but the sweet, salty, crunchy, more-ish morsels felt like a cure in themselves, for a rainy Monday evening perhaps. Stuffed to the gills and walking away with a bill of a mere €34, we felt a little like we had committed a delicious robbery for the amount of crave-worthy dishes we had demolished.
Bryan’s latest crusade takes us across bridges and continents, and this funky CorkAsian love child is unlike anything else not only in Cork but the country. McCarthy’s love of Irish produce shines through in each and every dish, and offers a truly unique experience free from the perils of fusion cuisine. Bryan’s slow food commitment means Bao Boi delivers fast food you’ll be sorry to see finished.
It’s more than alright, boi and I’ll be back for that bavette.
Growing up with the name Darina, I was constantly asked if I could cook like my namesake. I am the only person to have contested both Masterchef and the Great Irish Bake Off and am passionate about discovering and creating delicious things – I can sometimes be caught in the act on TV3’s Six O’Clock Show or RTE Today. Working with TheTaste allows me to satisfy this craving and marries my food fascination with my love of writing and ranting. Follow me on my pursuit of deliciousness.