It’s after 10pm and you suddenly realise you’re in need of food – where do you go? For so long, the answer in Brisbane has been home or McDonald’s, with the possibility of The Pancake Manor as a wild card option. At last, late-night bar-eateries like Bao Down Now have arrived to assure us that Brisbane doesn’t have to close early.
When catering to the midnight snack market, the Valley is the obvious place to go and Bao Down Now has picked a nice central location on Wickham Street, opposite Prohibition. The space is the shape of a large hallway, with assorted tables and assorted chairs at the back, and barstools and benches towards the front. The open kitchen begins right at the entrance, so hungry drinkers can see the food from across the street.
On a recent Wednesday night, the sight of fresh bao (Chinese steamed buns) pulled me straight through the doorway. A quick look at the menu and a jaunty greeting from the chef lead into an immediate order of crispy hot & sour crab bao. Late-night hunger isn’t an issue to be kept waiting.
Soft, smooth crab meat was wrapped in a light, crisp tempura batter, which was a perfect balance for both the crab and the sponginess of the bun itself. It was delicious. The tamarind chilli jam added some spice but, despite the name, no sour flavour made an appearance. When I’d ordered, the chef had mentioned they’d be changing the name of this bao. Now I understood why.
With my nocturnal cravings satisfied, I headed for the door. A farewell from the chef turned into a friendly conversation about the venue. Bao Down Now has only been open for about a month, and it’s already attracting bartenders, bouncers, chefs, and assorted hospitality workers from around the Valley.
“So far, everyone’s saying they love the food, but I need some criticism,” the chef confided, before immediately qualifying: “constructive criticism.” That sounded like a good problem to have, but I decided to help out anyway. Apparently, the pull of that kitchen is just as strong on the way out as it is on the way in.
The chef recommended the karaage fried chicken bao as a follow up to the crab, and minutes later it was sitting on a plate in front of me. Talk about good salesmanship. The karaage bao seems to be the crowd-pleasing hero option on the menu, with familiar but still exotic ingredients like sriracha mayo and pickled ginger. Those things go so well with fried chicken that it’s hard to complain.
Still, I’d promised to provide criticism – I had to keep trying. It was a struggle. Not only was this bun possibly tastier than the first, it was more addictive. I had to talk myself out of ordering another one. As I left, I told the chef there should have been more sauce on the bao. He seemed pleased with that.
Bao is certainly the main event at Bao Down Now, but for the very hungry, any bao can be ordered as a rice dish instead.
It’s easier to get drinks in Brisbane after 10pm, although on a weeknight even that can be a challenge. The Bao Down Now bar discourages drinking alone, offering a range of teapot cocktails to share.
For an alternative to an Espresso Martini, try the Vietnamese Coffee, complete with espresso, condensed milk and coffee liqueur. The Toasted Coconut includes gin and coconut water – it’s about time someone started mixing coconut water with something people actually want to drink.
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How does it compare with the other trailblazers of late-night Valley food, Alfredo’s, Kwan Brothers, and Heya? Unlike Alfredo’s and Kwan, which often feel too much like raucous extensions of Alfred & Constance, Bao Down Now has a more relaxed and intimate vibe.
With the kitchen at the front, the chefs are hawkers and head waiters all rolled into one. The creative yet simple approach to the food and drink is reminiscent of Heya, but Bao Down Now has the perpetual work-in-progress air of a friends’ spare time project, which is oddly comforting.
There’s always a risk that putting a pun in the name of an Asian restaurant will make it sound tacky. But ‘Bao Down Now’ is just so satisfying to say. Recommending it is as much a command as a suggestion.