Ever more these days, the Auckland eating scene is growing. With independent pop ups, haute cuisine and fusion restaurants opening, this Auckland summer promises to be one to remember.
In September, two of these up and coming independent eateries, Judge Bao and The Pie Piper took over Coco's Cantina. With a menu inspired by the best of America and China, my curiosity was piqued...I had to go. Who knew this novel partnership would be one of the best culinary experiences of my year?
The incredibly dark, meaty flavours from Judge Bao and the perfect crusted pies from The Pie Piper blew my mind. I just couldn't stop raving about the sticky and sweet, slightly charred ribs or the spiced plum pie. The night was further enhanced by the lovely service, whom I later learned were part of Judge Bao and The Pie Piper team.
Debbie, who served us that night, happened to be one half of Judge Bao (the other being Jamie). Her knowledge and passion for good food shone throughout our chat. I soon learned that Judge Bao, after their short stay at Coco's, would be moving onto a Ponsonby venue. I was compelled to go and taste more of Judge Bao's creations.
So a week later, on a beautifully bright Spring day, I walked down an inconspicuous alley to Ponsonby's Food Collective. With the marked Ponsonby crowd, stark white metal lawn chairs and sparse wooden benches, it made for a distinctive scene. I met Debbie and Jamie, the Judge Bao pair, at their stall and they kindly offered me samples of the entire menu.
With the new location came a mostly new menu. Three titular bao were followed by slightly tweaked versions of the mouth watering ribs and chicken thighs, served at Coco's previously. The bao captivated me the most. They'd been served bare at Coco's, fluffy and light, and now they were filled with all kinds of wonderful combinations. From Judge Bao's version of the Sichuan favourite: mapo tofu, to pork belly with hoisin sauce and finally their take on a sloppy joe. I feverishly anticipated that first bite.
They did not disappoint. The pork belly was unusually soft. Braised for several hours it achieved a more gelatinous texture. The smear of hoisin sauce added a sweet, slightly spiced note of moisture to the bun. The all vegetarian tofu bao, which unashamedly substituted mushrooms instead of pork, was surprisingly delicious. The mushrooms brought the umami blast and the lightly fried tofu added a crisp contrast. It's not often I try a vegetarian option which has me coming back for more. The 'sloppy joes' crisp lotus root, could have been eaten with relish by themselves, otherwise enlivening the bao. All in all, a formidable delicious bao trio.
The ribs and fried chicken were as good as ever, and combined with the novel bao creations made for an unforgettable meal.
Afterwards the feast I talked to the energetic and passionate Judge Bao pair further. Jamie and Debbie gave insight into their culinary history as well as their upcoming ambitions. Turns out in October, they'd be plying their craft on O'Connell Street. Thanking them for the opportunity to try their wonderful dishes, I promised I'd be back...