My photographer/wife fondly recalls one of first dates: lunch at Tai Pan Bakery (194 Canal Street). I was a starving musician at the time, and lunch for two could be had there for under $10. I hoped the novelty of the place would distract her from the fact I didn’t have much more than that in my wallet. Must have worked, since we’re still together 15 years later. And Chinese bakeries remain bastions of tasty value in our neighborhood. Today I’ll look at a couple classic Chinese bakery offerings, and suggest specific neighborhood places to try.
I’ll start with char siu bao, aka roast pork buns. The baked kind, not the steamed ones. Upon tasting one for the first time a drummer friend asked me, “are the Chinese big stoners?” I told him I didn’t think so, and he replied: “this seems like something a stoner would come up with: I want a doughnut… I want some barbeque… Hey, wouldn’t it be AWESOME if they made a DOUGHNUT with BARBEQUE inside it!”
It is awesome, regardless of your choice of recreational activities. Good examples are easy to find on Grand Street between Allen and Forsyth. Even a modest place, 162 E.B. Corp (unsurprisingly located at 162 East Broadway, formerly Golden Carriage Bakery) turns out a good example. Travel deeper into Chinatown and you’ll come across some famous examples, such as Nom Wah (13 Doyers) and Mei Li Wah (64 Bayard). Each has its adherents.
The same sweet/savory aesthetic gives us the pork bun also results in its more lowbrow relation, the hot dog bun. The sweet dough is wrapped around a hot dog, then baked. It’s pure junk food indulgence. While I’ve cultivated a prejudice against highly processed food (particularly meat) I have to get over my better sensibilities every now and then and have one. Because they’re freakin’ delicious. (I bring them home and give them a smear of Dijon mustard, which seriously ups the game. Try it!)
The Portuguese egg tart is another ubiquitous Chinese bakery item. The origin of these little delights is unclear, but I like the theory they traveled to Hong Kong from Portuguese held Macau. (They look exactly like the pastel de nata I used to get at a Portuguese bakery back when I lived in Montreal).
I buy many of these little tarts because my mother is crazy over them. I bring her a box when I visit. Our current favorites are from Natalie Bakery (271 Grand St). The place used to be called Egg Custard King, which the sign still reads in Chinese. They have several varieties available, but ones labeled “Portuguese egg custards”, with a little browning on their tops are the ones to get. At 90 cents each they may be the most indulgent thing you can get in the neighborhood for under a buck.
If you make it to Natalie Bakery with a craving for something savory they’ve got you covered. Their pork buns are a little skimpy, but they have other options available. My favorite is the fish sandwich: a sweet bun sliced open, stuffed with lettuce, tomato and fried fish. It’s two bucks – how are you going to beat that?
When I first had one I was actually taken aback by how tasty it was. I was sharing it with my wife on a train, and neither of us was going to let the other have more than exactly half. Realizing this we laughed at ourselves. How silly we must have looked: sitting on a train competitively devouring a single fish sandwich together. Kinda romantic.
JP Bowersock is a professional musician and music producer who has toured the world repeatedly, eating at top restaurants and hole-in-the-wall joints. He is a serious home cook with over two decades’ experience cooking for family, friends and fellow rock and rollers. Mr Bowersock keeps a toe in the wine business as well, consulting for the wine lists of several neighborhood establishments, including Clandestino, 35 Canal St. When not on tour or in the recording studio he’s scouring the neighborhood for frugal food finds.
The white wine that turned me around on whites (after years of being a “red wine guy“) was a Sancerre. These French expressions of the Sauvignon Blanc grape are dry, crisp and complex, with citrus fruit and sometimes even a hint of smoke. Unfortunately good examples are often expensive, so I rarely drink Sancerre. But less expensive wines of similar style and terrior can be found, and Henri Bourgeios’ Petit Bourgeois 2010 ($14), at Seward Park Liquors, is a great example. It’s crisp, with refreshing acidity balancing citrus fruit. Not a hint of sugar on the finish. It’s a more elegant choice than many of the almost cloying, higher-alcohol takes on this grape from California and New Zealand. Crisp is good. Elegant is good. And this “poor man’s Sancerre” is very good for the price.