Pork Those Buns
Published: Monday, May 14, 2012
Updated: Monday, May 14, 2012 22:05
I like to think grand. Sometimes that means a food crawl with dozens of places. Sometimes that means Grand Street. Sometimes those worlds collide and you’re left with no choice – you have to do a pork bun crawl in Chinatown.
Pork buns, or char siu bao, are Cantonese-style buns (bao) filled with filled with barbecued pork (char siu). The buns come into two varieties: steamed, which are white and fluffy, and baked, which are golden brown and less doughy. Our mission: to find the best buns in town.
Although pork buns are savory items, because of the way they are made and the importance of bread in the dish the buns are typically sold at bakeries alongside custards and other Chinese sweets. I was initially thinking about doing a Chinatown bakery crawl, but my friends convinced me that it was not feasible in one outing (this took a lot of work on their part).
Scant reviews have been written on the quality of Chinatown’s bakeries, so I had to do some research, but eventually I assembled a list of six bakeries. Fortunately everything in Chinatown is within a five block radius so it easy to get from one place to another. Unfortunately this does not provide you with a lot of time to digest in between buns.
Before I launch into my review of the bakeries I would like to thank Bernice Yung (FT-MBA1) for being the cultural translator for the group (a small horde that assembled to partake in the day’s porky bread delights). Our eating activities would have been severely curtailed had Bernice not been there to properly communicate what we were seeking.
We kicked off the crawl at Queen Bakery, a tiny shop that could hardly fit the group. Instead of char siu bao we accidentally wound up ordering steamed pork and vegetable buns, which were solid, but in my mind can’t compare to the barbecue pork buns in terms of flavor or texture; the char siu inside the bun is covered in a sauce that contains with hoisin, honey, five-spice powder and other ingredients, and since the meat is barbecued it tends to be on the drier side, which means that it holds flavor better, mixes well with the sauce without thinning it, and does not make the inside of the bao soggy.
Fortunately it was a beautiful day, because en route to our second stop, on the other side of Grand Street, we ran into some latecomers who swelled our ranks to fourteen people, ensuring that we would not fit into any of the shops and would have to eat those buns in broad daylight. At Golden Steamer we ordered enough steamed pork buns to stock them out, much like any proper horde should. These buns were great and the favorites of several on the crawl – the meat was high quality and prepared well, and the sauce was sweet and tangy. Our only complaint was that the meat-to-bun ratio was on the low side, although once you bit into the bun the sauce helped to quickly collapse the airy bread and the ratio stabilized.
Bakery number three was on Canal Street at Sun Say Kai, where we were finally able to procure baked char siu bao alongside steamed ones. These buns were alright, with a better meat-to-bun ratio than Golden Steamer, but not great. There are two different types of sauces used in pork buns: one is redder, sweet and saucy, like the buns at Golden Steamer, and the other is browner, savory and tastes more like filling than sauce. This difference was the key factor behind people’s favorite bakery on the crawl. Sun Say Kai’s buns are of the latter variety, and
while this was the savory pork bun fans’ favorite bakery, my preferences lie with the sweet and saucy type.
Our fourth stop led us one block south to Mei Li Wah. This bakery often ranks on food blogs and boards as the top bakery for pork buns in Chinatown, but, sadly, we were underwhelmed with both the steamed and baked buns. Like Sun Say Kai, Mei Li Wah makes savory-style pork buns, but the meat was fatty and low quality, and the bread was dense and doughy as opposed to fluffy.
By this point the pork buns were starting to catch up with us, so we decided to take a break and head across the street to the Chinatown Ice Cream Factory, where, in addition to their standard flavors we also tried ones such as zen butter, green tea and lychee. If you happen to drop by and are overwhelmed by the selection but looking for something interesting, I would suggest the pandan or chocolate pandan. Pandan is a plant whose leaves are used in Southeast Asian cooking, and it imparts a slightly nutty or grassy, but very pleasant flavor. The closest ice cream flavor I can think to compare pandan to would be French vanilla.
After our brief break from food to eat more food, we popped around the corner, expecting to arrive at Ah Wong Bakery, but it was nowhere to be found, as though it had been swallowed up into the pulsing, amoebic and indistinct mass that Chinatown can sometimes feel like. Secretly relieved – even I have a limit to the number of pork buns I can eat at once – we walked over to East Broadway and passed under the Manhattan Bridge to arrive at Manna 2 House Bakery, our final stop on the crawl. Manna’s buns are also of the savory variety, and while not as good as Sun Say Kai’s, they were better than Mei Li Wah’s. At Manna a couple of my friends also tried an interesting savory bread that was filled with mayo and topped with dried pork, but I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it.