This project began on one intern's walk to work.
Serious Eats World Headquarters is located on the edge of Manhattan's Chinatown. On my daily commute, I'd walk past no fewer than six bakeries and wonder: which ones were worth my time, and what should I get there?
Over a few weeks, the Serious Eats staff and I found out, hitting the streets to taste over a hundred pastries, buns, and tarts. This guide focuses on Chinese sweets, but we couldn't leave out a few savory items that are a quintessential part of the Chinese bakery line up. The results are below, but first let's take a quick look at what you'll find in a Chinese bakery.
Chinese Bakery 101
Chinese bakeries focus on single-serving pastries: small tarts, slices of Swiss roll cake, and buns with fillings like red bean, roast pork, taro, cream, salted egg yolk, and beyond. Most of them are are baked, but a few buns also come steamed, and some non-bread-based sweets like sesame balls are fried. Buns and cakes go for light, puffy textures with neat crumbs and a cake-like creaminess. They're less sweet than Western desserts and usually don't have icing or super-sweet fillings.
There's one all-important rule for Chinese bakeries: freshness matters above everything else. All these sweets taste best fresh from the oven, and a fresh-but-poorly-made pineapple bun will probably taste better than a several-hours-old version from a better bakery.
Most bakeries bake once a day in the morning, so the best time to visit is around 9 or 10 a.m., though larger operations like Tai Pan and Fay Da bake throughout the day whenever their supply runs low. Steamed buns, which are stored in steamers or steamed to order, hold up much better than baked ones, so those and tart-like pastries are your best bets in the afternoon. And take note that bakeries usually close in the early evening, so if you want a post-dinner sweet bite, you may be out of luck.
The second all-important rule? Don't judge a bakery by its looks. Those pristine-looking layer cakes you see? Usually not worth your time. That said, there are a few critical warning signs to watch out for, like dry or pale-looking buns or sesame balls with sunken spots. A quick squeeze of your bun with the provided tongs will give you a sense of freshness.
Lastly, don't expect great customer service from most bakeries in Chinatown (even if you're Chinese). Most servers speak limited English and will respond brusquely to any requests. The one exception we found was Manna House Bakery on Mott Street, where the warm staff traded jokes with us and gave us the most pleasant customer service experience in the neighborhood.
The Best Bakeries Overall
Our two favorite bakeries were, some what unsurprisingly, the largest: chains Tai Pan and Fay Da, with dozens of locations around the city. The Chinatown storefronts bake their buns onsite, and almost all of the sweets we tried from both ranked high, if not exceptional. They also bake throughout the day, so even though we timed our bakery runs for the morning, their freshness stood out.
If you're only going to visit one or two bakeries in the neighborhood, there you have it. For the run down on our favorite sweets from all over, read on.
The Best Pastries in Chinatown
Pineapple Bun (Baked): Lung Moon and M & W Bakery
The pineapple bun, a barely sweet baked bun topped with a crackly, crumbly mix of flour, sugar, and egg yolk, is the quintessential Chinese bakery sweet. (The crackly shell kind of looks like a pineapple, which is where it gets its name.)
Lung Moon had our favorite pineapple topping: sweet, crunchy, and crumbly, and once the bun was gone we found ourselves scraping the bottom of the bag for all the chunks of crust that fell off. The best bread came from M & W Bakery, where the topping was less crunchy and sweet but adhered nicely to the bread, which had the perfect texture: tender with a little chew. Get these warm if you can; a little heat takes them to great heights.
Red Bean Bun (Baked): Tai Pan
Tai Pan won this category with ease; literally all the other buns we tried were dry and stale. Though you'd assume one bakery's plain bun dough would be the same regardless of filling, we found this not to be the case in practice. Inconsistent quality may be one answer.
The red bean filling here is flavorful but not too beany, and its freshness made for an easy win. Note that these usually come prepackaged in plastic sacks, so you can check if your bun is still soft. with a light squeze.
Roast Pork Bun (Baked): Dragon Land
It's time for some real talk: we don't care for any of the baked roast pork buns in Chinatown. These baked buns glazed with syrup and filled with sweet and porky char siu, barbecue roast pork, should be a crowd pleaser, but almost every version in Chinatown falls short of truly satisfying. Yes, we tried Mei Li Wah's famous rendition and all the other crowd favorites, but too often we found gooey-sweet filling, gross gobs of fat, or stringy meat in stale bread.
The least objectionable we tried came from Dragon Land where the filling was pleasantly oniony and the bread was a good foil for the meaty filling. But our dream pork bun? Take the moist-but-not-too-fatty chunks of roast pork from Tai Pan, add the flavorful barbecue sauce from Golden Steamer, and bake it all in the impressively moist bread from Hop Shing.
Hot Dog Bun: Fay Da
The success of Fay Da's bun lies in the balanced contrast of meaty hot dog and mildly sweet bread. Most of the other variations we tried featured slimy sausages or candy-sweet bun that clashed unpleasantly with the meat. This restrained version carried the day.
Taro Bun: Grand 1 and Fay Da
Taro buns, filled with a sweetened filling of mashed taro (lavender-colored) or ube (dark purple, also known as purple yam), are a rare sight in Chinatown but worth seeking out. Fay Da's is bright purple and sweetened like frosting, encased inside a moist bread with a tight crumb. Grand 1 takes a more naturalistic approach with barely sweetened mashed taro (that really does taste like taro) and a lighter bread. We love them both.
Taro Puff: Fay Da
It's dense, even heavy, and especially sweet, but a great pastry: Fay Da uses the same bright purple filling from their taro bun and wraps it in flaky pastry, which mostly serves as delivery device for the payload. That filling has subtle notes of vanilla and coconut, which has us craving an ice cream version.
Plain Bun (Steamed): Golden Steamer and Manna House
Not all steamed buns are filled; some come plain. Golden Steamer's reputation for top-notch buns holds true in this category, but we also found some stellar ones at Manna House Bakery just down the street. The plain bun there is pure white and ethereally light, moist but not too chewy.
Red Bean Bun (Steamed): Golden Steamer and Manna House
As with the plain steamed buns, Golden Steamer and Manna House were the clear winners, with the latter beating the former by a hair. At Golden Steamer, the buns featured fluffy bread and a smooth, almost smoky filling. By contrast, Manna House intersperses whole beans in their filling, but take note: they're not always available.
Roast Pork Bun (Steamed): Golden Steamer and Delicious Bakery
We had better success finding steamed roast pork buns than baked versions, with two solid renditions. The bun at Golden Steamer is a good pick, like the rest of their offerings, with moist meat and a sauce that has impressive depth of flavor.
Delicious Bakery also made a strong showing with a nicely textured bread and a savory minced filling. Our only complaints: more fat than we'd like and not enough big hunks of pork to sink our teeth into. While both these buns get the job done, we think you can do better with Chinatown's other sweets.
Pumpkin Bun: Great Bakery and Golden Steamer
The mashed pumpkin in these steamed buns isn't anything like pumpkin pie filling; expect milder mashed squash, perhaps brightened with condensed milk, but not a spiced eggy custard. Great Bakery makes the only baked version we could find, filled with squash enhanced by just a touch of sugar. On the sweeter end is Golden Steamer's excellent steamed version, which hews closer to dessert than afternoon snack.
Salted Egg Yolk Bun (Steamed): Golden Steamer
One of Golden Steamer's most unique offerings is also one of their best: a sweet bun filled with grated salted egg yolk custard. The salty-sweet goo has a slightly gritty texture and rich, eggy flavor. We're addicted to this bun.
Lotus Bean Bun (Steamed): Mei Li Wah
Sweet, nutty and rich lotus bean paste brings to mind peanut butter with less stickiness. It's common in mooncakes but rare in steamed buns, though Mei Li Wah offers one with a mellow nutty filling. The bun itself is more dense than we'd like, but hot out of the steamer it's still worth a look.
Egg Custard Tart: Bread Talk
The Hong Kong-style dan tat, or egg custard tart, is a single-serving tart in a flaky crust with a yolk-heavy custard filling. The best are silky smooth with a slightly wiggly, creamy, rich (but not too rich) texture and a fairly strong eggy flavor. Our favorite in the neighborhood? Bread Talk, as Robyn discovered a few years back.
Portugese Egg Custard Tart: Tai Pan
Portuguese custard tarts have a looser custard and less eggy flavor than the Hong Kong style, with notes of vanilla and a signature burnished topping. The version at Tai Pan Bakery is just wonderful: sweet and delicately eggy custard with a buttery, shatteringly flaky crust, all in good balance and spotted a pleasant brown. As this Tai Pan location bakes throughout the day, you have a higher chance of scoring a warm fresh from the oven, and let me tell you, there's nothing like a warm egg custard tart.
Sponge Cake: Kam Hing Coffee Shop, Yummy Yummy Bakery, and Golden Steamer
We've already written extensively about our favorite sponge cake at the Kam Hing Coffee Shop, which is delightfully light, airy, barely sweet, and nicely eggy, always warm whenever you order it.
For this project we gave some other bakeries a try, and while we found it's hard to make a bad sponge cake, a few do stand above the rest. The sponge cake at Yummy Yummy Bakery is the largest we saw on our hunt, and though its batter was a little overworked, the end result was still plush and light. At steamed bun specialist Golden Steamer, the cakes are cupcake-sized and come several to a bag. They're pleasantly eggy and make a great base for a simple dessert.
Roll Cake: Pie Pie Q, Tai Pan, Fay Da, and Manna House
Roll cakes are like sponge cakes with a denser batter that's baked into a flat sheet and then rolled up with a slightly salty cream filling, usually made of shortening. Almost all bakeries make the plain variety, but if you're lucky, you can find some more interesting flavors: coffee, mango, and green tea. Chinatown is full of bad roll cakes—stale cake or too-sweet greasy frosting—but there were a few clear winners.
Pie Pie Q's was the freshest of the bunch, with a nice homemade flavor to boot. The frosting tasted of dairy and the cake was velvety, with just enough sweetness to counter the ample salt in the filling. If you don't like the idea of a salty cream filling, Tai Pan's sweeter version is just the thing, with soft cake and a buttery filling. (Fay Da also made a strong showing in this category.)
For a flavored cake, try the coffee version at Manna House Bakery. The frosting here is more shortening-heavy, but the salty filling takes a backseat to the light coffee flavor of the cake itself. Avoid the plain roll cakes here, but if you like cafe au lait sweets, this is perfect.
Wife Cake: Double Crispy Bakery and New York Mart
The perfect example of a Chinese sweet, this pastry eschews tooth-aching sweetness for a subtle, sticky-chewy wintermelon filling that has a taste and texture reminiscent of mashed sticky rice. Traditionally, the flaky pastry surrounding the filling is made with lard, but some bakeries use shortening or butter instead, which, to be honest, is our preference.
The best we tried by far came from Double Crispy Bakery, even though it's smaller than most and has its off days. The pastry (with just a hint of lard) is crisp and flaky, and the filling is tender, not overly gummy. A dark horse favorite came from New York Mart, where the cakes are big enough to share and have a good balance of crust and filling. The wintermelon is just a little sticky but not treacly.
Mooncake: Lung Moon
Mooncakes are dense, pudgy pucks of enriched dough stuffed with fillings like bean paste, lotus seed, and salted egg. They're typically only eaten during the Mid-Autumn Festival and are more scarce in Chinatown the rest of the year. But the lotus-bean-filled versions at Lung Moon are tasty enough to eat year-round: the crust is tender and thin, supple enough to protect the smooth, dense, and rich filling. Even a small mooncake is enough to share with a friend; a tiny slice will fill you up.
Mochi: Tai Pan, Fay Da, and A-Wah
Chinese mochi come in myriad flavors but share the same basic structure: a ball of soft, sticky rice dough with a sweet filling and a coating of crushed peanut or grated coconut. A few flavors: taro, mango, green tea, peanut, black sesame, and red bean.
Tai Pan's mango mochi ranks as one of the best sweets across this entire tasting. The little blobs are creamy and taste precisely of fresh, ripe mango.Fay Da's taro mochi were also good, but less so than their winning taro puff, as this rice ball was a little too uniformly starchy.
Our third favorite is really a tang yuan, a rice flour dumpling, from the restaurant A-Wah. The dumplings are filled with black sesame paste and usually served in hot, sweetened water, but at A-Wah you can request them without the broth. The dumplings, coated in crusted peanuts, have a warm sesame filling that oozes with every bite.
Honey Crisp Noodles (Sachima): Lung Moon
Sachima are a little like rice crispie treats made of fried rice noodles formed into a brick and held together with honey-flavored syrup. They're a common find in grocery stores, but we had high hopes that samples from bakeries would be more fresh, as the ideal sachima should be soft with a faint crunch from the fried noodles and sweet with the slightest whiff of "fried" flavor.
As it turned out, most of the bakery versions tasted primarily of fryer oil, but Lung Moon's were just like what I remember from childhood. Neither stale nor overly oily, these have crispy noodles and a sticky chew from the honey syrup coating them. Sesame seeds scattered throughout are a welcome addition, lending a light toasted flavor.
As comprehensive as we tried to be, Chinatown has an enormous number of bakeries. Did we miss your favorite? Let us know in the comments.