By Alex Distefano
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Parking lots in Manhattan are sitting ducks. Every inch of open concrete seems doomed to end up disappearing under a glimmering tower of real estate. But when the lot on the corner of Lafayette and Canal was transformed recently, it was, surprisingly, broken up into small, street-level retail stalls rather than luxury condos.
A wooden frame houses the stalls, which have locking gates and semi-permanent looking walls, and the entranceway, painted to look like a Chinese temple, has a speaker affixed to its back, blasting Chinese pop. The sign reads "Little Chinatown." For the most part, this urban strip mall consists of familiar Chinatown farethe Louis Vuitton bags have Ps mixed in to the monogram, and Prada has been reincarnated as "Pagoda."
But those who live and work near this intersection have discovered the real score in Little Chinatownhot, bite-size, custard-filled cakes that seem poised to become a local addiction. A sign describes them as "The Best and World Wide Cake," and I'd have to agree to that sentiment. The cakes are football shaped, but corn-themed. Though there's no cornmeal in the batter, each cake has a relief of an ear of corn on its surface, wrapped in its own husk like fat babies in tiny sleeping bags.
Watching them emerge from a miniature factory is the kind of thing that would stick in a kid's mind as magic, like watching cotton candy being spun at a fair. First a thin battersimilar to one you would use to make wafflesis pumped into tiny little molds, then thick, eggy custard is added to the center. Once both sides are browned, an apathetic teenager removes the cakes and places them in a second machine. This one rotates, snapping up the cakes one-by-one, and disgorging them, pristinely wrapped in plastic that immediately fogs with steam but is sturdy enough not to melt.
Despite the neat packaging, the cakes are best eaten fresh. The outside is slightly crisp and the custard is hot, sugary, and almost liquid. The owner, Q. Choi, is the first to open an American location of the Korean franchise, presently called DeliManjoo, but soon to be renamed SAC Delights. "Most people want a more American name," he explained. He plans to expand with many more locations, but also more shapes and flavors, like red bean and chocolate, and more sophisticated machinery.
Choi can instruct you on re-heating the delights in the microwave, which is good to know, even if the results are inferior, in the unlikely event that you and your friends will have trouble finishing 12 cakes ($3) on the spot.