Never mind WD-50 or Tailor: The most maverick cuisine-bending in New York happens in the bakeries of Chinatown. These shops mix up unlikely comrades: lotus seed and preserved egg pastry alongside a Neapolitan; jiggly mango rice balls next to Black Forest cake. Baked buns (descended from steamed pork buns) might be stuffed with corn and mayonnaise, mashed purple taro, fried chicken, sweet red-bean paste, or a hot dog.
I wanted to untangle the jumble of cultural influences that make these bakeries so intriguing. It turns out—as with so much “fusion” food—that their origins are vague and largely apocryphal. But it’s safe to say that the bakeries did originate in Hong Kong and Taiwan, and they’re often called either Hong Kong–style or Taiwanese bakeries. How to tell them apart? You can’t—they sell basically the same goods, so calling them one or the other depends mostly on where the owner is from.
Thanks to the whims of history and colonialism, 1970s Hong Kong and Taiwan were where Chinese populations were most exposed to Western culture—including European pastries. The pastries’ elaborate decorative style was appealing, but their taste was too sweet and rich for a Chinese palate that wasn’t used to baked goods. So bakers in Hong Kong and Taiwan started to play around with the recipes, making them lighter in texture and flavor—subbing sponge cake for butter cake, whipped-cream frosting for buttercream, and flavoring mousse with mango instead of chocolate.
Maria’s Bakery is thought to have been the first of its kind in New York. After wild success in Hong Kong, Maria Lee (whose mother happened to have written one of the first Chinese cookbooks) opened her first New York bakery in 1984. Although Chinese coffee shops had been trafficking in roast-pork and sweet buns for years, Maria’s Bakery was likely the first to offer such a prolific array of Eastern and Western treats: There were traditional Chinese pastries like moon cakes and sesame balls, and fusion-style buns filled with egg custard, coconut cream, lotus-seed paste, or hot dogs. And there were European cakes: elaborately layered Neapolitans, Black Forest cake, and Swiss rolls with chestnut cream.
At the height of her empire, Lee had more than 60 bakeries scattered across the globe. In New York, many baking families from Hong Kong and Taiwan soon followed her lead and opened up shops of their own. Although Lee went bankrupt in 1998, there are now scores of similar bakeries in Chinatown, and it seems like new buns are being invented every day. (A shop particularly close to Little Italy even offers pizza buns.)
There’s only one problem: The quality of the pastries has gone downhill since Lee’s heyday. Grace Young, a New York–based writer, daughter of Chinese immigrants, and author of The Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen, remembers the chestnut cake at Maria’s Bakery fondly, but doesn’t frequent Chinatown bakeries anymore.
Young told me that if she’s in the mood for a sesame ball or an egg tart, she’ll get them at a dim sum parlor. “But I’m not impressed with any of the bakeries,” she said. “Many of the pastries look more beautiful than they taste.”
Fair enough. But these places are enormously popular and are packed in the mid-afternoon, which is when many Chinese people have a sweet and a cup of tea or coffee. Surely, with so many bakeries in Chinatown, there must be something worth eating. I asked Young if there was one barometer pastry I could try at each bakery that would give me a baseline for judgment.
“Any bakery worth its salt should have a good egg-custard tart with a flakey, super-thin crust and more custard than crust. And yellow food coloring is appalling.”
After trekking through Chinatown and tasting egg-custard tarts at more than a dozen bakeries, I found a runaway winner: Manna House Bakery’s version has a crust that shatters into buttery flakes when you bite into it, delicate, soft-set custard that tastes simply of eggs and sweet milk, and a light, creamy yellow color that betrays no appalling food coloring.
After that, I started thinking about the three general categories of treats at the Chinatown bakeries: fusion-ish buns, traditional Chinese sweets, and European cakes. Some bakeries do one of these categories well, but not the others.
Most buns, whether savory or sweet, are fairly tasty and unapologetically junky. I enjoyed a hot-dog-and-scallion bun from Dragon Land; it’s an eggy, soft bun similar to an onion roll, with a hot dog embedded in it. If you think you’d like it, you would. (And vice versa.)
Moon cakes are traditionally eaten at the Mid-Autumn Festival, which falls on September 14 this year. The best ones I came across were at Lung Moon, where you can get the classic, most auspicious filling: lotus-seed paste with two duck-egg yolks. Cut the cakes into small wedges and share; the orange yolks are meant to look like the moon.
Lung Moon also has an excellent egg tart (the second-best I tried), as well as practically greaseless fried-sesame balls and old-fashioned white-sugar cake, which is bright white and gelatinous, served cut into wedges. There’s also plain, paper-wrapped sponge cake that billows like angel-food cake and is delicious. Steer clear of any of Lung Moon’s decorated European cakes, though.
Most bakeries, as a matter of fact, are making truly terrible Western-style cakes. Take, for example, a four-layer mango mousse cake with flavored whipped cream, mousse, sponge cake, and melon balls. The person behind the counter will take this exquisite-looking confection and toss it in a paper bag. When you get home, expecting the thing to be destroyed, you’ll be shocked to find that the cake is still pristine, with not a melon ball out of place. If you pick it up and squeeze it, or take a bite, you’ll soon discover that it is indestructible and doesn’t even seem to be made of organic—and I mean that in the broadest possible sense—ingredients.
Fay Da is the one exception. Its Western-style pastries and cakes are quite good—not on a Balthazar level, but well worth trying. The chocolate cake is particularly excellent; the mango mousse cake is fluffy and tastes of fresh mango.
I called up Fay Da to find out what it’s doing right. Kellen Chou, the co-owner of the bakery, told me that they don’t skimp on ingredients, baking with butter instead of margarine or lard.
The Chous are from Taiwan. Han Chou, Kellen’s brother, apprenticed under a baker in Taiwan who had learned Western pastry by cooking at a U.S. Army base. When the family came to the States, Kellen Chou went to cooking school; both Kellen and Han worked for other Chinese bakeries before opening their own.
I asked her if Fay Da was Taiwanese-style. She laughed. “Well, you know spaghetti is from China,” she said, joking about the futility of nailing down a food’s origin. “I don’t know why one bakery brands itself Hong Kong–style while the other calls itself Taiwanese. Except the steamed buns, most of it originated somewhere in Europe anyway. If savory food can be fusion, why not a bakery?”