Steaming is the most underappreciated of cooking methods. Roasting, frying, sautéeing, and braising are all easy to love and promise flashy payoffs like crisp surfaces and fork-tender meat. Steaming gets held responsible for grayish broccoli and impossible, bland diets, but the method is also the secret to cloud-like steamed buns and wonderfully elastic rice noodle rolls. Two new downtown restaurants specialize in steaming. Both are bao specialists (those fluffy, white mantao-wrapped buns stuffed with all manner of good things), but the similarities stop there. Chinatown’s Golden Steamer offers its buns, dim sum, and rice noodle rolls in a bustling, no-frills take-out space, while the Lower East Side’s Baohaus stuffs its Taiwanese-style gua bao with meat from Niman Ranch, catering to a more gentrified crowd.
Golden Steamer functions best as a breakfast spot, because after about 11 a.m. the restaurant starts to sell out — the buns and noodles are carried out the door faster than the cooks in the back can make them. If you sit on one of the metal stools in the narrow space for a little while, you’ll see why: Tiny grandmothers pulling carts bigger than they are elbow in and buy up dozens of bao; tourists lost on their way to Little Italy stop for roast pork buns; skinny, hurried deliverymen perch on stools and quickly down their noodles.
When the larder is stocked, Golden Steamer sells an amazing plethora of bao — about 13 different kinds on most days, a testament to the place’s inventiveness. If you can wrap it in mantao bread and steam it, Golden Steamer has probably made a bun out of it. From the counter, catch glimpses of the small back kitchen, where cooks knead the snow-white dough. It steams up cottony light and mildly sweet. There are bao filled with the traditional Chinese sweet pastes made from red bean and lotus, and those stuffed with a gingery chicken or a juicy pork-cabbage mix. Some harbor a length of the star-anise-scented, dark-red Chinese sausage; others are goopy with lushly sweet egg-custard filling. My favorite is the imposing jumbo bao (which goes for the princely sum of $1.25, while the others are 70 cents), which is filled with a hearty softball of pork, hard-boiled eggs, and greens.
Some creations blur the distinction between savory and sweet: A salted egg-yolk bun gushes a filling with the texture and richness of melted butter, tasting like salty caramel with an oddly meaty edge. Pumpkin bao is reminiscent of a diabolically fluffy pumpkin pie, filled with a purée of the squash. Roast pork buns — sickly sweet and filled with goblets of fat — are the lone losers, in need of a more savory edge.
Golden Steamer also lists a selection of dim sum — an assortment that includes steamed rice noodles augmented with various ingredients, turnip cakes, steamed beef balls, and gelatinous sweet black-sesame sticks. The rice noodle rolls are thick and lack delicacy, but are satisfying to sink your teeth into. A particularly verdant rendition has a copious amount of parsley between the translucent sheets. Other variations include noodles filled with small pink shrimp, salty dried shrimp, roast pork, or that grayish but tasty minced beef ball mixture, which gels as it steams inside the noodles. Don’t forget to add a dash of sweet soy. You can also get the noodles cut short and made to stand on end, like a mini-garden of rice rolls, topped with spare ribs.
In a display rack, there’s a small selection of the East-West fusion, Hong Kong–style baked goods that you find at many Chinatown bakeries, like hot dogs stuffed into a roll. Those are best ignored in favor of the steamed items — unless you have a morbid curiosity, in which case try the pork puff, a cupcake-shaped thing made of a sugary crust filled with the terribly sweet roast pork goop.
Down on the Lower East Side, Baohaus is serious about making good gua bao — the Taiwanese-style steamed buns in which the fillings are visible between the two floppy halves of mantao, instead of hidden inside the fluff — but the place also cultivates a hipsterish feel of nudge-nudge wink-wink. For example, the name seems to be a clever play on the German design school, Bauhaus, and the tofu bao is called the Uncle Jesse, after the character in the ’80s–’90s sitcom Full House. Hip-hop plays on an iPod in the corner. One wonders what the grandmas at Golden Steamer would make of it.
The “haus bao” contains wonderfully garlicky, coarse-grained skirt steak, with sprinkles of cilantro, scallions, and a relish of Taiwanese pickled vegetables, which gives each bite a welcome jolt of acidity. The mantao wrappers are light and springy, best eaten straight from the steamer. We also liked the shredded chicken bao, filled with miraculously moist pulled chicken, doused in creamy chile sauce. But best of all is the fatty specimen dubbed the chairman bao, which harbors a tender, sticky slab of pork belly, at least a quarter-inch thick, sprinkled with coarse Taiwanese red sugar, crushed peanuts, and more of that pickled vegetable relish. It’s wonderful, and might even be better than the one at Momofuku.
Sadly, the same cannot be said of the Uncle Jesse, which does not even have the charm of John Stamos’s hair circa 1990. The squares of tofu are coated in sweet potato starch before being pan-fried, but ours were underdone — each piece appeared to be slicked in mucus rather than a crisp coating.
For dessert, don’t miss the bao fries — mantao sliced and sizzled in hot oil, then doused in a honeyed black-sesame sauce. The spongy mantao soaks up the oil so that it tastes like the best, crunchiest fried dough you’ve ever eaten. The fries are Baohaus’s creation, perhaps inspired by the cravings of late-night drinkers. They almost make it worth braving the LES bars.