Thursday, August 25, 2011

Eating NYC: Chinatown (and A Story of Char Siu Pork Buns)

From 'high brow' to nǐ hǎo! After visiting the trendy shops of Chelsea Market, our next destination was Chinatown. Tucked just below Manhattan's Lower East Side, Chinatown is a favorite with locals and tourists alike, most of whom are drawn by the promise of authentic cuisine, niche shopping (where better to go for loose leaf green tea or a new wok?) and a fascinating cultural experience.

Words of Wisdom from the New York streets: 'Whenever possible, keep it simple.'

Like most places in NYC, Chinatown also has a fascinating history - not only is it home to one of the largest concentrations of Chinese people outside Asia, but it's also one of the oldest. And it all began with a tiny smoke shop, opened in the late 1850s by Cantonese businessman, Ah Ken. These days, you're more likely to see greengrocers and fishmongers than cigar shops, but the area still clings strongly to its regional identity. Bakeries abound with slightly-sweet confections, tea shops offer brewed refreshment, restaurants vie over the title of 'best hand-pulled noodle,' and all around is an air of excitement, energy, and otherness.

No matter what city I find myself in, I'm always drawn to the bright lights and savory aromas of Chinatown, but this ethnic enclave has taken on a special meaning for me and my family in recent years. As children growing up in England, no visit to London was complete without a stop in Chinatown. There, my father made a beeline to the Kowloon Bakery where he purchased pork buns for each of us. The buns cost less than £1, which made them special because we could each have our own - a real treat for a large, frugal family. I loved the shiny, rounded, egg-brushed loaves and the sweetness of the char siu filling inside. If our timing was good, they would still be warm and sticky when we bit into them on the pavement outside.

The Kowloon in London, in 2009

My Dad passed away unexpectedly in 2008, and when I visited my sister in London a year later, we made a pilgrimage to Kowloon. The place has been cleaned up and expanded since our childhood visits, but it still sells hundreds of pork buns daily, now priced just above £1. We ate ours on the pavement in front of the shop, just like old times, and reveled in memories of our childhood and our Dad.

Although we never visited Manhattan's Chinatown as a family, the familiar pull was still there and we found ourselves stepping in and out of bakeries in search of our favorite pork buns. We finally found some, at two different locations, and brought our purchases home to be enjoyed for lunch the following day. Of course, the purchase of two different buns necessitates a comparison, so let me break it down for you:

The first bun came from the New Wing Wah Bakery on Grand street. Since we stepped in only minutes before closing, we were relieved to find they still had a few pork buns for sale. In spite of being incredibly busy, the service was quick and the young girl who helped us seemed eager to please. The prices were astonishing (only 70 or 80 cents for a larger-than-palm-sized bun!) and the perfectly glazed bun still tasted fresh when eaten in Battery Park the next morning. I kind of prefer my char siu warmed up, but I can hardly blame that on Wing Wah since I didn't devour my bun immediately after purchase!

Wing Wah's excellent savory bun, in Battery Park

Our second pork bun came from the Golden Dragon Boat Bakery and Cafe, on Bowery Street. Again, we arrived only a half hour or so before closing, but the place was packed - mostly with women picking up bags of pastries and older men chatting over bowls of soup or cups of coffee and tea. The Golden Dragon Boat is unique among Chinatown bakeries in that it also serves hot food and offers a larger area for seating. Since we were on our way to dinner (more on that later!) absolutely everything looked appealing and we ended up purchasing a bit more than just our two pork buns. The service was great - a young girl even recommended a few treats that, according to Chinese medicine and wisdom, are supposed to be good for expectant mothers!

In the end, we left with a Portuguese egg custard (they also had traditional and egg white varieties), a small whole wheat, cranberry and walnut loaf, and two enormous pork buns. The buns were easily 1.25 times the size of Wing Wah's - and for only 15 extra cents. Even better? The total for all of our pastries came to something just over $3!

Pork Bun from the Golden Dragon Boat - this thing was huge!

To be honest, both pork buns were delicious and really hit the spot in terms of nutritive and nostalgic value. I would like to have spent more time in the Golden Dragon Boat Cafe, since it seemed like such an interesting little place, with so much of offer. Of course, there are so many bakeries in Chinatown that our brief visit barely scratched the surface. I'm sure there are others equally as interesting, varied and friendly - and at Chinatown prices, you could try them all!

Golden Dragon Boat Cafe on Urbanspoon

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