Manhattan's Chinatown is a huge neighborhood that seems to be getting bigger every day. Although it's a good thing that the neighborhood offers a nearly endless number of eateries, you may be overwhelmed by all the choices. Where do you go on an empty stomach? What do you order? Sometimes, when you're faced with such a wealth of options, it's best to narrow your focus a bit. This, then, is a guide to Chinatown bakeries. (For our purposes, we went to both the main part of Chinatown—between the Canal Street and Grand Street subway stations—and to the less-touristy East Broadway section.) With at least a bakery per block (and sometimes more), you should never be too far from one.
Bakeries in Chinatown offer steamed and baked buns, sandwiches, cakes, bread, and cold and hot drinks. Some also have dim sum and small rice dishes. Since items tend to be ridiculously cheap, bakeries are a good place to go to if you need to use up some loose change. Buns cost between a paltry 65¢ and $1, cakes will only set you back about $1, dim sum and small rice dishes are $2 to $3, and drinks cost between $1 and $2.
Lately, prices for items in Chinatown bakeries have been increasing by 5¢ to 25¢—a bit of a shock if you're accustomed to seeing mindbogglingly-cheap prices—but remember that the prices are still cheap compared to the rest of New York City. For the best prices, visit smaller bakeries where items tend to be 10¢ less than at larger bakeries.
Reliable choices found at just about all bakeries are the baked roast pork and hot dog buns. If you're looking for something sweeter, go for egg custard tarts (don tot), pineapple buns with egg custard filling, milk cream/cocktail buns, Napoleon walnut cake, or vanilla roll sponge cakes. If you're looking for a loaf of bread, I'd recommend the Pullman bread.
Ho Won: Located at the intersection of Elizabeth and Hester, this is where I usually go. They have really good pork buns, and I recommend their lotus-leaf-wrapped sticky rice (joong).
Mei Lai Wah, Chatham Restaurant, Sun Say Kai: There are often crowds ordering buns at these places. Mei Lai Wah has good roast pork buns and special big (huge, really) steamed buns, along with sweet, deep fried, flat dough. At Chatham Restaurant the roast pork is especially good and for only 65¢, the cheapest I've found so far.
Fay Da: I usually get my bread from these bakeries. This chain has a few locations around Chinatown.
A Word to the Wise
Keep in mind that when ordering at a Chinatown eatery, unless there is a single line (rare), you'll have to "fight" your way to get your order in. Also, some people order buns by the dozens, meaning that the shop might run out by the time you place your order. However, if you can get buns before everyone else, you know they'll be fresh.
Favorite Chinese Bakery Items
Roast pork buns/hot dog buns: When I need a filling and cheap quick bite. There are two different ways the roast pork buns are made: one with redder roast pork and the other is brown and has a little bit of gravy and onions. Hot dog buns are basically what they sound like: a warm, hot dog in a roll-like bun.
Milk cream buns/cocktail buns: I'd never been quite sure what the filling was in these, but a quick search on Wikipedia reveals that it's often leftover buns, sugar, and shredded coconut. The "cocktail" in the name may derive from the mish-mash of ingredients in the filling—said to be reminiscent of the way a bartender would make a mixed drink.
Sweet topping buns/pineapple buns with egg custard filling: A bun with a crunchy outside, filled with egg custard.
Special big steamed buns: The ones from Mei Lai Wah are huge, practically an entire meal unto themselves. Here's what you'll find inside: roast pork, part of a hardboiled egg, and a small piece of Chinese sausage.
Egg custard tarts: The classic Chinese bakery item—it's best to get one when it's hot right out of the oven. Although you can find them in many flavors, including papaya, Portuguese, green tea, and strawberry, my favorite is the plain one with a flaky crust.
- Pullman bread: Great for eating by itself or making sandwiches with
- Napoleon walnut cake: Flaky, creamy goodness
- Vanilla Swiss roll: A deliciously creamy and soft cake
- Paper wrapped cake: A light spongy chiffon cake
- Pizza buns: Pizza + sweet bun = weird (but a good weird)
146 Hester Street, New York NY 10013
MEI LAI WAH
64 Bayard Street, New York NY 10013
9 Chatham Square, New York NY 10038
SUN SAY KAI
220 Canal Street, New York NY 10013
FAY DA BAKERY
82 Elizabeth Street, New York NY 10013
191 Centre Street, New York NY 10013
83 Mott Street, New York NY 10013
123 Bowery, New York NY 10002
DOUBLE CRISPY BAKERY
230 Grand Street, New York NY 10013
TAI PAN BAKERY
194 Canal Street, New York NY 10013
GOLDEN KING BAKERY
90 Bowery, New York NY 10002