#1: Bread Talk
#2: Golden Manna Bakery
A Chinatown egg custard tart taste test—who wouldn't want to do that? There are only, what, 50 or so bakeries in Chinatown? ...Wait, maybe this is a bad idea.
But Serious Eats intern Shell and I tasted anyway, because egg custard tarts are one of our favorite desserts. These small flaky tarts filled with creamy, lightly sweet egg custard are found in nearly every Chinese bakery (along with dim sum restaurants) and cost as little as 50¢ to a dollar.
We went into our taste test thinking it'd be hard to choose favorites—surely the whole family of egg custard tarts is delicious!—but we quickly realized after eating a few egg tarts, that no, oh no, they're not all created equal. Some were just plain bad, most were somewhere in the middle, and only a handful were memorably good. The differences aren't as noticeable when you're eating one at a time (you know, as a normal person would do), but if you're eating ten in a row, the good and the bad really stand out.
How did we do our taste test? By walking around Chinatown and stopping into every bakery we came across. (Google Maps and Yelp can't keep up with the changes in bakery locations.) From the end of Catherine Street, down Canal and up to Broome, we covered just about everything in between, either by walking in three-hour stretches and nibbling on egg custard tarts the whole way, or with Shell getting a few egg custard tarts at a time and bringing them back to the office for us to taste.
(Ideally we would've visited all the bakeries around the same time, in the morning when the pastries were most fresh, but we did most of our eating in the afternoon for convenience's sake.)
What were our criteria for a good egg custard tart? We rated them based on the filling and crust. The filling—generally made of eggs, sugar, milk (or sometimes cream) and water—should be silky smooth with a slightly wiggly, creamy, rich (but not too rich) texture and a fairly strong eggy flavor, balanced out by moderate sweetness. Thumbs down went to tarts with too-runny filling or over-gelatinized filling that was as solid as Jell-O, or fillings that were too sweet or not sweet enough. Some tarts were overbaked, resulting in a unappealing texture where the filling wasn't smooth and contained tiny holes. Also, some tarts were glazed with syrup—not necessarily a good or bad quality—but we generally preferred the unadorned ones.
Most egg custard tart fillings were satisfactory; the crust was the main deal-breaker that made it easy to give a tart the thumbs up or down. Some were so weak that they crumbled apart no matter how gently we held them; some were so tough or thick that they completely overpowered the flavor of the custard. And while cookie-like shortbread is an acceptable crust for egg custard tarts, none of the ones we tried were as good as the puff pastry crusts. The puff pastry crust is more popular (only a handful of the bakeries we went to used shortbread) for a reason: It tastes a lot better. The best puff pastry crusts were light, tender, but slightly crisp on the outside; flaky like crazy, but not powdery; buttery, but not oozing fat; and a touch sweet. (As for how to attain an awesome crust, I would trust The Wandering Eater's recipe.)
Some bakeries offered Portuguese egg tarts, known as pastel de nata in Portuguese, in addition to regular ones. They're also known as Macau egg tarts due to Macau having been a Portuguese colony; from Macau, the tart's popularity spread to other parts of China. This version features a spottily browned top—although in the ones we tried, the browned part didn't add much flavor over regular egg custard tarts. Another difference from regular tarts is that the Portuguese versions we tried mostly tasted like they'd been baked longer, resulting in a less smooth and creamy filling. A final blow is that most bakeries charged more for Portuguese egg custard tarts than regular ones. If we were in Portugal or Macau we'd go for their version, but in New York City's Chinatown, just stick to the regular ones.
Other egg custard tart variations included mini tarts and ones with different flavors. We tried six from Natalie Bakery (the bakery we found with the most variety)—papaya, matcha, almond, tapioca, strawberry, and egg white—but none was as good as the original.
We realize that we may not have tried every bakery nor arrived early enough to some bakeries to eat their egg custard tarts in their primes (although some of the best egg custard tarts we tried were eaten late in the afternoon), but we visited 43 bakeries in the end (a handful of them didn't have tarts). Here's the list:
Bowery Golden Dragon Bread Talk Inc. Carnation Bakery Century Cafe Chiu Hong Delicious Bakery NYC Deluxe Food Market Double Crispy Bakery Dragon Land Bakery Duo Tian Bakery Fay Da Golden Carriage Bakery Golden King Golden Manna Bakery Good Smell Bakery Grand 1 Bakery Great Taste Bakery Hai Liang Tea House Happy Star Bakery Corp. Ho Wong Bakeshop Hon Cafe Hop Shin Restaurant Ka Wah Bakery Corp. Kwon Wah Lung Moon Bakery Lee Chung Cafe Lisa Bakery Inc. Lucky King Bakery M&W Bakery Inc. Manna House Bakery (Mott Street) Manna House Bakery (East Broadway) Manna 1 Bakery Natalie Bakery Inc. New Great Bakery New Wing Wah New Territory Bakery Nice One QQ Bakery Sun Sai Gai Restaurant Swan Bakery NY Taipan Bakery White Swan Bakery Yummy Yummy Bakery
We then returned to our very favorites to whittle down the list to our top picks. Here are our top three choices. If you have other favorites, please let us know!
#1: Bread Talk
Besides making the best egg custard tart in our taste test, Bread Talk is also one of the furthest bakeries from central Chinatown (not that it's that far, just on the outskirts) and, thanks to an "inflation special," has one of the cheapest egg tarts—two for $1 (one is 75¢). This tart won for having an exceptional crust that was flaky, light, tender, and just a bit crisp around the edges. The filling has a silky smooth and creamy texture, but not too sweet. We wouldn't mind if it were a bit eggier, but otherwise it's great.
47 Catherine St, NY NY 10002 (map)
#2: Golden Manna Bakery
There are four Manna House bakeries, but this one is the best; the other ones we tried didn't even come close. The crust is a bit crumbly, but also flaky and light with a hint of a toasted flavor. The smooth filling has a good balance of egginess and sweetness. At 90¢, it's at the upper end of the egg custard tart price range, but hey, that's still under a dollar.
16 Bowery, New York NY 10013 (map); 212-274-8816
Taipan's tart ($1.10) features a very light crust that's just a bit too crumbly for our tastes, but not bad. The filling has a natural pale looking color and tastes like what we are looking for: light, eggy, and not too sweet.
194 Canal Street, New York NY 10013 (map); 212-732-2222
Map of Bakeries in Chinatown
Here's a map of every bakery we came across in Chinatown. Since it's an expanded version of the map we first featured in our Chinatown bakery guide from 2008, we marked some bakeries that have closed since then.
View Eating In New York City's Chinatown: Bakeries in a larger map