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Finding Chinese Bakeries in New York City

[ NEW YORK, NY - NYC - 3/23/2002 - www.Littleviews.com ]

>>  Most commonly, we think of Chinese food as "take-out." And, most probably, there are Chinese restaurants in all ethnic communities, whether Chinese live there or not.

Every Chinese restaurant also seems to have the same menu, with all dishes variations on chopped veggies, meats, noodles, rice and nuts. Going to New York City's Chinatown specifically for Chinese food, then, might seem like too much effort when, for most of us, Chinese food is always just a phone call away.

Kwong Wah Cake CompanyWithout posting a list of what I believe to be particularly good, non-suburban, Chinese restaurants with enough different food to surprise the most ardent take-out buff, I suggest that you go to Chinatown to hunt up bakeries, rather than pork buns. What you'll see there, you'll never see back home. You'll never find it on a take-out menu, either.

To start your investigation, visit the Kong Wah Cake Company (KW Cafe) on 242 Canal Street. KW is on the south side of Canal, where you'll also see Chinese grocers, fresh fish stands (which smell like fish stands in the heat of summer), vegetable carts and old Chinese men, backs against buildings, selling bean sprouts in jars that sit on cardboard cartons. On the north side of Canal, you'll see jewelry shops almost exclusively.

    Tip: If at all possible, visit on a weekday. Canal Street is mobbed on weekends; so much so that you may have to walk in the street just to move forward and getting a seat at a bakery is a stand-in-line waiting affair.

If you look into the window pictured above, you'll see traditional American, somewhat uninteresting, wedding cakes. Inside, however, you'll find a range of beautiful bakery that you will never see in suburbia.

Chinese Sweet BunsI'll describe Chinese bakery in depth in another article. For now, just let your curiosity be your guide. Wedding cakes excepted, a Chinese-decorated layer cake is a work of art. At approximately $12 for a big one, they are a bargain, too.

Chinese bakery tends to be heavy. Unlike French treats that bond to the sturdiest travel container at the slightest tilt, Chinese buns make it to my house uncrushed, even though they are packed in wax paper bags, then collectively stuffed into a plastic sack.

    Insight: A pretty bun, holding a lightly sweetened red bean filling (tastes like a fig), is meant to be eaten in small portions, rather than gobbled up as a whole like a wedge of cake. These portions taste best with a hot drink, such as tea or coffee.

    If you are watching portions, a few small wedges with tea will quickly fill you up, leaving you feeling satisfied after a snack, rather than longing for (and overeating) more. This may explain why most Chinese are slender, while Americans tend to be heavy.

Bakeries in ChinatownTo experience several Chinese bakeries, start with KW Cafe, then walk east to Mott Street. Turn south on Mott and stroll to Pell Street. Along this route, you'll see ultra-modern and old establishments. Some bakeries provide seating, while others are cash and carry. This area is also crammed with colorful Chinese shops, plus you'll find several places to buy popular tapioca bead teas and specialty drinks (they're delicious!).

Double back to Canal by first going north on Bayard Street. There you'll find some up-scale Chinese shops where you'll discover that the art of woodworking is alive and well.

On Bayard, walk straight to Baxter Street, then north to Canal. Weaving in and out of all the streets in this area is exceptionally interesting, however, so don't feel compelled to adhere to my directions in fear that other areas may be boring. I mention Baxter and Canal because the intersection is near to the Dragon Land Bakery.

Dragon Land is a modern, stainless bakery that's just a bit out of the rush of other Chinatown streets. Here, uniformed waitresses put your $1 choices on trays as you work your way past numerous tapioca drinks ($3), up to a large refrigerated case with creamy treats and cakes ($2 to $12). Sample your food at one of Dragon Land's small tables or get a "sack to go."

After loading up on bakery, do you still want to eat at an authentic Chinese restaurant? If "yes," and it isn't real busy in the shop, ask bakery clerks or managers where they'd take their own families to eat. Then go there. You'll be in for a surprise.

Karen Little

Article and photos by Karen Little. Map annotated via Microsoft Streets & Trips. First published on 3/23/2002. All rights reserved by www.Littleviews.com.

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