Similar to Mexican bakeries, Chinese bakeries are a vast landscape of unique pastries and textures new to palates accustomed to European or American bakeries dishing out sweet muffins, moist Danishes and gooey cookies. Low prices are another point that differentiates them from non-ethnic bakeries: entering any one of the Chinese bakeries on Bellaire is sure to feel like an economical feast for your tastebuds. New to the world of fluffy milk bread and luscious egg custard tarts? Here are six treats you can’t miss during your next trip to Chinatown.
Milk toast: Whether you buy a loaf plain or threaded with red bean, whole grains or other ingredients, nothing makes for better toast than this fluffy, stretchy bread. Basically the Asian version of Texas toast, milk toast is generally slightly sweeter with an airy, pillowy crumb. Once toasted, the plush slices crisp up into golden edges like nobody’s business; topping them with some condensed milk and fruit is highly recommended.
Hot dog bun: How hot dogs became a staple in Chinese bakeries is a mystery, but there is an undeniable appeal in how the slightly sweet bread provides a very plush and satisfying backdrop to the salty sausage, which is often coupled with a scattering of green onion. It’s a truly humble indulgence, not to be missed.
Red bean bun: The milk- and fat-enriched dough used in most Chinese buns manages to bake up bready and fluffy, which provides the perfect protective exterior for a rich but not too sweet filling of red bean. For a more adventurous palate, try a bun filled with taro (a starchy purple root that has a mildly sweet herbal flavor similar to that of a sweet potato). For a more traditional palate, try a cream-filled bun in which lightly sweet cream plays very well against lightly sweet and soft dough.
Sponge cake: For those people who always complain that sweets are “too sweet,” Chinese-style layer cakes are the perfect solution. Cloud-light layers of sponge cake layered with whipped cream and fruit make up cakes so delicate that they practically melt in your mouth. You can get varying versions of Chinese cakes in the form of plain sponge cakes (often offered in an oversize cupcake shape, with a slightly less dense and more stretchy crumb) or simple jelly-roll cakes, but I say go big or go home.
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Mooncake: While mooncakes are offered seasonally at some bakeries, Kamalan, a relative newcomer to the Chinese bakery scene, offers Taiwanese-style mooncakes year-round. The circular cakes are made up of a tender, flaky pastry shell that houses a dense, sticky and slightly sweet interior, typically made from red bean paste or egg yolk. Traditional mooncakes are stamped with an intricate design on the top, with a very thin layer of soft, golden dough wrapped around a thick bean-based middle.
Egg custard tart: The number one thing that you should get at any Chinese bakery is an egg custard tart. Establishments like ECK (egg custard king) Bakery on Bellaire serve up traditional, mouthwatering versions of the cheery yellow pastries for just a dollar. The custard center should always be milky-sweet and slightly jiggly; the surrounding crust can vary in texture from thick and intensely flaky (generally thanks to lard) to thin and cookie-like. I prefer the flaky style — a flakier crust you will be hard-pressed to find.