I’ve been cutting through Chinatown to get to work in the morning the past few days. Sometimes, when I find myself stuck in a sea of 3-foot-tall, ancient looking Chinese women, my New-Yorker-in-a-hurry powerwalk slowed to a near stop, I curse under my breath. “[Expletive]! This was a terrible idea. I’m never gonna get there in time. Am I the only one trying to get somewhere right now? Ugh.”
Today was different though. For one thing, I left 10 minutes earlier. But it wasn’t because I was factoring in the time it would take to elbow my way through the clogged sidewalks. No, I left earlier because I was making a stop along the way. A breakfast stop at a Chinatown bakery.
I had read a lot about them and thought that maybe the secret to a less passive-aggressive commute to work was to turn the focus off the actual walk and on to more important things. You know, like pastries.
So I popped in to a small bakery on Stockton, a tiny hole-in-the-wall of sorts, flanked by Chinese meat shops. You know the kind. The ones with the rows of hanging chickens and ducks, heads, feet and all sorts of other slightly off-putting appendages still attached. The glass case in the small shop was filled with rows of big, shiney pastries, some sweet like raisin buns and coconut bread, others savory like pork buns and onion bread. I wanted something sweet but I wasn’t sure what. A gaggle of tiny women were all buzzing around me, cutting in front of me to order, and probably calling me a freakishly large Amazon woman. So when the girl behind the counter made eye contact I blurted the first thing that came to mind. “Custard bun, please.”
She opened the case, grabbed a grapefruit-sized bun, flung it in a plastic bag and curtly said, “Seventy cents.”
I was prepared to pay about $3 for the behemoth bun so when she asked for less than a dollar, I was pleasantly surprised, to say the least. Back outside on the crowded sidewalk, I took my breakfast out of the bag and got to work on it.
It was big and round, the top covered in a thick coat of a yellow custard of sorts that had dried into a sugary layer. When i bit into it, though, I was surprised that it wasn’t sweeter. I was expecting a pure saccharine burst of flavor but instead it was a nice, almost eggy sweetness. The part below the sugary yellow crust was doughy and also subtly sweet, more like a sweet roll than a cupcake or other American pastry. A couple more bites into it and I hit the cream filling in the middle. It wasn’t like the smooth, creamy filling in a donut, again, being a little more subtle in sweetness, but it was good.
I was right about a breakfast pastry making the walk more tolerable. The bun was so big that it took me a good portion of my walk to work to finish it, and during that time I didn’t even notice that I had walked clear out of Chinatown. At the very attractive price of 70 cents, I think I might be making that a daily stop from now on.