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The Great Char Siu Bao Debate

OK-in my pursuit of the best char siu bao in the naked city (second only to the the search for the best banh mi, pizza, hot dog, burger, oysters, etc. ,etc.) I need help. First of all, let's set the parameters. We are only talking pork buns, not hot dog, pineapple, coconut, mystery meat, etc. For me, it's gotta be baked not steamed. Now here's where it gets interesting. The Board hailed the reopening of Mei Li Wah on Pell along with the return of their char siu bao with almost as much enthusiasm as I had celebrating the reopening of the 2nd Ave. Deli. While they certainly have the freshest buns (no doubt owing to the tremendous turnover) I do not find their baked pork buns superior to other bakeries. Now I prefer the filling to be Chinese roast pork with the sweet Chinese barbecue sauce. Red coloring is optional but a good indicator of my preference. Mei Li Wah, although very good, is more the pork belly or perhaps pork shoulder variety, more onions and no sweet sauce. In fact, my criticism was that the pork often has a harder chewy bit of fat in it as compared to many other buns I've had. I don't have an absolute favorite bakery, particularly since they are often cold or stale depending upon timing. Lately I've liked Carriage House just south of Canal on Essex. Thank God I have a forum where the important things in life can be discussed rather than the economy, politics, etc., etc. And at an average price of $0.80 per bun, I am doing my bit to stave off starvation during the current depression and corrupt administration.

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  1. i think the problem you're facing is that the board (and myself) has generally been looking for the exact opposite of your taste. When people are talking about MLW as being the best, they are a) referrring to the steamed bao and b) prefer a more savory sauce as opposed to sweet sauce. That said, I prefer Sun Say Kai's bao slightly to MLW's b/c their meat quality is better.

    I'm not a huge fan of the baked version at either place. I dont think ive had an outstanding baked cha siu bao in NY. I'd love to hear if u find one though

    10 Replies
    1. re: Lau

      Hi Lau,

      I think when people mentioned about MLW having the best pork bun, they are referring to the baked buns and not steamed. I have tried both and the steamed buns were just mediocre. The dough was too thick and not fluffy at all. While the baked pork buns had poor fillings (I agree with GG in this case), the baked bun itself was slightly sweet and very much to my liking.

      1. re: kobetobiko

        Hi kobetobiko - im pretty sure people are talking about the steamed ones, but any which way i generally think their steamed bread is better than the other places in ctown although that isn't saying much alot of times and the few times i tried the baked ones, i was uninspired.

        I also agree with you about the point in the post below that most of these places dont make their own cha siu unlike HK...and now that you mentioned it, i dont think ive ever had a cha siu bao in a bakery in HK (one of those things that u never even realize until you think about it). Which i guess is my issue at the end of the day with MLW's bao...their filling is that it has too many chunks of fat in it and SSK's doesn't really have that problem

        all that said, i still do like SSK and MLW quite a bit as cha siu bao has always been one of my favorite things ever (any type of fatty pork in a steamed bun is a huge favorite of mine)

        and one thing u just reminded me of was last time i went to SSK they gave me a steamed bao, but the bread was different instead of being a totally closed bao where the bread is smooth on top it was the kind where the top is slightly open so u can see the filling...it was not good at all, the bread was way too doughy and the ratio of bread to meat was way off (way too much bread making it somewhat dry), i was disappointed...make sure to specify if u go there

      2. re: Lau

        I tried steamed cha siu bao at Mee Sum a small hole in the wall cafe on Pell St. It was fresh, on wax paper, no hole on top,tasted good, but underfilled. They did have overstuffed lo may gai ,, and other sticky rice in lotus leaf i.e. peanut, pork , green bean for $1.75, they were smaller sized. The Lo May Gai was $4.50.
        down the street was what once was Hong Gung 30 pell. is now Delight at 28 Pell. They do their own baking and the baked cha siu bao was very good. with wax paper.
        I will try the dim sum again, as (HongGung)30 pell IMHO was the best dim sum in Chinatown for many years.

        1. re: foodwhisperer

          Now that my go-to place for char siu bao (baked) is gone --- old Hop Shing/Chatham, I've been on the look out for a new place in Chinatown. I tried Mee Sum yesterday - the steam version. It was awful -- low meat to bun ratio and the little bit of filling that was there was minced fat! I've tried both the baked and steamed ones at MLW and the filling is still too fatty for me. I also tried Sun Say Kai and was unimpressed with their steamed char siu bao but their steamed sticky rice bun is very good. I plan to check out Fong Hing, Ah Wong and Manna 2 but are there others worth trying; my preference is a balanced ratio of saucy lean filling in either baked or steamed bun.

          -----
          Mee Sum Cafe
          26 Pell St, New York, NY 10013

          1. re: wadawada

            SSK - it's weird SSK changed their cha siu bao so instead of being the enclosed fluffy bun (like MLW) they now have their cha siu semi open and the bread is much denser. The filling is still good, but the bread has gone downhill. I used to think they were the best in chinatown, but no longer

            Mee Sum - I agree with you, I don't like Mee Sum's cha siu bao.

            MLW - still the best although my issue with them is that the cha siu itself is just decent, sometimes it has chunks of fat (not the good kind of fat that is tasty). The sauce and the bun they use are better than other ctown places though

            1. re: Lau

              I found two satisfactory replacements: For steamed char siu bao, Ah Wong Bakery (42 Mott St. 85 cents) is quite good. Fluffy white bun with a lean, saucy filling. I wanted to make sure I had a bite while it was fresh and ended up eating the whole bun. For the baked version, I found the Manna 2 Bakery (87 E. Broadway, 90 cents) bun to be pretty good. I had it reheated (mic 15 sec) the next day and both the bread and the filling held up to sitting overnight. The meat was pretty lean, with pieces of softened onions, and while not as saucy as Hop Shing, it was flavorful. I wanted to try Fong Hing Bakery (139 Hester St) but it was closed, looks like they are renovating.

              -----
              Fong Hing Bakery
              139 Hester St, New York, NY 10002

              1. re: wadawada

                at ah wong, is the cha siu filling the sweet red one? that is the thing that i like at MLW (and at SSK) they don't have that overly sweet red filling, its much darker and brown colored and it is less sweet and more savoury

                1. re: Lau

                  Yes, Ah Wong's cha siu filling is red and on the sweeter side. The filling at Manna is darker, more savory. I like them both.

                  1. re: wadawada

                    WIll have to check out Manna...I prefer the more savory filling over the red, artificially colored stuff.
                    I do like _some_ fatty bits in the filling though and actually am disappointed when the bao are filled with meat that's totally lean...The fat is a delicacy and including it just seems more 'authentic' (and certainly more flavorful).

                    1. re: The Professor

                      i ate a bun from MLW yesterday and they are still good, i will have to try wadawada's places

      3. "Thank God I have a forum where the important things in life can be discussed rather than the economy, politics, etc., etc."

        Right on. One thing, though: Mei Li Wah's on Bayard, not Pell. (I figured you probably knew this anyway, but I wouldn't want people wandering into Mee Sum Cafe, which is on Pell, thinking that it's MLW) I'm also in Lau's camp regarding the pork in their buns; I lean towards the less-sweet, more porky, more fatty. When MLW's pork buns are on, they're soft and chewy on top, with a nice, charred, crisp bottom. In my experience, no one else, including Sun Say Kay, gets that consistency going in a bun.

        Enjoy your quest.
        P.

        1 Reply
        1. re: Polecat

          Wandering into Mee Sum wouldn't be the worst thing in the world. When the filling ratio is generous, their steamed char siu bao are really good for the 'hood. I've also been more than satisfied by their other dim sum offerings (of which there tend to be more available on the weekends). Next to no English is spoken, so I do a lot of pointing.

        2. I’m certainly not the aficionado that others on this board are, but I very much like the baked buns at Golden Fung bakery on Mott Street almost directly opposite Pell. They’re often out of them by late afternoon, but when they have them I find them a bit sweeter (I like that as well) and less fatty or gristly than many others.

          1. The original comment has been removed
            1. Hi GG,

              I very agreed with your assessment of MLW's baked pork buns. I only like the bun itseft when was soft and slightly sweet and complemented the savory char siu filling. However, your description of the char siu filling was dead on and I completely agreed with you.

              Sun Sai Kay's pork buns have the pork filling on the more reddish and sweet side and I like the flavor better than MLW's, but the filling is often with dry meat and the lack of sauce makes the bun sort of dry.

              I haven't tried Golden Carriage but will certainly pay a visit next time.

              What I do agree with Lau is the fact that there isn't any pork bun in Chinatown that is particularly outstanding.

              6 Replies
              1. re: kobetobiko

                Oh, just want to elaborate a bit.

                I think the problem of not having good char siu filling for the pork buns in these bakeries stemmed from the fact that they don't make their char siu in-house (except for Sun Sai Kay, which may be why their filling was a bit better). These bakeries often get their char siu from other BBQ places and end up with less than top quality pieces for the filling (and of course cost saving for the cheaper pieces). The result is what you see. In Hong Kong, people tend to enjoy char siu buns at dim sum restaurants which also have their own BBQ departments and make their char siu in house. The quality of the pork buns is substantially better. ( and in Hong Kong, it is not really that popular to get char siu buns at bakeries, relatively to all the other bread and buns available)

                I have a few pictures of char siu buns from my recent trip to Hong Kong. They were SO good because the restaurants I went were famous for the char siu in the first place. The third picture is what I consider as good ratio of pork filling vs bun (though steamed bun in this case)

                 
                 
                 
                1. re: kobetobiko

                  man these look so good...if only HK wasn't an 18 hr flight away

                  1. re: kobetobiko

                    I wonder. There is enough of a taste difference among the different places to suggest they are making them in-house. Cha Shao Bao is fundamentally a good thing - like hamburgers. I have some Cantonese friends that swear by the baked ones at the bakery on Grand (east of Bowery - the name escapes now) and do not like MLW's ones. Me thinks not.

                    1. re: scoopG

                      I can imagine that these bakeries may be marinating some pork pieces with char siu sauce (or alike) to make the filling, but there is no way that they are making char siu like a real BBQ place such as Big Wong as it requires extensive bbq skills and techniques and oven to make outstanding char siu.

                  2. re: kobetobiko

                    "there isn't any pork bun in Chinatown that is particularly outstanding."

                    That's been my experience, too. Even places that have other good dim sum items, like the dumplings at Dim Sum Go Go, tend to make overly doughy bao without particularly good char siu inside. Though in fairness, I haven't been to Mei Lai Wah (I hear the time to go there is early morning, and I'm seldom up then).

                    1. re: kobetobiko

                      golden carriage has a good baked char siu bao. The steamed char siu bao at Chatham I like. Wo Kee on Doyers had the first char siu bao I've ever had in chinatown, it was good way back when they were the only dim sum restaurant, time to try again.