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Mei Li Wah – A Cha Siu Bao Institution; Amazing Cha Siu Bao? No…The Best In Chinatown? Probably

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  • Lau Aug 5, 2013 01:06 PM
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**For full post and pics**: https://www.lauhound.com/2013/08/mei-...

Mei Li Wah is a Chinatown institution and my blog would not be complete if I didn’t cover it. It’s a cha chaan teng / cha can ting (literally means tea restaurant), which is a type of old school Cantonese restaurant that is common in Hong Kong serving tea, coffee and various cheap foods. In particular Mei Li Wah is known for its various buns.

Originally, Mei Li Wah was a rundown super old school Toisonese run place, but a few years ago they changed ownership, renovated the restaurant and hired a much younger staff. Now it’s a much brighter, cleaner and new looking restaurant. The service is still fairly quick and brisk although it’s nicer than before when the old guys had little patience if you didn’t know what you wanted right away although some people liked that as part of the character of the place. I’m not one for nostalgia, but I do miss the old school feel of the old Mei Li Wah a bit.

Generally, I stick to their buns, which are all displayed up front as I find a lot of their other food to be pretty mediocre.

Steamed Pork Bun (Cha Siu Bao / Cha Shao Bao):
This is their most famous item. It’s a fluffy steamed white bun filled with diced cha siu (BBQ pork) in a brown sauce. One of the major differences between MLW’s and others’ versions is that the sauce is much more savory and brown than the normal sweeter red sauce. The sauce is the best thing about this bun as I really like that savory flavor. The cha siu itself is decent although sometimes it can a bit too much fat in it. The bun has a nice slight sweetness to it, but I’ve noticed over the last year or so that it’s become noticeably less fluffy than it used to be. I still think this is the best cha siu bao in Chinatown, but because of the decline in quality of the bun I’d say it’s good, but no longer great. 7.75/10 or 8/10 on a good day (a few years ago I’d have probably given it an 8.25 rating)

Baked Pork Bun (Cha Siu Bao / Cha Shao Bao):
This is baked white bun filled with diced cha siu (BBQ pork) in a brown sauce. Same exact filling as the steamed version. While I normally much prefer steamed cha siu bao, MLW’s baked version is actually quite good and maybe better than its steamed version as the bread is quite good with a nice honey glaze on the outside. 8/10

Big Bun (Dai Bao / Da Bao):
This is another famous offering. It is similar to a cha siu bao except it’s bigger and filled with chicken, Chinese sausage, half boiled egg and shitake mushrooms. They used to make these quite well, but I’ve noticed that the bun has gotten way too dry since they switched ownership. The filling tastes like it sounds and is reasonably tasty. Overall, it’s decent version, but not great. 7.25/10

Cocktail Bun (Gai Mei Bao / Ji Wei Bao):
This is the sleeper for me here. This is a baked bun with sugar on top and a minced buttery and sweet coconut filling. The bread is nicely moist and the sugar on top adds nice textural contrast. The filling is good and not too buttery like most places. I’m not sure everyone will like this as much as I do because I really like gai mei bao, but they make this really well. 8.25/10

Overall, they are pretty decent cha siu bao and certainly better than the vast majority in Chinatown which are quite mediocre. I’d recommend coming to try out the cha siu bao and the cocktail bun.

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  1. Last time I checked, baked buns at MLW were 80 cents each. What do they go for now?

    1 Reply
    1. re: knucklesandwich

      same price still...still very reasonable

    2. Thank you for posting this: sweet memories! Haven't been there for a couple years now, except once for the pork buns.

      Back then they were a great breakfast place. I would often come there before work and order 尟蝦腸粉 and it was the best I could have in NYC, and the old lady waitress would chat you up to death(maybe because she was bored), and the shrimp was perfectly fresh and the wrap, perfectly thin and gooey. It was our most favorite mini dim sum place for over 10 years.

      After breakfast, I would buy a whole box of 叉燒包 for my friends and colleagues. Sweet memories!

      I agree with you that the quality of the big bun has declined, while the pork bun is as good as it has ever been: just not so much of it. :-)

      1 Reply
      1. re: diprey11

        " while the pork is as good as it has ever been"

        i would've agreed with that statement despite alot of criticism of the place post-renovation until about a year ago when i started to notice the bun was getting less fluffy and more dense (the inside taste the same though). If they could get the bun to being nice and fluffy it'd basically be the same MLW of the past

        btw you should go back! its one of the places that i go to somewhat regularly in chinatown (cha siu bao is one of my all time favorite foods)

      2. I actually miss the older place. How can you beat a card board sign taped up to the wall saying, "no spitting."

        We actually run into one of the older guys who used to man the counter. We were semi- regulars back in the day, so he smiles when he sees us. Never saw him do that when he worked there.

        The big combo bun used to be my go- to back then; haven't ordered it much in recent years.

        P

        7 Replies
        1. re: Polecat

          the old place was a total dump, but it was cool looking b/c it was such a blast from the past type place and had alot of character. When it changed over there were alot of people complaining that the food had changed, but I think alot of them were basically complaining that it wasn't the same atmosphere as before (the food was initially almost exactly the same). End of day I'm fine with change as long as the food is as good as better.

          Unfortunately, their dai bao has suffered in quality, I'm not even sure where to get a good one in NY anymore

          1. re: Lau

            I haven't had it personally, but maybe this is worth trying:

            http://newyork.seriouseats.com/2011/0...

            Does Golden Steamer make dai bao? I find their steamed buns are pretty good.

            1. re: Humbucker

              i dont think golden steamer makes dai bao, but its been a while since ive been there....ill give both a try

              1. re: Humbucker

                I think they do a dai Bao; we've gotten it a few times. It's on the sweet side.

                I've liked the pumpkin bun here.

                1. re: Polecat

                  i like the pumpkin, but i don't love it although its a reasonably well made bao...i should probably go back and review the place, its been a while since ive been

                  1. re: Lau

                    Make sure you get the salted yolk bun. I think we're on the same page that their buns are pretty good but not amazing. The yolk bun is no exception, but I haven't seen any other places with salted yolk as a filling, so they get my business on that item by merely having no competition. Have you encountered any other salted yolk filled desserts in C-town? Mooncakes and those egg shaped flaky things with lotus or yellow bean aside.

                    1. re: Humbucker

                      salted egg yolk buns are called 流沙包 liu sha bao in chinese, which basically means flowing sand bun, i believe bc the salted egg yolk flows out of the bun when you eat them.

                      it's actually one of my favorite dim sum items, but its difficult to get right. I've had it at a couple of places in NY although I'm blanking on where, but the last place i remember is this place on grand i'm forgetting the name i want to say its hong wong (they were awful). I did read that MLW had them on yelp, but the reviewer did not like them. I'll give them a try.

          2. I was so disappointed by the steamed cha siu bao at mei li wah! Internet consensus does seem to suggest it's the best one in Chinatown, so I was really excited to try it, but you're right, while the cha siu is fine but the bun is not fluffy at all and pretty dry too. I ended up liking the baked one better too.

            If this is best in Chinatown, I guess I have to venture farther. Any recommendation for a good place in flushing?

            15 Replies
            1. re: tofuavecfa

              yah it used to be really nice and fluffy but it just got too dense not sure what happened.

              i have not been even remotely impressed by any of the bakeries in flushing (sun mary etc). ive found that Cantonese bakeries, congee and shao la (Cantonese BBQ places) are actually better in the city although if someone would like to correct please do bc I would love to be wrong

              1. re: Lau

                You are right lau, the best Cantonese bakeries are in the City. That the wonderful Cantonese-style bakeries are not found in Flushing can all be blamed on the UN!

                Flushing as a center for Asian immigrants began in 1946 – when the UN began work in temporary quarters on Long Island. The Chinese (read Taiwan) delegation opted to live there as it was cheaper than more exclusive north shore property.

                When the UN building in Manhattan opened in 1951, the Chinese decided to remain in Flushing and commute. The 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act in particular spurred large scale immigration from the Eastern hemisphere.

                The USA shifted then from a 40 year-old quota system to one where 20,000 immigrants were allowed in per year from Taiwan, South Korea, Thailand etc. (Family re-unification unlimited).

                1. re: scoopG

                  ah very interesting, i did not know that

                  its sort of surprising bc there are alot of cantonese in flushing, but the quality of their bakeries is just not very good at least in my experience

                  1. re: Lau

                    The Chinese bakeries in Bklyn seem worse than the ones in Flushing to me. In any case, back to MLW, I haven't been there in a while, they used to have fresh, warm Cha Siu Bao in the evening, which is rare. However, I prefer the Cha Siu Bao at Hop Shing and what used to be Golden Carriage ( A.H. Bakery or something like that). I find the ones at MLH mostly dough and little filling, i also like my filling with more onion and sweetness. I guess it's personal taste.

                    1. re: foodwhisperer

                      a long time ago i used to like the cha siu bao at hop shing, but then they got bad and then they got better, but i still liked MLW better. that said i haven't had one in at least 1 year maybe 2, so ill give them a try again.

                      Actually i used to like sun say kai's the best, but something happened to their bread (it got really dense and bad).

                      i don't remember what golden carriage's are like (its been a very long time since ive had one from there), so again ill have to try

                      i dont have an opinion on BK bc i almost never go

                      1. re: Lau

                        seems like i can only get my favorite kind of bun in flushing and not in ctown, a pineapple char siu bao.

                        1. re: SomeRandomIdiot

                          those are newer dish and are very popular in Asia right now, I can't remember if I've actually had one in NY or not (i like them alot if u make them right)

                          Check out this restaurant in HK (tim ho wan) while I don't think they invented them, they've certainly made them very popular as they are one of the signature dish and are sort of thought of as a gold standard type of thing (they're delicious btw)
                          http://www.openrice.com/english/resta...

                          1. re: Lau

                            omg the pineapple cha siu bao at tim ho wan is so good!

                            it's too bad that it's so hard to even find a standard steamed one here though. i really like steamed buns when they're done right...but i guess i'll just have to stick with the baked ones.

                            1. re: tofuavecfa

                              yah very very good

                              i agree that the steamed ones are harder to get right than the baked ones

                            2. re: Lau

                              Yea, they've had in 'em in LA and Vegas for a bunch of years so it's been a long wait to get them here in NY. This was back when there was still a signifcant price difference in buns (I think I was complaining about paying 1.10 there for a bun I could get here for about .60 here) There was a bakery here a few years back that did a test run but I was apparently the only one interested in 'em so they stopped making them.

                              1. re: SomeRandomIdiot

                                i haven't really seen them in bakeries in HK more in dim sum restaurants. although to be fair i haven't been on the hunt for them when i was there, so its possible lots of bakeries offer them

                      2. re: Lau

                        Lau - Spot on about the MLW fat (and gristle) overage in the CSB...my only complaint 'cause the baked bun otherwise belongs in the Food Hall of Fame.

                        Now it's gone, but IMO the Chatham Restaurant on Chatham Square had a bomb of a bun, and the pork was abundant and meaty. Miss that one a lot!

                        About Flushing: A mystical twist here, that Asian influence is definitely heavy - could be the neighborhood's numerology has contributed. Phone numbers with the old TUlip (88-) exchange are plentiful and sought after. In fact, one can draw parallels with the timing and institution of Area Code 718, essentially guaranteeing the special triple-8 number sequence, and the area's explosion of Chinese & Korean people.

                        Could this phenomenon also hold true for a Brooklyn Chinatown built around 8th Avenue?

                        1. re: Mike R.

                          chatham closed down? i dont think i even realized that, i think hop shing might have a decent one, they gone through some changes and i havent been there in a while, but there was a point when they had a good one

                          1. re: Lau

                            Chatham changed to something else...can't recall right now. They were always as extra careful wrapping and boxing their bao as they were making them. Also had terrific, earthy coconut ones.

                            1. re: Mike R.

                              ah interesting

                2. Baked Pork Buns at Tai Pan and Fay Da are usually worlds better. Mei Li Wah's are too tough, and fatty, or overly minced, and dried out, with the bun itself being lousy. The Cocktail buns are good, but that's because the filling is safer.

                  11 Replies
                  1. re: sugartoof

                    really? i usually dont like any of the buns from either of those places, but ill i can try them again

                    1. re: Lau

                      I agree. There is nothing like a MLW bun fresh from the kitchen.

                      1. re: scoopG

                        yah that baked one in that pic was literally straight from the kitchen, the guy put the tray out and i told the lady to give me one from the tray!

                        1. re: scoopG

                          I agree that there are none fresher than MLW , still hot , right out of the kitchen. Too bad I like other place style better.

                          1. re: foodwhisperer

                            by "other place style" you mean fay da etc?

                            1. re: Lau

                              I mean I like the filling sweeter with onions, and more filling than MLW. MLW has too much bread to my liking, and the dough is more dense. I do like their freshness though. They do remind me of Filipino pork buns.

                              1. re: foodwhisperer

                                ahh yah i prefer less sweet filling although MLW is particularly unsweet; i don't like alot of onions in it and i feel like the onion thing is not as prevalent when u go back to the source (hong kong), but again these are both person preferences

                                i agree with you on the bun if you're talking steamed (as i wrote in my review) although I think their baked bun is good (i.e. i don't think its too dense). My fav baked cha siu bao are the smaller sized ones so i would agree with you on bun to filling ratio

                        2. re: Lau

                          What are things you dislike in them? Too sweet?

                          I think of what Mei Li Wah as being almost it's own breed, and they just don't fill my pork bun cravings.

                        3. re: sugartoof

                          Are baked buns as common as steamed for Chinese consumers? I love Mei Li Wah precisely because their filling and their (previous) dough were exactly like my favorite Filipino siopao. Siopao asado, while it has its fans, is not as popular in the PI and I think a full decade had elapsed from the last time I had siopao asado and my first/last baked bun at Mei Li Wah. FWIW, my brother, when he was here 2 years ago, preferred Golden Steamer for their siopao. That was probably the last time I visited either restaurant so I am overdue for a visit.

                          1. re: JungMann

                            no they are not, the steamed one is definitely more popular although the baked one is common.

                            i think siopao were brought to the philippines by hokkien chinese (i believe most chinese in philippines are hokkien) so it would make sense that their bao are similar to cantonese bao given the fujian provinces very close proximity to guangdong

                            ill give golden steamer's version a try, ive had it a long time ago but honestly don't remember it.

                            1. re: JungMann

                              Yes yes, MLW is very very similar to the Filipino siopao. I usually get them at Manny's.

                          2. I've been to the 'new' Mei Li Wah a few times since the makeover in an attempt to give it a chance. I wanted to like the new place, hoping that while the old environment had changed, maybe the food hadn't.

                            Unfortunately, _nothing_ there is anywhere near as good as it was in it's prior incarnation.
                            Really too bad.
                            I used to really love that place...it was a favorite since the '70s.
                            :(

                            1 Reply
                            1. re: The Professor

                              well i actually didnt think anything had changed food wise except the dai bao until about a year ago when the bun in the steamed cha siu bao got denser and worse...not sure why that happened so long after the ownership change

                            2. At the risk of having this bumped to the Outer Boros board, l'd respectfully suggest that you might want to try the cha siu bao at my regular neighborhood bakery in Boro Park, Hong Bao Bakery [directly across the street from the 18th Av. N train station]. The steamed bun is made only in the morning; they usually run out by noon or so. Pretty fluffy, but with not quite enough filling for my taste. The filling itself is on the pretty-sweet side. Most of their baked offerings are pretty good, too: they do a ham-and-egg on a spongy roll that l absolutely adore. The egg has a little bit of sweetness, like tomago.

                              A block away is Good Day, the former World Tong, which, as we've discussed, is doing a bang-up dim sum again. l ate there last week and tried the little, triangular cha siu pastries for the first time: outstanding! Savory filling, not sweet, in a very flaky, perhaps a bit too oily pastry, but overall the best pork-filled Chinese bread product i've had...definitely worth checking out!

                              9 Replies
                              1. re: howdini

                                how do u think it stacks up against MLW?

                                cha siu sou (the flaky pastry you're talking about) are great, they are a dim sum standard although not quite as common as the very popular items like ha gow, siu mai, cha siu bao. they're delicious when made right and fresh out of the oven

                                1. re: Lau

                                  l have to try MLW; l'll get back to you on that asap, but first...Blue Ribbon Fried Chicken!

                                  1. re: howdini

                                    yes very excited about blue ribbon! i really love that one at brooklyn bowl

                                    1. re: Lau

                                      Went to BR earlier today, about 4:30, but they weren't open; they said they might be at 6p. Looked on my fb wall, and about an hour ago a friend of mine posted a pic of a gigantic line outside: they're giving away free chicken! But the line is like 2hrs long.

                                      Ended up at HK Cafe after the unsuccessful BR attempt: Peking pork chop on rice. Good, but much too sweet for my taste. The last time l went l got the salt & pepper pork chop, which was fabulous. l'm not much of a fan of bubble tea, but my son ordered a taro flavored one, and it was *delicious*.

                                      1. re: howdini

                                        peking pork chops are sweet, so if u dont like sweet foods you def wont like it

                                        1. re: Lau

                                          Oh, l know, but l was expecting more balance with vinegar, tho l'm not quite sure why. lt was just the wrong thing for me to order, as l'm much more of a fan of savory.

                                          1. re: howdini

                                            was that the first time you've had it?

                                            1. re: Lau

                                              No, l've had it a few times before, almost always finding it too sweet. The sauce on this one was good: you mentioned strong pineapple flavor in the HKC thread, but l think this might've been pomegranate? l don't think l was tasting pineapple. ln any event, the sauce was a beautiful, translucent ruby-red color, and had a tartness to offset the sweetness a bit, but still very sweet. Like l said, it was the wrong thing for me to order, given my preferences. l suffer brain farts sometimes, and order something that, deep down, l know l won't like that much. lt might be because l'm kind of a weirdo?

                                              1. re: howdini

                                                yah its def a sweet dish and it sounds like you dont like sweet dishes so definitely not for you