An Ode to Chinese Pastries (and a Place to Get Good Ones)
When you think of Chinese food, you think of General Tso's Chicken, Kung Pao Beef, Pork Fried Rice and a Cinnabun for dessert, because you are most likely in a food court. You don't, however, think about pastries.
Unless you're Chinese. Growing up, my Chinese mother would always tuck into a bakery in Chinatown and emerge with a big white box swaddled in a pink plastic bag. The treasures inside were all different, interesting, but always delicious. Now that I live in Dallas, I, of course, want to find a place where I can relive those memories and get some Chinese buns on the cheap.
That's how I came to find myself at the New Chinatown in Richardson, driving through the pagoda-themed gateway and past concrete statues of kneeling terra cotta warriors and zodiac dragons. I spotted Vivian's Bakery, my target destination, at the end of the strip mall with blacked out windows and doors that aren't supposed to open.
I made sure to get there at 10 a.m. when they opened, to get a jump on all of the fresh goods. I walked into the Tian Tian Supermarket and saw a sign that simply said "Bakery" to my immediate right; as I got closer, I could make out two more signs, "Pay Here" and "Cash Only." The actual bakery is one large room that has been sectioned into a kitchen and display floor by a couple of large refrigerated cases.
The kitchen took up a majority of the space, leaving a small triangular area populated with shelves holding the day's bounty. There was only one man in the bakery at the time, working so feverishly to put out product that all I got was a meeting of eyes. I was a little surprised to see that all of the buns and pastries had been heat-sealed in plastic bags. I'm used to seeing these items sitting out in a display case like any other bakery, but beggars can't be choosers.
Bright-colored Mickey Mouse signs had Chinese and the English translation describing each pastry on display, although some of the translations were a little counterproductive, for example, "football bun." Going by the crude descriptions, I picked up my three favorite: milk coconut bread, red bean bun and taro bun. I also picked up two wild cards: green onion and dried pork bread, and some bread that I still don't know the name of.
With my arms full, I made my way to the cash register, $4.90 for enough bread to feed a village. The buns may not have looked like what I grew up with, but driving home, my car was filled with that familiar aroma of sweet buttery bread.
As soon as I got home I began tearing apart those pesky plastic bags and started with the taro bun followed by the red bean, by far my two favorite. The bread composing the buns was soft and pillowy, a little bit sweet and completely yielding to my teeth. The taro filling was semi-sweet with a subtle taro flavor; the red bean was a thick dark paste that was rich and overwhelming with its sweetness and earthy flavor.
My third favorite was the green onion and dried pork, ingredients I always used to eat with rice and soy sauce rather than baked bread. I thought I would hate it, but the contrast of salty (from the pork) and sweet was interesting, and delicious. The remaining two pastries were dry, which turned me off; I took one bite of each and couldn't stomach another.
Vivian Bakery may not have completely reminded me of home, but there were some definite treasures in the lot. Next time I'm in the area with some spare change, I'll be back to indulge in the basics.