While American-style bakeries hew almost exclusively toward rich, cloying and frosted treats, the Chinese variety skew more towards a French cafe philosophyâ€”merging sweet and savory elements. In Chicago’s Chinatown, ham and havarti croissants give way to barbecue pork buns, and confections come stuffed with bean paste instead of fruit. Many of these bakeries also feature adjoining cafes that, in addition to providing a space for community gatherings, offer customers the chance to luxuriate over fresh-from-the-oven baked goods or dim sum breakfast with a cup of coffee and the morning news. We plodded through a few of Chinatown’s best:
Get your traditional mooncakes at Feida Bakery – 2228 S. Wentworth
Sporting a green and white awning that channels gritty Irish pub rather than Chinese bakery, this central is often overrun with a boisterous crowd of Chinese women angling for buns like traders at the Mercantile Exchange. Boxes of produce deliveries for the adjacent spartan cafe are stacked near the selection of flaky apple turnovers, crumbly almond cookies and silky egg custard tarts. The traditional treat hereâ€”mooncake, a dense caramelized cakeâ€”sells out early morning and is typically given as a gift to commemorate the gathering of friends and family. Pair yours with an egg-washed bun filled with diced ham and zingy chives for a savory complement.
Take your Hong Kong-style milk tea at Golden Horse Bakery and Cafe – 2826 S. Wentworth
Located a couple of blocks from the main Wentworth Strip, this bakery and coffee shop tucked next to the dim sum palace Furama, specializes in Hong Kong-style delights such as milk tea or dai-pai-dong, a mixture of black tea sweetened with evaporated milk. Sip away among an eclectic mix of brown faux brick ceramic floor tile, Asian dioramas and a couple of scale model powerboats. Unique offerings include horse cake, a gargantuan Chinese-style rice crispy-like treat made with puffed rice, sausage and onion buns (think Chinese-style pigs in a blanket flavored with chives) and sweet corn buns dotted with a confetti of niblets.
Stuff yourself with best stuffed meat buns in Chinatown at Chiu Quon Bakery – 2242 S. Wentworth
While the smiling snapshot of Rod Blagojevich hanging on the wall, traditional almond cookies and French-style pastries such as tortes and eclairs are all appealing, customers come to Chiu Quon for one reason: the buns. The golden egg-washed crust and chewy white interior comes with your choice of filling, from drippy coconut to almond-tinged barbecue pork to the exceptional curry beef with its spicy aromatic perfume. At seventy cents a bun, you can buy a baker’s dozen for the whole office. Don’t forget to grab some guava or currant juice from the cooler.
Find great sesame balls at Double Happiness – 2409 S. Wentworth
Except for the bevy of the sullen geriatric Chinese men bent over newspapers sipping their morning coffee, and bakery cases stuffed with steamed buns, Double Happiness channels an American-style, late-night diner. Ketchup and mustard bottles hold court next to containers of soy sauce on wood chip formica tables, and cardboard is laid on the floor to sop up dirt from patrons’ grimy shoes. Despite the foreboding appearance, the cheery counter help will usher your way to double happiness by doling out tennis ball-size, deep-fried sesame balls stuffed with red bean curd along with garlicky pork and shrimp turnovers.
If you like pork in your cookies, check out Wan Shi Da Bakery – 2229 S. Wentworth
This utilitarian affair hosts an open kitchen full of women cutting up fresh pastry sheets while an army of crystal cakes (yellow, moist angel food-style) cool on the counter. Of all the Chinatown bakeries, this spot, along with Chiu Quon, seems to have the largest and most enticing assortment of Western- and French-style pastries, including chocolate Swiss roll logs, cupcakes topped with frosted buddhas and tiramisu. Curiously, the display case cards dub half of the desserts as “chocolate cake.” Keep it real with the sesame pork cookie, a sweet egg-washed cookie stuffed with diced cinnamon, dusted Asian pear and bits of crunchy pork; contrary to most preconceived notions, it’s a nice combination of smoke, sugar and spice.