ON A MISSION: Gone Hunting For The Very Best BBQ Pork Steam Buns In Chinatown…
by Claire Lassam | I’m still a little new to dim sum. It was introduced to me about five years ago when I started dating a man whose father was born in Hong Kong. Before then, I didn’t know that I wanted soy sauce at 9am and that barbequed meats and green tea would make me so happy so early in the day. It’s undeniably, irreversibly true. I’m completely converted to Chinese brunch now. I love dim sum.
While I love steamed gai ling with oyster sauce and nearly every kind of dumpling I’ve ever tried (I even liked chicken feet more then I thought I would, though I tried it just to be one of the cool kids), what I love most of all are the steam buns. Just a simple package of dough with a healthy scoop of BBQ pork (my personal favourite) steamed until the dough is soft but not sticky and the pork wants to ooze out by way of the X that marks the spot on top. They should be savoury, deeply flavoured with char, and that magical marinade they put on barbequed pork in Chinatown, something that usually involves soy, Chinese cooking wine, hoisin, and a myriad of spices that no butcher I’ve ever asked has revealed to me.
Which is a long way of saying that I really enjoyed researching for this article. A lot. I feel like I started researching years ago. I’ve had the steam buns at sit-down restaurants, which mean they’re steamed to order and usually piping hot and fresh, and I’ve had them “to go”, where they’ve had to sit for a while. I’ve also had them for dinner, and once I even tried to make them at home, a la Momofuku. They’re hit or miss, depending on where you go.
What I learned on this particular mission was that I really want steam buns at night, preferably with a cocktail. Until recently, my love of them was either a morning thing, a break-from-work-to-grab-a-steam-bun thing, or an I’m-super-hungover-and-nothing-will-cure-it-but-a-steam-bun thing. If anyone could convince me of it being a drinking-a-Manhattan-and-eating-a-steam bun thing, it would be the talented Joel Watanabe, chef at Bao Bei. His are rolled differently, with the flap of dough steamed and then filled more like a taco, which allows it to taste slow-cooked from the pork but also fresh from the welcome addition of sprouts, preserved turnips and sugared peanuts. The dough is flawless, too: soft but not sticky, and more flavourful than most. On the menu, they’re known as mantou, the word for steambun in the Shanxi province of northern China. They are exceptional. You can imagine as much just by looking at the photo above.
But if you’re looking for a bun with your dim sum, your best bet is Jade Dynasty, an unobtrusive little spot on East Pender with all around delicious dim sum (the fried taro balls with duck would rank high on my favourites list). The steam buns are delicious, too. The dough is soft and filled with a heap of meat, all held together in a sauce that’s a deep red from the charred skin of the pork.
It’s leaps and bounds superior to the other buns I ate on this mission; better than Garden Villa, where they tasted processed, and the ones at Kam Wai, which had been steaming for so long that the dough stuck to my teeth and I had to go to the washroom to get it off. Jade’s were better than Floata’s, too, although theirs’ were nicely seasoned and had big chunks of pork. Sun Fresh had a good pork-dough ratio, which is to say it nearly burst with pork, but it was also covered in a thick, gravy-like sauce thickened with so much cornstarch that you could taste it. And much to my disappointment, Maxim’s and Streamland couldn’t give me a fresh steam bun. I had to buy them in packs of 8, and they were all of the exact same type. Streamland said they’d steam mine for me a la minute, but then they went ahead and actually used a microwave. It tasted every bit as processed as it was, with small pieces of pork and far too much dough. It was chewy instead of meltingly tender, as they should be when made to order.
The only place that didn’t make theirs’ to order but was still worth it was New Town. I’ve long been a shopper here because you can grab just one to go at a moment’s notice, which is sometimes necessary in my life. Also, their dough is a little firmer. It holds up, and though not quite as hot as the super fresh ones, they give way when you bite in, revealing mouthfuls of well-seasoned, properly portioned BBQ pork.
So perhaps this mission left me with too many options (I did try to narrow it down by only going to places in Chinatown rather than extending the hunt to Richmond). I might grab a bun from New Town on my way to work and take them from Jade Dynasty during dim sum hours, but for the best steam bun in town, I’ll take mine as a mantou with a drink at Bao Bei.
Claire Lassam is a baker, blogger, and freelance writer based in East Van. She has been cooking and baking her way through the city for nearly five years, working in restaurants ranging from Cioppino’s to Meat & Bread. She currently toils at Beta 5 Chocolates and runs the baking blog Just Something Pretty.