Although New York City’s Chinatown is an intrepid eater’s Mecca, it is not a particularly well known destination for the sweet-toothed traveler. Where the pungent smells of steaming, boiling, and frying meat, fish, and vegetables rule the air, to catch a fleeting whiff of sugary confections is a rare treat. Cupcakes, ice cream, cookies, brownies, cakes, and pies—the stars of the New York City dessert scene—feel just as unlikely in Chinatown as dumplings, steamed buns, and Peking duck feel outside of the neighborhood. Chinatown is not New York City. It is, on the other hand, what seems like a big Asian meatball, a mix of traditional and regionally diverse ingredients molded into a lumpy round and dropped into a hot bowl of New York stew. Just as this stew would lose layers of complex savory flavor if it lost the meatball, the meatball would lose a little bit of sweetness if it was not swimming in the stew.
In mid-October 2010, I read in the New York Times about a new cupcake shop called Everything Frosted, a tiny store located up a flight of stairs on the one-block stretch of Mosco Street in the far reaches Chinatown. I was struck not only by the obscurity of its location, but also by the reported list of available sweet and almost savory cupcake flavor combinations. In addition to the standard vanilla, chocolate, and red velvet cakes, the baker and owner, John Wu, has conjured traditional American-style cupcakes with an Asian flair. He churns out cakes and frostings flavored with black sesame, jasmine, green tea, and red bean, to name a few. Unlike many people, my sweet tooth never grew in, so savory cupcakes appeal to me much more than the cloyingly sweet ones that have taken over this city. What Everything Frosted purportedly offered made my mouth water.
Anxious to explore this new shop, I rang my friend Cece, who has previously led me on a few Chinatown excursions and happens to be a second-generation Chinese immigrant, to pick up cupcakes after a savory lunch Chinese specialties and spend an afternoon in the neighborhood that she nearly grew up in. She enthusiastically obliged and we met shortly thereafter. When departing from Washington Square Park, the options for traveling to Chinatown are to catch the N or R train from 8th Street-NYU or walk. Cece headed towards the subway but I yanked her arm in the opposite direction when we reached Broadway. I did not want to travel underground like a burrowing groundhog that pops his head out of the dark tunnel only at choice destinations. I wanted to walk, breathe fresh air, and experience the urban transformation from NoHo to SoHo to Little Italy and everything else in between. So we walked.
Once we reached Houston, we veered off of Broadway to avoid the congested sidewalks that are the inevitable product of SoHo shopping traffic. Weighing the alternatives, we decided to take Mott Street, a fairly quiet street that circumvents SoHo and Little Italy’s busiest blocks and leads straight into the heart of Chinatown. As opposed to Elizabeth, Mulberry, and Bowery, which parallel Mott and also pass directly through SoHo and Little Italy, Mott Street is a bit friendlier and more commercially developed. As we travelled south, the blending, evolving neighborhoods were easily perceptible based solely on the most popular food destinations. For example, between Houston and Prince Street is SoHo’s Café Gitane, a trendy royal blue-trimmed French-Moroccan restaurant that attracts throngs of young, fashionable people particularly during weekend brunch. Between Spring Street and Kenmare Street in NoLita is the 100-year-old neighborhood go-to for freshly baked breads and made-to-order sandwiches at lunchtime, Parisi Bakery. At Broome Street, Asian markets begin to appear. Saigon Vietnamese Sandwich, situated at the corner of Mott and Broome, offers an absolutely soul-soothing rendition of the popular banh mi, a sandwich transported to America from the streets of Vietnam that consists of juicy pork sausage topped with a hearty slice of pork pate, julienned pickled carrots and cucumbers, sprigs of cilantro, a good dose of spicy chili sauce and a slather of Dijon-mayonnaise on a warm, crusty baguette. I was tempted to end our trip there and forget about the cupcakes, but once we crossed Grand Street, we were undeniably already in Chinatown. Like a mosquito to a light bulb, I was lured in and there was no turning back.
The street that had just one block north felt open and spacious became tight and claustrophobic. On Mott Street, every bit of space is occupied. The stores squeeze shoulder-to-shoulder along the street, their front displays spilling into each other: not-quite-dead seafood stacked on melting ice drips onto the garishly colored, spiny and smooth fruits and vegetables whose sweet, earthy odors compete with those of shriveled, salt-soaked, preserved animal products and topple haphazardly onto the rickety electronic toys next door. What had been a quiet and calm stretch of the city became a blur of loud red, green, and yellow awnings marked with Chinese symbols, an onslaught of pungent smells, hollering vendors and shoppers.
As we continued to push through the market scene, I was captivated by the exotic edibles, some of which I could identify but had only rarely, if ever, seen: whole sugar cane, leafy greens like bok choy and Chinese cabbage, Chinese radish, bitter melon, winter melon, kohlrabi, lychee, all sorts of dried mushrooms, sea cucumber, dried jellyfish, shrimp, scallop, and fish maw. When I did not know what something was, if I had not been with Cece, I would have been left guessing. Although there are signs, they are rarely in English. I quickly learned that in Chinatown, unless you are a real adventure seeker, bring a Chinese-speaking guide.
I was nearly done fawning over the vegetables outside of G. V. Trading Inc., the market at the corner of Mott and Grand, when I spotted a shocking magenta, egg-shaped fruit not quite the size of two softballs with long, lime green protrusions and rubbery skin. “Cece, what is that?” I asked. I was captivated and confused. “Dragonfruit! It’s sweet, kind of like a kiwi, but I’ve only ever eaten it in the summer. I wonder if they’ll be as sweet this time of year. Wanna try?” Why yes, I did. Cece picked a fruit and a few lychee nuts, which I had also never tasted before, to snack on before lunch. The street vendor informed Cece that “dragonfruit makes you beautiful.” Would it turn my boyish figure into that of a voluptuous vixen? Would it lend my dry skin a dewy glow or my smile a white porcelain sparkle?
As we continued to walk down Mott Street, we passed meat market after vegetable market after bakery, pharmacy, jeweler, and Laundromat. We got stuck at a light at Hester Street and while we waited, Cece handed me a lychee about the size of a ping pong ball and watched me fumble with the small, strange fruit. With her own lychee, she showed me how to peel the rough skin back “like this,” she said, revealing the fruit. I followed her example and popped the soft, pale ball of juicy flesh into my mouth. It was surprisingly mellow with an indescribable flavor and a texture reminiscent of a barely-ripe honeydew melon ball. The snack prompted my appetite. Luckily for me, Cece was already holding the door open at her choice restaurant for soup dumplings, Shanghai Gourmet.
Chinese cuisines are geographically defined and often named after the major city of their respective regions. Shanghainese, as represented by Shanghai Gourmet, and Cantonese (from Canton, now Guangzhou) are the major cuisines of east and southeast China. Peking is the most distinct cuisine of the north and Szechwan of the west. Each cuisine is distinguished by regionally available ingredients, specialty dishes, and cooking style. In Chinatown, all of these cuisines are represented either independently or in combination with others. I’ll even venture to say that the food scene of Chinatown is a near perfect representation of the neighborhood itself: a microcosm of China, a diverse blend of the people, cultures, and flavors from all of the country’s different regions. There are, however, certain regions that are more represented than others in Chinatown—as is also evident in the language. For example, by looking at the neighborhood’s most commonly spoken dialects, you find that most people speak Mandarin, which technically functions as the official language of China. The other two most common dialects are Cantonese and Fujianese, which originate from Canton and Fujian, respectively, in the southeast. Cece attested to the fact that most shopkeepers can speak at least three dialects: Mandarin, Cantonese, and often one other, now increasingly Fujianese.
At Shanghai Gourmet, the waitress began speaking in one dialect and, according to Cece, adjusted accordingly when she heard Cece speak. Once we were seated, we received a complementary pot of unsweetened black tea. In China, it is not customary to put either milk or sugar in tea. Although it is also not proper in most regions of China to drink tea while eating, Canton is one exception. Tea is often served with meals in Chinatown because historically, most Chinese immigrants to New York City come from Canton and the southern regions of China. Given this fact and others to come, I have reason to believe that the owner of Shanghai Gourmet is more likely Cantonese than Shanghainese. But I digress.
For the meal, we ordered dim sum—translated to English as “touch the heart”—a Canton mid-day repast which is composed of various individually-portioned foods like steamed and fried dumplings, buns, cakes, and rolls. We chose steamed vegetable dumplings (gau), fried turnip cake (lo bak go), pork buns (char siu bao), and the special Shanghainese dumplings, soup dumplings (xiao long bau), which are not traditionally dim sum since they are not Cantonese. While we waited for our food, we watched in hungry anticipation as the couple, who I took to be tourists, at the table next to us receive their order of soup dumplings. The dumplings were the cutest little things, fat and bouncy due to the broth and mini meatball artfully wrapped inside. “Cece, how are you supposed to eat it?” I discretely asked. As our neighbor plopped the single dumpling onto her plate and cut into it with a fork (a fork!) and a knife (a knife!), Cece winced. The deflated dumpling sagged sadly as the soup flooded the woman’s plate. “Not like that,” she yelped.
Then our food arrived. Using chopsticks, Cece properly demonstrated the art of eating a soup dumpling. First, she moved the dumpling with one hand into the spoon held in the other hand. Then, she bit a small hole on the top of the dumpling, which allowed the broth to cool. She sucked the broth out of the dumpling, picked the dumpling up off the spoon and with the chopsticks dipped it into the dumpling sauce, a simple mixture of black rice vinegar and ginger slivers. I followed suit. Of the other dim sum, the pork bun was my favorite. The fluffy, sticky, and mildly sweet dough was the perfect package for the meaty filling. Although the turnip cake was delicious (and stringy), it was not what Cece was accustomed to: the typical cake was unconventionally wrapped in dough and fried. The vegetable dumplings were soft and light—a nice contrast to the other, heavier dim sum—but were not noteworthy. We finished our meal in a flash and, after having eaten so much meat, grease, and salt, I wanted something sweet.
In China, dessert is not as common as it is in America. In fact, dessert is often savory rather than sweet. Common items are bing, wheat flour and lard-based confections, gao, steamed rice-based snacks, hot broth or custard soup, sweet fruit jellies, and candy. Although the Chinese do not eat cupcakes, we were off to find one anyway.
Continuing on Mott Street past Canal and Bayard, where Mott veers to the left and begins to head downhill, Cece and I found Mosco Street. Across from Fried Dumpling, a dive restaurant whose claim to fame is the five-for-one dollar fried dumpling special, was Everything Frosted. Right when I was ready to binge on a decadent dessert, we found, taped onto the glass door, a hand-written sign that read, “Everything Frosted will be closed until November 8 due to the wedding of our chef!” Was the exclamation point meant to elicit feelings of happiness and excitement? Because it didn’t. I felt defeated. Cece took the news a little bit better and, in an attempt to raise my spirits, handed me the dragonfruit. “Let’s eat this. We can go get something from another bakery and eat in the park. Have you ever tried egg custard?” No, I hadn’t, but the redundant name only contributed to my cynicism. Isn’t custard always made with eggs?
This time, Cece yanked my arm. I pouted my way back down Mott Street and up East Broadway until we arrived at her favorite Chinatown bakery, QQ Café and Bakery. As I glanced over the strangely unnatural-looking pastries behind the glass counter display, Cece struggled to be served by a sales clerk. Cece’s predicament stole my attention away from the anemic-looking baked things: she was surrounded by a growing throng of babbling Chinese women waving pink “pastry tickets,” as I later learned they are called, at the end of the counter. More women entered the store and five-foot-tall Cece was pushed further and further from any chance of being acknowledged. To add to her dilemma, Cece didn’t have any pastry tickets. Knowing that I would be of no assistance, I observed the struggle from the safety of my corner by the refrigerated drinks. I had to believe that these pastries were worth the battle.
At last, Cece resurfaced from the crowd with an enormous bag stuffed with sweets that were, for the most part, not really sweet: pork, red bean, hot dog, and egg custard buns, a paper-wrapped sponge cake, an egg custard tart, a gooey peanut rice dumpling, and, much to my surprise, something that resembled a cupcake. We returned to the park to find that all of the benches were occupied by gambling men and women playing Chinese chess, cards, and checkers. So, we plopped ourselves on the grass instead and laid out the goods. “Try the egg custard first,” Cece directed. “It’s still hot. It just came out of the oven when I got it.” The pastry, smaller than my palm, resembled a mini lemon tart because of its flaky crust and creamy yellow filling. Much to my astonishment, I enjoyed it the most of the things we tried. All of the “buns” were of the same fluffy dough with different fillings, and the sponge cake was just another variation on the theme. The texture of the glutinous rice dumpling was a nice contrast to the bready buns. It was like a mild, melting Sunkist gummy candy topped with crunchy unsalted peanuts as opposed to crystallized sugar.
The Chinese have their own version of a cupcake: fa gao, or “prosperity cake.” However, like the mooncake, a lotus seed delicacy prepared and enjoyed in celebration of the Mid-Autumn Festival, the prosperity cake is consumed on Chinese New Year and difficult to find off-season. It is typically made with rice flour, yeast, and sugar, and it is steamed. As the cake rises, the top splits into four sections, the height of which supposedly indicates how “prosperous” the year will be. The cupcake that Cece procured was not this but rather the Chinatown version of the American cupcake. Even despite my low expectations, the iced mound of dough was truly disappointing. What could I expect from a cupcake topped with an edible smiling frog sitting perched on Play-Doh green icing? The cupcake was trying too hard—too hard indeed, for the frog was as solid as a rock. In order to bite into the cake, I had to peel the frog off which, as a result, took most of the hardened pure sugar icing with it. I nibbled at the sad cake but could not finish it. The dragonfruit compensated for this disaster of a cupcake. Cece, with the knife that she apparently carries in her backpack, split the thick-skinned fruit open to reveal a pale white flesh filled with tiny black seeds. We sliced chunks out of the core and enjoyed the juicy, sugary-sweet and faintly tart fruit. I was pleasantly surprised and satisfied for having found the sweetest thing in Chinatown: fresh fruit.
Before heading back to the village, we stopped for a quick round of Street Fighter at Chinatown Fair, one of the few arcades still in existence in New York City, located on Mott Street. I often played Street Fighter at my summer pool club when I was younger and I was pretty decent but my technique was far from artful or strategic. In fact, I found that furiously smashing all of the buttons simultaneously was surprisingly effective. Ten years later, I wanted to retest my skills. Cece obliged. We reached the arcade, which was dim and airless, the floors cracked and sticky, but thankfully we did not need to venture too far into the depths because Street Fighter was right by the front door. After trading a one dollar bill for four 25-cent tokens, we squeezed past the pimple-faced teenage boys playing Buck Hunter (or something like it) next to us. We played. I won. Twice. The teenager with the backpack who had been playing Buck Hunter challenged me to another round. And I beat him, too. Cece and I patted ourselves on the back and departed Chinatown feeling as if we had consumed and then conquered the neighborhood.
One week later, after some careful planning (no weddings would keep me from my cupcake!), I returned to Chinatown with another close Chinese friend, Morgan. This time, we went for the cupcake and only for the cupcake. By the time we arrived in Chinatown, we needed to hurry: it was already 2:00 PM and Everything Frosted closed at 3. We scurried down Mott Street, made a right on Mosco Street, threw the store door open, and leapt up the narrow stairs only to find John Wu, the baker, and his mother peacefully icing fresh cupcakes at the work station behind the counter. While they worked, his wife sat at a desk by the window, talking on the phone. I took a deep breath, inhaling the intoxicating smell of baking butter, flour, and sugar. The place was not what I was expecting—it was not decorated and did not need to be. The shop was more like a home kitchen with a makeshift display case plopped in the middle to divide the wife’s “office” from the bakery. Since it was the end of the day, we had the left-over flavor combinations to choose from.
Given that we were the only customers present, John was more than happy to see us through our decisions. Following his recommendations, we bought five cupcakes for $12.50 and received one for free: a red bean cupcake with red bean icing, a pink champagne cupcake with black sesame frosting, a black sesame cupcake with white chocolate frosting, and two more. I wanted to try the green tea and jasmine cakes with green tea and mango icing, respectively, but both had just come out of the oven and were too hot to ice. “The icing will melt if I put it on them right now,” he said, “but we can try to freeze them for a few minutes to cool them down more quickly.” We accepted his thoughtful offer. As we waited, I asked him about his business. Although it seemed quiet in the store, he said he was actually quite busy filling orders that came in from as far away as Canada. “We don’t deliver anything further than New Jersey, so we’ve had orders from places like Canada and Maine, and the people will drive down to pick them up themselves.” Clearly, these cupcakes are worth the trek. Now, judging from the blogosphere, the word is out about Everything Cupcakes. I do not expect this New York City shop to be so calm for much longer.
At last, the cupcakes had cooled. Just as another customer entered, John Wu had resumed icing cupcakes with his mom and Morgan and I were out the door with our big white box of goodies. Everything Frosted does not have any seating, so we headed back to Washington Square to taste test. They were the best cupcakes that I have had yet in New York City—proof positive that New York City and Chinese truly complement each other. When combined, sparks fly. Every cupcake was dense and moist, heavier than cake as I know it but lighter than a muffin, with a strong, distinct flavor. The best, Morgan and I agreed, was the black sesame both as cake and icing. The fruity strawberry and mango icings were the least enjoyed, the jasmine the most recognizable, the green tea the most subtle, and the red bean the most inventive. All were worth my adventure to taste them.
If Everything Frosted was located anywhere else in New York City, people would be elbow-jabbing, hair-yanking, and tripping each other to get their hands on John Wu’s delectable cupcakes. As it is, they are sheltered from the cupcake trend-hunting crowd. The Chinatown locals may not have yet embraced the cupcake concept, but Everything Frosted shows signs of hope. The Asian meatball that is Chinatown has absorbed yet another, sweeter, New York City delicacy. I look forward to the day when more American desserts are infused with Asian flavors or, in turn, when Chinese baked goods are spiced with a little more of New York. The possibilities are endless: how about jelly-filled buns or chocolate rice dumplings? Until then, I know where to find the best cupcake in town.