We don’t venture downtown as often as we should considering all of the great things to see, do and eat. When we do go, we’re usually headed to Chinatown to buy buns, bubble tea and get something permanently etched into our skin. Our tattoo shop of choice, Sal’s Tattoo and Barber Shop (http://www.salstattoo.com/) is found there, surrounded by amazing bakeries and shops. Matt was headed for a consultation as well as to have his arm traced, while I tagged along for the food.
Chinatown is an experience – little old ladies sell baubles and plants on the sidewalk, and shops are filled with rambutan, durian, various types of tree fungus and jars of tiny, freeze-dried seahorses (I’ve yet to find a recipe for these, but if you’ve got one let me know). There’s a “smell”, but it’s less pungent on cooler days.
In the Spadina/College neighbourhood, two particular bakeries sit nearly side-by-side offering soft, sweet, pillowy buns with tasty fillings. We normally stop at each one, loading up on bun varieties the other bakery doesn’t offer. We first stopped at Ding Dong bakery for lunch, which consisted of a few BBQ pork buns, curry beef buns and my personal favourite – the bun with a hot dog in it. But we were surprisingly disappointed by these buns, which were not as we remembered when we last dropped in. Matt described his curry bun as “soggy”, while the BBQ pork was full of onions and none of the sweet red sauce that normally accompanies it.
The remainder of our bun shopping was done at Mashion Bakery just up the street. For savoury fillings, we chose BBQ pork, ham and cheese, curried beef and hot dog (“things with hot dogs in them” cross all cultural boundaries). There are as many sweet options, including coconut buns, custard, pineapple, raisin, wintermelon and red bean. Miniature and fried versions of most bun flavours are also available.
We loaded up two grocery bags full of buns, along with six loaves of coconut bread, which included all they had on the shelf plus much of what they were hiding in the back. Coconut bread resembles a batch of Wonderbread hotdog buns, but chewy, sweet, covered in sesame seeds – and each roll holds a tube of the most delicious ground up coconut filling not unlike what’s inside a Bounty bar.
Another of our favourite recent discoveries is Japanese cheesecake, a light and airy white cake with a distinct cream cheese flavour.
The buns are ridiculously cheap, sometimes two or three for a dollar. The total cost of our haul: a paltry $26. The buns also freeze well and make a great snack or lazy lunch. Next time, we’re bringing more bags.
Bun selection greatly diminishes at the end of the day, and there are never leftovers that are bagged up and sold for less later on, as far as we’ve seen. You don’t have to go all the way to your nearest Chinatown for these delicious buns, though. They can be found wild in great numbers at Asian supermarkets like T&T, as well as prepackaged at your average No Frills if they know what they’re doing.
Our next stop was the best bubble tea around, Number 9 Bubble Tea, which lets you combine various flavours to your heart’s desire. I had a coffee/coconut bubble tea followed by a blueberry bubble tea later on (elated after discovering I could double up on their tapiocas upon request, which are made in small batches and are the tastiest in the neighbourhood) while Matt discovered their amazing slushes – fruity, fine-grain slush that melts in your mouth. On this occasion, I must admit I also filled up my loyalty card and scored my second bubble tea for free.
Maureen’s Note: In Ottawa, Green Fresh Market in Vanier on Montreal Rd. has in my opinion the best bbq pork buns. Made fresh daily, they are made with a slightly sweet dough and generously stuffed with large pieces of pork soaking in an excellent Chinese BBQ sauce (char siu) – a bargain at 89 cents. This is my go-to early flight meal. The buns at T&T are more expensive and of lower quality with less filling, but are nicely individually wrapped. Several of the grocers in Ottawa’s Chinatown offer an array of stuffed buns as well.
Contributor Heather Rose is a freelance writer living in Toronto with her puppy, Bodie and boyfriend, Matt, one of whom enjoys her culinary experiments more than the other. She applies her life-long philosophy – “I did my best” – to all her recipes and cooking experiences. Check out her website at www.heatherrosewriting.com.