For an upcoming party that I'm catering, I was asked to include a "Manapua" in the bento box that I was going to put together for the party. In Hawaii we call the Chinese Roast Pork Buns "Manapua". Having lived in NYC for 23 years and within walking distance of Chinatown, I have often picked up a roast pork bun (steamed or baked, prefer baked) when I needed a quick snack. It was always done casually without intent. I tended to buy Maria's Bakery bun when I was "ono" (craving) for a roast pork bun. Maria's bun was good, but a little on the sweet side and a little skimpy on filling.
So, with the directive to include a Manapua in the bento box, I felt I had to find a really good Roast Pork Bun. After getting opinions from many friends, with the company of my girl friend who is Chinese, born in Malaysia and a discriminating eater, I hit six different Chinese restaurants and bakeries looking for the bun worthy of inclusion in my bento box.
Not all places had a Roast Pork bun and we ended up eating more than we wanted and things other than intended. It's impossible to keep two people who love to eat and eat anything that sounds good and/or interesting from missing an opportunity to "oooh" and "ahhh".
The winner - Tai Pan Bakery on Canal Street between Mott and Mulberry...south side of the street. Big, clean, modern and very funky taste in music, Tai Pan Bakery is baking up a delicious Roast Pork Bun that has a good amount of meat filling (unfortunately with the traditional red coloring, but no fatty filler) surrounded by a tasty bun. I've noted that the bun can sometimes be just slightly undercooked. I've had a few baked buns from other places that were downright raw in the middle...only worthy of a garbage can.
After my search and discover mission, I got an e-mail from a friend telling me about Mei Lai Wah on Pell Street. Her father used to bring roast pork buns home every Sunday for the kids from Mei Lai Wah. Just to be absolutely sure that I had found the best bun in Chinatown, I found Mei Lai Wah (a genuine hole in the wall) and bought their roast pork bun. Brown filling was the best thing about it. The filling had lots of fatty bits, it was skimpy although the flavor was good. The bun was a bit weird because with some mouthfuls there was a slight sensation of eating paper.
Something has obviously happened to Mei Lai Wah's roast pork bun in the years from my friend's childhood to adulthood. I was very gentle in my response to her loving memory and told her to check out the roast pork bun at Tai Pan Bakery.