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A Real New York Bargain

Shoppers who've spent it all can eat for cheap at a bakery in the heart of lower Manhattan

Email icon  cmp381@nyu.edu

Teenage girls in New York flock to Canal Street for knockoff Prada bags and $5 Tiffany rings. For 17-year-old Alicia Cioffoletti of Staten Island, the shopping strip at the heart of Chinatown offers an additional attraction: the genuine, and genuinely affordable, edibles at Tai Pan Bakery.

Yummy Bread, Cioffoletti’s favorite hot snack at Tai Pan, is a caramelized take on toast that takes pity on her wallet. For $1.50, the Yummy Bread- a hot dessert piled on white toast -combines sweetened condensed milk that tastes as smooth and velvety as cream, with a peanut butter spread that produces a sweet burst of color and taste. Yummy Bread maintains an infusion of sugar sweetness with texture and richness similar to a Krispy Kreme glazed donut, minus the excess fat and the guilt that follows.

Canal Street can be overwhelming for a visitor to New York. It’s the most congested area in lower Manhattan, crowded with vendors, and doubles as the on-ramp for the Manhattan Bridge at the eastern end of the street. But Canal Street is also an oasis of bargains in one of the most expensive parts of New York City. Located between Mott and Mulberry streets, just a few blocks east of Soho and Tribeca and south of NoLiTa, Tai Pan is a classic Chinatown bargain. For a shopper who’s spent the day blowing hundreds of dollars on Burberry scarves and Chanel sunglasses — or even just a few on fake designer replicas — Tai Pan is an enjoyable and inexpensive place to feast on sweet flavors.

“Sometimes I spend all my money on Canal Street and don’t even have enough money to get back home,” Cioffoletti says. “But I always stop in Tai Pan for some bubble tea. It’s the greatest, and it’s so cheap.”

What Tai Pan is not is relaxing: the café’s boisterous atmosphere, amplified by sweet smells, can be overwhelming. “Tai Pan” means “big shot” in Chinese, and the bakery strives to live up to the name. Wall-to-wall glass showcases display elaborate wedding and birthday cakes. But Tai Pan’s cheaper baked goods are its most popular items. Hot and cold snacks range in price from 75 cents to $5 and satisfy even the poorest of customers.

Like everywhere else along Mott Street, bubble tea is one the most popular drinks at Tai Pan. Iced bubble tea comes in a clear cup with plump little black tapioca pearls on the bottom. The beverage originated at a small tea stand in Taiwan in the 1980s, which sold it to children looking for a refreshing after-school snack. Bubble tea reached the West a decade later. Fruity and sweet, bubble tea is usually made with milk, tea, and fresh fruits and crushed ice to create a healthy version of the American milkshake. The tapioca pearls at the bottom of the cup have a consistency somewhat in the middle of chewing gum and Jell-O. Their black color derives from sweet potato, cassava root and brown sugar. The tapioca pearls, which are no bigger than a small marble, get sucked up through fat straws—most tea-drinkers chew them. For its devotees, this drink is an addiction, and for $2.50 it comes cheaper than a Starbucks iced latte.

Cantonese pork buns are another affordable specialty at Tai Pan. Running 85 cents each, the pork buns, which are larger than the palm of your hand, combine grilled pork, soy sauce and Hosin sauce, a reddish brown mixture of soybeans, garlic and chile peppers. The pork filling is stuffed inside a sweet, glazed bun, and the whole thing can be consumed in less than three seconds.

Small and portable, egg custard is one of the best selling products at Tai Pan, injecting a sweet thick filling inside the shell of a tiny piecrust. Warm delicious flavors of vanilla, egg cream, nutmeg and milk combine in a crunchy outer bowl for a pleasing snack. Just remember to save a few pennies from your NoLiTa shopping: bright-yellow custards run between 80 cents to $1.00 each, and tiny “mini” custards sell three for a dollar.

Tai Pan Bakery
194 Canal Street
(between Mott & Mulberry streets)
New York City

Contact the author at Cmp381 [at] nyu.edu

For $3.35, diners can feast on a roast pork bun and bubble tea at Tai Pan Bakery.
Photo by Christina Parrella.