Day: January 8th, 2007

Mei Lai Wah Coffee Tea House

Monday, January 8th, 2007 | All Things, Eats

On Pell Street for a haircut, and this time, I made a point of stopping by Mei Lai Wah Coffee Tea House, my longtime favorite place for roast pork buns (char siu bao).

This hole-in-the-wall coffeeshop on Bayard Street is a wonderful relic from the old Chinatown. I remember my parents bringing me and my siblings to the shop on Sunday mornings — or rather, I remember waiting on the sidewalk outside while Mom or Dad elbowed their way into the always-packed shop. After a time, one or the other would emerge with a brown paper bag full of steamy, warm — they were always warm! — fragrant pillows of eggy bread, stuffed with sweet, but not too sweet, barbecued roast pork. Mmmm.

Once inside, the deep, familiar scent of milk tea and strong, creamy coffee… the stacked trays of paper-bottomed baked buns. (Incidentally, I never understood how in those days Mei Lai Wah would sell so much coffee when traditionally, Chinese aren’t big coffee drinkers.) In the evening, the place takes on a decidedly seedier feel: emptied of the throngs of shoppers and families waving bills, clamoring for attention from the indifferent staff, it’s just a coffeeshop, and a rather dingy one at that. Still, the space has hardly changed from my earliest recollections: the same dim lighting, brown tiled walls, plastic fans, vinyl stools, worn counters… even the men working the register have an ancient look about them, always have. The booth denizens are predominantly male and elderly: the staunch old guard, poring over their World Journals as the street vendors, chain bakeries and neoned bubble tea shops shift and change around their wizened heads.

Mei Lai Wah

There are other offerings at the coffeeshop: some dimsum (mornings only), sesame braids, shredded coconut buns, egg tarts, and the somewhat generically named “big bun” (dai bao), which is indeed big, and stuffed impossibly full of pork, chicken, Chinese sausage (lop chong) and vegetables. Also, steamed roast pork buns, fluffy and white. In my mind, though, they pale in comparison to the sweet, golden-glazed, slightly crusty, baked variety. Fragrant and fresh out of the oven, there’s no better way to spend seventy cents.

Char Siu Bao

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