Huan ying to Chinatown! Boston has a rocking little scene in Chinatown, and the BABE is here to report on all things pastry!

Chinatown's Best
**** Bao Bao Bakery                77  Harrison Ave. 
*** Great Taste Bakery 

 Chinatown's Worst
* 101 Bakery  56 Beach St. (between Tyler St & Oxford St)
*May's Cake House               223 Harrison Ave # A
*Hing Shing Pastry                67 Beach Street
 *Ho Yuen Bakery                54 Beach St  

Bao Bao Bakery: The Happy Place!

Bao Bao did two astounding things: it took me straight to Kowloon and it converted me to bubble tea. For this alone, I can recommend it as the first bakery you should go to in Boston’s Chinatown.

Behind the counter are a phalanx of bakery goddesses, cracking jokes in Cantonese but very happy to help a gaijin visitor who can only point at the goodies and make hand gestures. I highly suspect that they were, among other things, making a wry commentary on my personage, although having failed to learn more than three words of Cantonese, I can’t prove it. But that’s the feeling of Hong Kong I was missing: busy, crowded, and jovial. That’s the intangible fun of Bao Bao. That and the fact that there’s plenty of room to sit, a huge selection of little cakes, buns, savory pastries, bread, and full blown birthday cakes. The boxes are cute, the price is right, and you really find a sense of contentment in the busy shop, sitting at the counter with your cute cake, sipping bubble tea, watching a steady stream of characters go by.

And when I say cute cake, I’m really not kidding. Right in the door, I saw a tray of sprinkled sponge cakes with little frosting chicks sitting on top that are clearly labeled as “cute cakes” that made me feel a little swooney. You can’t find a piece of cake with that much charisma for $2.25 anywhere else in the city.

And while they have a section of perfectly respectable buns and dainties, go to the end of the cases and behold their decorated cakes.

You can argue that the cakes in Chinatown all taste vaguely similar, that the frosting is made of shortening, and the ingredients are not worthy of a French patisserie. But really, who cares? This kind of joy and exuberance is a payoff of its own. And make no mistake, Bao Bao is the only bakery in Chinatown making cakes this dang cute.  

I didn’t know I needed a cake frosted to look like a pouting puffer fish until I saw it. But now that I know it exists, I have to have it for my next birthday cake! 

Now, down to the bubble tea. It’s definitely an acquired taste. If you’re not careful, you’ll inadvertently inhale a truckload of tapioca balls. I initially just ordered a peach green tea from the huge tea menu, but the bakery goddess smiled and shouted encouragingly, “bubbles?” I was weak for the picking and nodded. The tea itself was wicked good, sweet and peachy with a jasminey green tea. With the first tapioca bubble that slithered into my mouth I started to think, “No way, I’m not eating this.” But after the second, and then the third, I found that having a sip of tea and then chewing on a soft little bubble of goodness was actually quite pleasant. By the time I was done with Bao Bao’s bubbles, I was thinking about how soon I could have another.   

Five bucks will buy you a venti something or other at Starbucks and not much else. I say take the fiver and head to Bao Bao for "cute cake" and bubble tea.

 Bao Bao Bakery 77 Harrison Avenue

Great Taste Bakery

These days, the designer (or "artisinal") cupcake runs $3 in Boston. A candy bar runs  $1.25 at CVS. Gum, for Pete's sake, is near $1.50. There ain't no joy for a dollar in Candyland. UNLESS you are willing to venture into the slightly seedy, slightly boisterous streets of Boston Chinatown, which is home to a plethora of bakeries that really and truly charge a dollar for a piece of cake. And not crappy cake either.

I'm starting with Great Taste Bakery not because it is particularly famous, but because I happen to have wandered in this weekend, slightly dazed and disoriented from the many side streets and small alleys of restaurants. This is a bakery attached to a restaurant with just enough room for a line of people to jostle together elbow to elbow. This means that enthusiastic ladies behind the counter will start asking you what you want long before you can actually see what's in the case. Stand strong and wait until you move past all of the goodies, because you don't want to miss anything.

Have your fill of green and red bean cakes with their intricate patterns, and then move on to the frosted goodies.

The sponge cake on the lemon and almond cakes is really lovely and light. Never mind that the frosting very likely came from  a large, industrial only costs a dollar, after all! These babies fly out the door fast, so you're assured they've just been made. And although some of the flavors may be a little out of the ordinary (mango mousse cake, anyone?), the cakes definitely hold their own against traditional western bakeries. Just substitute bubble tea for the obligatory cup of coffee, and you get the picture.

Now, if only someone can explain to me what this large jar of "colorful jelly" by the cash register is supposed to be used for!

Treachery at 101 Bakery!!!
It was the perfect bait for the bakery babe…a yellow sponge cake rolled over taro filling, frosted with a neon purple snowbank and topped with a jelly glazed strawberry. The bakery was cute, the cake case was full of wonders, and I laid down my $2 with no second thought: the taro cake would be mine!
The offending party
But oh-no-no, treachery at the bakery! I should’ve known that when it took me a few minutes to wrestle a forkful of the cake free that I was in trouble. After chewing vigorously for a moment and then feeling desperately that I needed a glass of milk, I thought, “maybe I just need a bite of frosting with it.” But the frosting was in no way fluffy, silky, creamy, or edible. Because that devious beauty had clearly been sitting on the cake shelf for upwards of 3 days. And it was made of so serious a lack of fresh ingredients that my guess it is will still be shelf stable into the next millennia. It was not exactly brick like, but rather so chewy, so heavy, so stubborn, that I really wouldn’t recommend it to even a casual cake enthusiast.  
Try at your peril!

The real heartbreak here is that 101 Bakery is one of the nicer looking bakeries in Chinatown. It really is a sweet place to sit and imbibe bakery vibes. The buns and Chinese flat pastries are good, although not what you might expect. Things that look like almond croissants are actually soft dinner buns wrapped over taro, coconut, and bean fillings. That and an iced tea might make a nice stop on your tour of Chinatown. But don’t on any account dabble with the cakes!

Redemption in the baked goods?
101 Bakery is at 56 Beach St. (between Tyler St & Oxford St), should you want to brave it. 

Sinister Sesame Bombs at May's Cake House
May's Cake House is a slightly sunken cafe on the outskirts of Chinatown, lauded with many stars in Yelp, and with such a pretty name, who wouldn't expect it to be a wonderland of baked goods? Well, pooey. It's a subterranean joint that smelled funny right when I walked in the door...and sniffing your nose and thinking something is dodgy is hardly a good sign at a bakery. The two cases were crowded with very little cake and many starch bombs all guaranteed to stay in your digestive tract long after you'd like to forget you'd eaten them.

I ordered a coconut ball that turned out to be a gelatinous, wobbling softball of rice starch covering a nest of crunchy roast sesame seeds. Once you get past the texture of jellied starch, the filling is quite good...but dense enough that one artfully applied coconut ball could easily plug a hole in the Hoover Dam.

You won't eat again for a week....

I moved on to what looked like a round sesame pastry the size of an egg. I imagined it would taste like those lovely syrup soaked balls that come for dessert at an Indian restaurant. But, oh no, it was a deep fried sesame bomb with half an inch of gelatinous rice product followed by a tongue paralyzing blob of red bean paste. It was more than my hardy constitution could take. The first and only time a fried item has defeated me, and the infamy of it goes solely to May's Cake House.

Beware, friends. Beware the sesame bomb!

Which is not to say that there's no cake at all at May's Cake House...I just never made it past the sesame bomb and the wobbly coco monster. Maybe it was the skimpy selection, or the yellowy trays, but the cake section managed to look vaguely depressed.  

I left May's completely puzzled as to how it had garnered so many stars on Yelp. My advice is to stick with Bao Bao's, Great Taste, or Eldo's.

 May's Cake House 223 Harrison Ave # A

Ho Yuen Bakery and Hing Shing Pastry: Gloom and Doom

Ho Yuen Bakery and Hing Shing Pastry can both be summed up with exactly the same review: dingy, unclean, with unfriendly counter ladies and over priced goods.

The haphazzard case at Hing Shing

The scene at Ho Yuen

Both places had cookies the size of car wheels with no flavor other than an eggy aftertaste that left me feeling vaguely sullied. If you're going to label something as an almond cookie, there should dang well be some taste of almond in the cookie, no? If you're not going to sell any cake at a bakery, then your buns and pastries should dang well have some flavor to them other than...egg. That's it, shopfulls of flour, shortening, and eggs with absolutely no flavor enhancement other than the occasional shot of coconut or bean paste.

These taste about as good as they look.

Please be assured, this is not a culture or a class gap. I adore little holes in the wall that have awesome, cheap goodies. I live for fried food and sesame pastries. I'm an ardent fan of the baozi done well and bean paste delights. The problem is that Hing Shing Pastry and Ho Yuen Bakery are simply not that flavorful, not that friendly, and not that fun. Save yourself the glum fest and go directly to Chinatown's best: Bao Bao, Great Taste, or Eldo's.

Hing Shing Pastry 67 Beech St.

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Ho Yuen Bakery 54 Beach Street

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