By Christina Parrella
Tourists flock to Canal Street for knockoff Prada bags and $5 Tiffany rings. But foodies on a budget head to Chinatown for the genuine, and genuinely affordable, snacks at Tai Pan Bakery.
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. 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 Hoisin 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.
Yummy Bread 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.
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.