BY JOE DISTEFANO
As the Culinary King of Queens, I’m so very fortunate to live in the most diverse and delicious destination in all of New York City. Really I’m not royalty though, I’m an ambassador, and a hungry one at that. Today, we return to China to talk about C Bao Asian Buns, a Queens-based business that specializes in one of my favorite sandwiches, Chinese bao. They’re just one of 60 food vendors curated by the World’s Fare at the Hello Panda Festival, which kicked off at Citi Field last weekend and runs until January 26th.
For a long, long time the only pork buns I knew were the char siu bao found at Chinese bakeries in Manhattan’s Chinatown. The first time that I encountered a fluffy hinged bao bun was at a Peking duck restaurant. Until David Chang came on the scene in the 1990s offering his take on Taiwanese gua bao, or pork belly sandwiches I didn’t think of the bao outside the context of Peking duck. Unlike the tasty but rather one note char siu bao found in Chinese bakeries these little marvels were packed with thick slabs of wobbly slow cooked pork belly, pickled mustard greens, and sweetened peanuts creating a symphony of flavor. At about the same time roast duck buns, notably the famed “duck a buck” as prepared at Corner 28 in downtown Flushing’s bustling Chinatown, started to become a popular street food.
On a cold Tuesday afternoon I stopped by C Bao’s Times Square outpost and tried both the duck and pork belly buns. I’d had them once before and thought they were pretty good, but frankly I don’t like to wait on lines so hadn’t tasted either in years. Both remain among the best bao I’ve ever had in New York City. Each of the fluffy buns was slightly larger than my fist. The pillowy dough of the gua bao yielded to tender slabs of pork belly whose richness was perfectly offset by the pickled greens and peanuts. The duck version was filled with hefty slices, which somehow retained their crisp skin even in the cold Times Square air. I’m willing to bet that the Korean beef, chicken teriyaki, and tofu bao are just as good, but I stuck to the classics.
“C is for Chinese and C is also the initial of my husband’s first name,” says Annie Ye who started C Bao Asian Buns with her husband Chun Chung Ip in 2013. The couple, who hail from Wenzhou, China, and now live in Fresh Meadows, developed the recipes for the bao themselves. Thanks to their delicious buns, C Bao quickly became a hit at some of New York City’s most popular food markets, including Smorgasburg, Queens Night Market, and Flushing Night Out.
“We thought bao would be a healthy meal for customers,” says Yen adding the top seller after almost 10 years in business remains the hefty Peking duck bun. “They love our food, especially the duck,” Yen says with a laugh of her four children.
Since they’re open until 11 p.m. you could check out C Bao’s sandwiches in the dazzling lights of Times Square, but why not enjoy these Chinese treats, by the lights of the handcrafted lanterns at North America’s largest Chinese lantern festival. I know I’ll be there!