Eating 8th Avenue – “no fried buns today”

IMG_2544I’m touched by the response to Friday’s post on breast cancer surgery and body image, and grateful to the women who reached out afterwards. Thank you for sharing your stories. If reading mine helped at all, I’m very, very glad.

Now for a lighter topic: let’s talk about food.

Last week’s excursion along Brooklyn’s 8th avenue was a solo stroll & snack affair. I began with a destination in mind, a place on 49th street just off the avenue called “Shaxian Delicacies” (Katie and I had walked by it the week before). The pictures on the sign looked tasty, and I was curious about the “Shaxian Delicacy” phenomenon. Shaxian, as I understand it, is a poor county within Fujian province where a sizeable proportion of the rural population have responded to their bleak economic prospects by opening snack bars in major cities. Local government authorities are encouraging the growth of the snack food industry, no doubt because of the economic and political safety valve it provides, and the “Shaxian Delicacies” logo (see photo) is officially trademarked. I’m not sure whether its use in Sunset Park attests to the operation’s authenticity, or to the owner’s confidence that he’s beyond the long arm of the Shaxian Snack Bureau (yes, there is such a thing).

Alas, my lack of language skills were an issue; I would have loved to understand the purpose of the salad bar-style containers of ingredients at the front of the shop, holding (among other things) baby squid, frilly tripe, mystery vegetables and bread toasts, none of which were featured anywhere on the bare-bones English menu. My best guess from the sign on the sneeze guard (the only parts of which I could read were “$6.50” and “$7.50”) is that customers who knew what they were doing could order up a personalized bowl of soup . . . but that’s just a guess. Not knowing what I was doing, I could only point. Specifically, I pointed at the picture of chive-sprinkled buns (you can see them directly below the logo in the picture up top). I was getting a bit tired of rice noodles in soup and craved something breadier.

“Fried buns,” the man behind the counter told me.

“Salted cabbage?” I asked, pointing at the “salted cabbage fried buns” ($3) on the menu.

He nodded and turned away into the tiny kitchen.

Perhaps some soup would not be out of place after all. There was a good-looking, vegetable-intensive soup depicted on the wall, so I caught the man’s attention again and pointed to that.

“Yours comes in soup,” he told me.

This was a little puzzling. Perhaps he meant with soup. Or perhaps there’d been some miscommunication, and what I thought would be buns were actually boiled dumplings. Or . . .

. . . rice noodles in a light chicken broth with scallion, bok choi and a cloud of finely shredded preserved cabbage.

That’s what was set down in front of me. It was fine, but it wasn’t what I’d ordered, and it certainly wasn’t what I was craving. I gave it another try. “I’d like fried buns, too,” I said, pointing again.

“No fried buns today,” I was told. “Steamed only. With pork.”

At least I had done a good job communicating my fondness for preserved cabbage. (The soup was actually quite good, the rice noodles chewy, the cabbage a nice touch. It was a bargain for $3. And the noodles with peanut butter that the woman behind me ordered – served with a small bowl of soup on the side – smelled delicious, too.)


The most expensive stop on my 8th avenue food crawl

I hadn’t come all the way to Sunset Park just for a bowl of soup. To assuage my disappointment and buy time to plot my next move, I ducked into an outlet of the TBaar chain on the corner of 8th avenue and 49th street. TBaar franchises are as ubiquitous in New York’s Chinatowns as Starbucks in Midtown. In addition to the usual bubble teas, juices and smoothies, the sign out front of this one promoted hot drinks. The day was chilly, despite bright sun, and even with a bellyful of soup, I craved warmth. A matcha latte with red beans ($3.50) sounded just right.

It came, to my surprise, in the same plastic cup as the cold drinks, with the same hermetic plastic seal over the top (designed to be pierced by your extra-wide bubble tea straw). The hot liquid made the thin plastic feel even flimsier. While I appreciated the warmth, I think I’ll stick to cold drinks in the future. It just seems safer all around.

Hot tea sloshing, finger-shaped indentations molded in plastic, my ill-conceived matcha latte and I backtracked south on 8th avenue toward Gaoming bakery.  A sign in the window promised chicken sticky rice ($1.75), which sounded like the perfect, portable third course to my soup and tea lunch.

I have a feeling I’ll be paying a return visit to this place – if not for the baked goods (pork buns; puffy sesame balls concealing red bean paste; an intriguing, custard-streaked “square cake”; cookies in varieties that included black bean, green bean and “wife”), then for the congee, a house specialty.


Reason #84 why I run: chicken sticky rice.

Or, maybe, for more of that chicken sticky rice. When I finally got home and undid its lotus leaf wrapper, I gave a happy little gasp. The rice was golden brown where juice and fat had met up with leaf and steam, and as I dug inside, I excavated diced mushrooms, sweet sausage, and ground meat (chicken, I presume, though I would never have guessed). I could have eaten two or three of them . . . four, maybe, if I’d done a long run that morning and needed to refuel.

Featured in this post:

Shaxian Delicacies, 811 49th St. (at 8th Ave.), Sunset Park, Brooklyn 11220

TBaar, 4823 8th Ave. (at 49th St.), Sunset Park, Brooklyn 11220 (and other locations around town)

Gaoming Bakery, 5110 8th Ave., Sunset Park, Brooklyn 11220


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