Eating Golden Steamer's Bao and Traveling in Chinatown

Golden Steamer
Golden Steamer. Image by Robyn Lee via Flickr

Last week, I was restless. A narcoleptic at work and wired at night. So I went to Chinatown in hopes that crowds jostling amidst Cantonese signs could revive me after hours of wading through Instagram for another photo of orange soup. I left my desk and went. I went past noodle stands and past people expertly rummaging through bins of dried mushrooms. I went past basement level massage parlors and kids racing home.

I went to Golden Steamer.

Golden Steamer is easy. Sure, the city gave it a C sanitation rating, but The Village Voice, Serious Eats and New York Magazine gave the tiny takeaway operation a thumbs up. These reviews are taped in the window to lure tourists and pseudo-travelers (like me). Golden Steamer is on the corner of Mott and Grand across the street from Di Paolo’s and Ferrara’s. Cases filled with packs of buns in plastic containers line the walls and neon lights illuminate the room with a spaceship-like glow.

But this spaceship has a secret: the fluffiest steamed buns with the richest fillings in dainty proportions. While you could bring friends and try all twelve in one go, Golden Steamer deserves to be explored bun by bun. Make it a weekly trip for a new flavor (a new experience). Let your stomach choose between the nostalgic pumpkin bun or the sticky barbecue pork. This slow-approach emphasizes the flavors and makes Golden Steamer your pseudo-travel Launchpad.

That day I wanted chicken and ginger bun. They were out. They had pork. That would do.

Outside, the bright Chinatown evening enveloped me like the wax bag wrapped around my bao. Each pastry from Golden Steamer just about falls out of your hand without feeling unwieldly. It begs you to take that first bite. That warm, pillow-y bite which tastes like cake without the buttery heft. Naturally, you do this outside the store while passerbys slam you with shopping carts and backpacks.

When you reach the filling, you begin to walk. Golden Steamer could not franchise in America. The fillings are just one to two bites—enough to remind you that dinner will taste better so save room. Fluff your stomach with bao instead.

I walked past people drinking bubble tea and grocery shopping and chatting on the streets, which shouldn’t seem transgressive but resembles resistance in the smart phone age. The fluffy bread enveloped me and gave me an excuse to suspend my daily life. It’s okay, you have a comfort blanket. It’s okay, dinner will come. It’s okay, you can escape and you can return.

Travel doesn’t need plane tickets just as snacks don’t need to inoculate your taste buds. An hour or two of wandering and experiencing the not-my-routine reminds you that, yes, the world does hold wonder. And it’s right beneath your feet.