a yearlong project to canvas Chinatown, block by block, discovering the
good, the bad, and the hopelessly mediocre. Maximum entrée price: $10.
Just peer into the crowd and you'll see: One of the women pressed shoulder to shoulder against the case may be ordering a box of egg tarts, and there are sponge cakes and egg-shaped pastries behind the glass. But most of the customers are directing the counter staff to fill up bags of buns. Custard buns with crackled, golden tops. Cheese buns. Raisin buns. Smaller, denser whole wheat buns. Durian buns, which look like they have warts. The lineup seems to change every time I return to Napoleon, leaving me to wonder: Just how many different kinds of buns are out there?
So each time I've been to Napoleon -- three? four? -- I sidle into the swarm of customers, slowly edging my way toward the front, leading with one hip until it touches glass, readying my wallet so I don't slow the process down. (What might happen if I asked too many questions? I'm not brave enough to find out.) And on each visit, I order three or four buns, watch them get double-bagged, and cash out, heading back to the office to inspect my haul.
Napoleon's filled pineapple buns -- the pastries with the crumbly top layer of egg, sugar, and fat -- aren't as good as those from New Hollywood Bakery, I have to say, but they come in a broader variety of fillings: red bean, taro, coconut. Whoever combined the cocktail bun with the pineapple bun deserves a raise: It's simultaneously crumbly and chewy, and Cinnabon-sweet.
It's still taking me a while to warm up to more savory buns like the corn-and-ham bun or the quatrefoil-shaped bun with hot dogs and ketchup in its four petals and a mix of scallions and mayonnaise in the center. For my taste the dough is too sweet, and the creamy centers too prone to gush out wetly, splattering shirts and tabletops with oily dollops. But then there's the pork floss bun.
After years of being nonplussed by its wiry texture and sweet-salty flavor -- think of it as pork jerky, shredded to the consistency of fiberglass -- I'm having a bit of a love thing for pork floss (or pork sung, or rousong) right now. Napoleon ensures that the pork floss it presses onto the puffy, cottony buns sticks to it by slathering the top with mayonnaise. So each bite greets you with the bright tang of mayonnaise, followed by the meaty crunch of something that crunches so finely you expect it to scratch your throat up. But it melts, and so does the mayonnaise, and so does the plain, white dough. It's about as guilty a pleasure as a Frito pie or a bacon-caramel truffle. Which is to say: hard to resist.
Napoleon Super Bakery: 1049 Stockton (at Jackson), 951-8133.