It isn’t often that I dine at a restaurant that was once knowingly shut down by the New York City Department of Health, let alone encourage you to do it yourself. Since its reopening on 8/8/08 (for good luck), however, Mei Li Wah has been a straight “A” student, and their bakers are still crafting some of the best buns you’ll find in New York.

Housed on Bayard street directly across the street from Xi’An Famous Foods, Mei Li Wah looks like your typical Chinatown bakery from the outside. Colorful, laminated photos of dim sum offerings populate the bakery’s storefront, and an unassuming entrance guarded by a giant potted plant greet you as you enter. When you reach the counter, however, everything changes.

Whether you come at the crack of dawn or during a late Sunday afternoon pitstop, Mei Li Wah’s ovens will always be turning out their specialty – fresh, steaming buns. From the relatively simple to the delightfully confusing, each is unique and packed with more flavor than the total yearly output of other bakeries in the neighborhood. The only problem, of course, is choosing which one to try. After all, many are more filling than the main entree dishes we normally write about. Well, you’re lucky you have us. Let’s break down some buns.

1. The Famous Bun (bottom left)

If you’re looking to easy yourself into the world of Asian-inspired buns, try the Famous Bun, just $.80. Though it’s not filled with anything (unlike the rest of the buns on our list), it’s just as flavorful. Covered in sesame seeds and a sweet glaze, this warm little loaf is far more interesting than the kinds of bread you’re used to getting outside of Chinatown.

2. The Chicken Bun    (bottom right)

Though the Famous Bun is a great introduction to Mei Li Wah’s capable bakers, it is their stuffed buns that will bring you back more often than you’ll admit to your friends who think you go to Chinatown too often. The chicken bun, $.90 each, is just that – dark meat chicken stuffed into a huge steamed bun (and we mean huge – this thing requires both hands, and all of your attention). The result is as delicious as it is revolutionary.

3. The Cocktail Bun (top right)

I had no idea what to expect when I ordered the cocktail bun. Knowing that a cocktail is generally alcoholic in nature, I expected, well, that… in a bun. For whatever reason, though, the cocktail bun, $.80, is not full of spirits. It is  full of buttery, shredded coconut, and the result is truly incredible. Pair with a saltier bun, and you’ll nearly convince yourself that you’re eating a multi-course meal at a restaurant with booths you don’t have to share with complete strangers.

4. The Big Bun (top left)

We truly had to save the greatest for last, and the big bun is one that will haunt your dreams (in the “this is why I fall asleep at night” kind of way). Packed with savory chicken, pork sausage, and salted egg, the big bun defies the laws and logic that you thought governed the baking world. At $1.60, it’s by far the most expensive bun on the menu, but it’s also literally a meal – you could grab one of these on your way home from work and not have to eat until mid-afternoon tomorrow.

Though Mei Li Wah has a great selection of dim sum items that could keep you happy for multiple trips, its bakers have done something few other bakeries in Chinatown have done successfully – buns. Whether you’re looking for a simple bun or the most brilliantly excessive ball of steamed dough you’ll ever find, be sure to find yourself in Mei Li Wah. And don’t forget to turn and wave to the golden cat before you leave. We’ve always assumed (read: guessed) it was good luck, and a Chinatown best practice.

Mei Li Wah Bakery  [Map]
64 Bayard Street
New York, NY  10013

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Read more from the  Sunday in Chinatown column.