I have to begin by admitting that this list is woefully incomplete: The world of Asian baked goods is massive. It stretches from Turkish baklava to Filipino pandesal, and spans centuries of invasion and innovation. Even directing you to the place called “Chinatown” is misleading, because China isn’t an umbrella term for the many distinct cultures represented along Spring Mountain.
Nonetheless, what I have to share is my little corner of Asian-Americana, growing up going to Korean and other Asian grocery stores with my family and always stopping by the bakery just a few storefronts down. We’d pile the buns and breads onto our trays and walk out with white plastic THANKYOUTHANKYOU bags bristling with crinkly cellophane-wrapped treats. When visiting Asian family, their cakes of choice for birthdays and celebrations were always the mild, barely sweet cream cakes piled high with fresh fruit. And when my mom made Korean-style to-seu-teu, she used the thick-cut, squishy white bread that seemed impossibly fluffy and soaked up butter like a charm.
Happily, moving to Las Vegas meant that there are plenty of Asian bakeries to sate our sweet teeth. Here are a few classic Asian pastries, all to be found in Chinatown.
1. RED-BEAN BUNS If I had to name a quintessential Korean pastry, I’d choose this one. Called danpat-bbang in Korean, the bbang part literally means “bread” but has come to refer to all kinds of baked, bready goods. Bbang comes from the Portuguese pão (bread) via Japan, which had opened up to the Portuguese centuries before and occupied Korea for 35 years, bringing Western-influenced treats, like red-bean buns, with them. The buns are round discs made from a tender, enriched dough with a challah-like heft and chew that surrounds a generous filling of sweet red-bean paste. Here in Las Vegas, you’ll find both smooth red-bean paste and a whole-bean option (my favorite) at Crown Bakery (4355 Spring Mountain Road, #207).
2. CASTELLA CAKES These simple cakes were introduced to Japan by Portuguese traders in the 16th century. The Japanese version, a lighter, fluffier cake, spread to Korea and Taiwan during the rise of the Japanese Empire, where they took on a life of their own. In Korean bakeries, you’ll typically find castella cakes shaped into pillowy, oval buns. They’re mild, simple treats, not overly sweet, but easy to overbake. L’epidor (6850 Spring Mountain Road, next door to Greenland Supermarket) has a nice castella with a tender, moist crumb.
3. SOBORO BREAD Growing up, we always called this bun kombo-bbang, or “smallpox bread,” which I realize is not the most appetizing introduction. But bear with me: It’s a simple, yeasted sweet bread topped with a peanut-butter streusel. My mom would often give me a soboro bread and a glass of milk for an afterschool snack. When I was small, I’d pick off all the streusel to leave the bread behind, but now I enjoy biting into that sweet, crumbly topping and into the chewy bun beneath (it’s still very good with a glass of milk). Stock up at L’epidor (6850 Spring Mountain Road).
4. EGG TARTS We never order dim sum without snagging a plate of dan tat, small flaky tarts filled with silky, golden, egg custard. Some bakeries sell bigger, palm-size tarts that can barely contain the weight of their fillings, but for me, a three-bite tart is just the right ratio of crust to custard (it’s even better when it’s so hot the custard has barely set, and you wolf it down huffing and puffing). Dan tat was born in 1940s Hong Kong as an afternoon tea snack with influences from Portuguese tarts in neighboring Macau. Here in Vegas, you can find both the Hong Kong-style smooth custard and the Portuguese crème-bruléed version at Diamond Bakery. Be sure to arrive close to 10 a.m. for the freshest tarts. (4255 Spring Mountain Road, #C110).
5. PINEAPPLE CAKES Pineapple cakes are said to symbolize prosperity, making them a popular gift and one of Taiwan’s best-selling souvenirs. You don’t have to travel far to find these buttery, dense cakes — head over to Sunville Bakery (4053 Spring Mountain Road) for a sampling.
6. MOON CAKES These hefty pastries are filled with red-bean or lotus-seed paste and are pressed into beautiful floral molds before baking. Containing more filling than pastry, they sometimes have an egg yolk at the center, and are sweet and hearty. Their history stretches back centuries: Moon cakes are traditionally shared at the mid-autumn festival in celebration of good harvests, families gathering, and reverence for the moon. They have even inspired poetry: Eleventh century poet Su Dongpo wrote, “The tiny cake is a like a moon, hiding a sweet filling in the center.” Get a taste of these lunar delights at Sunville Bakery (4053 Spring Mountain Road).