Nestled comfortably next to Beijing, Tianjin is a northern Chinese province famous for their expertly crafted baos, the doughy equivalent of soup dumplings. At the core is a ball of pork, simmered in its own juices and enveloped by a pillow of soft, downy bread. The bread isn't overpowering at all; in fact, compared to other classes of buns, they're an ideal ratio of gluten and meat. It's the quintessential take-out dish.
Each bun fits perfectly in the palm of the hand, but make use of chopsticks for the first bite -- these miniature balls of steamed bread can burn. Regulars will casually dip them in a dash of black vinegar for an extra zing, but rest assured, they're quite perfect just the way they are.
We rounded up four of our favorite places for Tianjin-style buns in Los Angeles. Turn the page.
Garage Restaurant specializes in Tianjin-style breakfast. The twisted crullers are a tad larger than the varieties at the local Taiwanese morning stops and the menu is an absolute gold mine for seekers of unique regional dishes. There's "tofu gravy with jelly," an egg-based pancake with mung bean, crispy fritters. And for those who don't care about calorie-count -- a wonderful dish only described as "fried dough with brown sugar" on the menu. If you're playing it safe, the Tianjin baos are an excellent introduction into the world of northern regional food. Garage Restaurant holds an advantage in terms of prices and variety. It's $4.99 for a collection of six. The flavors: chives, napa cabbage, cumin, napa cabbage with pork, chives with pork, and cumin with pork. 123 N Lincoln Ave., Monterey Park; 626-573-9088.
3. Noodle House:
A Colima road staple, Noodle House has an entire section of their menu dedicated to these plump Northern delicacies. They average $8 for eight. Vegetarian, pork and seafood options are readily available. We prefer the pork with shrimp version and it seems to us that the rest of the community concurs, as the buns sell out fast. 18219 Gale Ave., Rowland Heights; 626-839-8806.
2. Tianjin Bistro:
In the context of Chinese food, Tianjin Bistro has some of the most eclectic selections of dishes in the entire San Gabriel Valley. They serve "tie bo bo ao xiao yu," 貼餑餑熬小魚 -- a wonderful pot of whole yellow croakers simmered in a brown sauce and served with warm Tianjin cornbread. There's also crawfish on the menu. The regional oddities can be tough to stomach for first-comers, but keeping in line with the few Tianjin places in the area, the main attraction is the buns. Tianjin Bistro gives out eight for $6.49. They might take a while to come out but that's because everything is handmade, so it's worth the wait. 534 E. Valley Blvd., San Gabriel; 626-288-9966.
On the corner of Mission Drive and Las Tunas, Tasty Noodle is your typical northern Chinese shop. The menu is a repertoire of buns, dumplings and of course tasty "Q" noodles accompanied by beef and julienned scallions. The owners hail from Dalian but they whip up Tianjin baos that are big enough to fit comfortably in the palm of your hand. $6.99 for ten, a good thing as there's something perfectly addictive about the consistency of the bread and the wonderfully plump chunks of pork hidden inside. 827 W Las Tunas Drive, San Gabriel; 626-284-8898.
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