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A Simple Yet Filling Chinese Sandwich Makes Crusty Bread the Star

When hitting up dumpling stalls, also check out the shaobing sandwiches, says critic Robert Sietsema

Shaobing egg sandwich

It is my intention to celebrate the sandwich this year by finding as many tasty examples as possible, with a special emphasis on fringe styles, but also presenting sandwiches that were considered more normal 30 years ago that now seem quaint. I will do this weekly and periodically present round-ups of the ones I consider best.

It’s been 15 years since dollar dumpling stores arrived on the Lower East Side, and astonished us with the excellence and low price of their pork pot stickers. There was little else on the menus, which included hot and sour soup and sometimes kimchi. But equally amazing were wedge-shaped sandwiches made from big round loaves of bread crusted with sesame seeds, cooked in the same lidded fryers/steamers that the dumplings came from. This was Chinese food?

An order counter at the left, and line of tables at the right.
Vanessa’s spacious interior

It turns out these breads, called shaobing, are found in northern China and can be made in many shapes and sizes. At the dollar dumpling storefronts like Fried Dumpling, Dumpling House, and Tasty Dumpling, big round loaves were cut into wedges, split horizontally, and stuffed with a single slice of dried aromatic beef and a heap of pickled vegetables, and sometimes sprinkled with chopped scallions. The price was often $1.50, making them one of the city’s cheapest and most delicious sandwiches.

And these Chinese sandwiches persist, in only slightly more expensive form. You can still get beef, but places like Vanessa’s Dumpling on 14th Street in the East Village — a branch of the Lower East Side original and student favorite — offers seven choices. The most opulent is stuffed with soy-braised pork shoulder; my favorite is layered with a chive-filled egg omelet and pickled and shredded carrots. It’s a simple yet filling sandwich, and the bread is the star of the show with its crusty edges. This egg shaobing is still less than $4. 220 E. 14th St., between Second and Third avenues, East Village

The East Village branch of Vanessa’s is just east of Third Avenue.
The East Village branch of Vanessa’s is just east of Third Avenue.

Vanessa's Dumpling House

118A Eldridge Street, Manhattan, NY 10002 (212) 625-8008 Visit Website