During my time at grad school in Morningside Heights, a Taipei-based tea shop ran a kiosk at my favorite campus library. This was nothing short of a godsend. Before class, I’d feast on curried beef buns, the iridescent interiors glowing yellow, or on pillowy bread pockets stuffed with fistfuls of sugary char siu.
If only my breakfasts were as tasty in the years that followed. Chinese-area bakeries are an inextricable yet undervalued part of the New York pastry experience, largely clustered around Chinatowns in Lower Manhattan, Flushing, Sunset Park, and elsewhere, while Eurocentric boulangeries flourish more broadly throughout the city. Really, there’s no good reason dan tat or egg scallion bings should be any less ubiquitous than pain au chocolat or BECs.
This is what brings up the case of Win Son Bakery, the only venue of its ilk in East Williamsburg — notwithstanding the namesake flagship across the street, where patrons wait two hours for shrimp noodles. The airy cafe, its windowsills littered with verdant succulents, is the sole member of the Taiwanese new guard (886, Ho Foods, Zai Lai) that features a full-fledged, seven-days-a-week pastry program. It’s also a rare New York institution to offer mochi millet doughnuts, an expression of modern doughnuttery that sports the texture of a Haribo gummy bear.
Josh Ku, Jesse Shapell, and Trigg Brown’s bakery, at just a few weeks old, is still working out some kinks. The fried chicken is so sugary that a 7-11 Slurpee would taste like a German riesling by comparison. Egg tarts, which are as light as a marshmallow at stand-out spots like Harper’s Bread House on Grand Street, suffer here from a leaden crust and a limp interior. But virtually anything else at breakfast merits a trip to this sunny stretch of Montrose Avenue.
Let’s start with the mochi doughnut ($4). Taxonomically speaking, cake doughnuts win loyalty via nourishing fluffiness, while yeast doughnuts find their purpose through light-as-air puffiness. Mochi doughnuts, however, are all about the chew. Taiwanese people have a term to describe this phenomenon: q, or, when it’s particularly extra, qq. Think: Something that’s firm, but not quite al dente, with a noted springiness or bounciness, like tapioca balls.
Pastry chef Danielle Spencer fries each doughnut to order. The exterior exhibits a dense bite, akin to a cool Twizzler. The inside, however, is squishy and gummy-like. A touch of salt counteracts the sugar, and a black-sesame toastiness pervades the whole affair. But most of all, you’re here for that qq, for the sensation of mochi tugging at your molars and massaging your gum line.
Neither this object of desire, nor others, come without a process. Patrons queue up for 15 minutes on Saturdays. They ’gram one of the fashionable huskies or pit bulls waiting outside. They tap their $1,000 phone to the contactless payment system. They sip five spice-scented espresso, dipping a spoon into the bottom of the demitasse to agitate a thick layer of sweet creme anglaise.
Then a waiter brings over a yeast doughnut ($4), another treat in the Win Son canon that yields no fewer complexities. The doughnut practically dissolves on the tongue, which is when the flavor kicks in. Spencer folds a dose of fermented red rice into the red frosting, jolting the confection with a mind-bending finish. It recalls Vegemite mixed with sugar, or, for connoisseurs of Taiwanese fare, the flavor of the fermented rice broth in which tang yuan (rice balls) are sometimes served.
Taiwan’s status as an island nation — with successive waves of immigration, colonial rule, invasion, and global trade — has imbued its foodways with a pronounced multiculturalism. Playing into these fusion-y inclinations is Brown and Spencer’s own French-American culinary training; both worked at Tom Colicchio’s Craft. Sometimes this is subtle, as in the case of a pineapple bun with a laminated bottom. Other times, it’s more obvious, as with a pork-knuckle egg sandwich ($9).
Brown crisps up the swine into a flat patty, Gallic style; it energizes the soft eggs and funky raclette with a wonderful stickiness. That pork knuckle, or any other sandwich, can be ordered in a scallion bing for an extra $3. This is recommended, as the scallion pancake packs a particularly delicate flakiness and stretchiness. Just keep in mind that this preparation tames the pork’s unabated gelatins.
Brown, who currently works the line alongside sous chef Brian Girouard, fries his masterful turnip cakes as darkly as a hash brown. Each bite conveys a clean bitterness followed by wallop of oceanic smoke — is it the traditional Chinese lap cheong sausage? Nope, Win Son deploys Benton’s bacon from Tennessee and dried shrimp.
Certain dishes trend a bit more traditional, as is the case with savory soy milk, a lovely tofu porridge packed with green scallions and meaty dried shrimp. It is served in a cute little takeaway coffee cup and can be consumed on the go with as much ease as an Americano.
Fantuan is about as classic as they come as well, with crisp youtiao crullers and salty pork floss stuffed into cylinder-shaped rolls of sticky rice. Sometimes, however, the rice grains don’t adhere to one another, and the youtiao are stale. Other times, the sweet-salty stuffing crunches with the bliss of a Butterfinger bar.
Breakfast and pastries constitute the chief draws at the bakery right now. Dinner is currently a less populated affair, as the liquor license is still incoming, but the evening service is not without its charms.
Order the squid sandwich ($12). Brown tosses a tangle of calamari, fried golden and packing the ethereal texture of tempura, onto a milk bun and slicks the whole darn thing with lemon aioli. The resulting product is pure joy, a mess of crunch, cephalopod springiness, white bread squishiness, and the bright aroma of fresh citrus.
Burger aficionados will also find that Win Son puts out a solid creation for just $14. The kitchen doesn’t do anything too fancy. The diner-style burger is tightly packed and griddled hard. Served medium, my specimen packed a clean saltiness and an assertively beefy punch — with fermented bean-laced tofu, raclette, and soft milk bread keeping all the wonderful greasiness in check. Fries, it should be noted, are extra, which is a good thing since they suffer from being wedge fries.
For something more composed, ya fan gets the job done. A giant, slow-cooked duck leg sits over a mound of rice slicked in the bird’s own powerfully aromatic fat, while a jiggly soy egg soaks up a dose of chile powder. It’s the type of dish one would expect to pay $28 for at a hip international brasserie that books up two weeks out. Win Son charges $14.
Two last things: For folks looking to ride out one of Win Son’s epic waits, the Wi-Fi-equipped bakery is a fine place to do that during evening hours.
And finally, for those whose first experience with Taiwanese or Chinese breakfast is at Win Son, consider checking out Harper’s Bread House for dan tat, Mei Li Wah for char siu bao, or Ho Foods on East Seventh for fan tuan. Win Son speaks the visual language of a cool West Coast avo-ricotta joint, but it builds upon the traditions of longtime players serving up honest, delicious, and affordable pastries in this field.