Asian Sweet Bakery is Madison’s first Chinese bakery, and not only is it a fine and accessible introduction to Chinese bakeries, it offers some unexpectedly wonderful lunches and dinners.
After two visits, I’m positively hooked.
The bakery’s South Park Street location makes it a convenient place to stop if you need a quick meal or a box of goodies to take to a party, potluck or other event. Prices are ridiculously low, but don’t mention that to owner Ken Yan.
I can’t say enough about the exquisite fish filet with fried tofu ($6), a plate of wok-cooked flounder not served in filet form, but cut in bite-sized pieces and paired with thick, lush discs of soft tofu. The brown sauce was applied so tentatively, however, that there wasn’t enough to moisten the rice, which sat mostly uneaten on half of the plate.
The same was true of another seafood dish we tried with less successful results, the sautéed shrimp ($6), which the menu lists as “hot.” We weren’t expecting the large prawns to be served in the shell, so it made for a messy dining experience.
Consequently, the “hotness” stayed primarily on the shell and didn’t penetrate the shrimp. The shrimp would have been a lot more tasty had the seasoning been applied directly to their flesh. The green and red peppers and onions picked up the spices and were superb because of it.
I wish the rice could have benefited, too.
It seems like the bakery’s pot stickers ($2.95 for 4, or $5.50 for 9) have quickly caught on, judging by how many people were ordering them.
The relatively flat dumplings are filled with chives and pork and pan-fried, which makes them not only crisp but also quite greasy. They were an absurdly good indulgence.
Also excellent was the shrimp fried rice ($4.50), with lightly salted and stir-fried rice, plenty of small shrimp, and hints of egg and vegetable. The heaping plate was the true definition of cheap eats.
I really enjoyed the BBQ pork crepes ($3.50), which my companion deemed “too weird” for her taste. I embraced the weird — three giant sheets of rice noodle housing small cubes of pork, which had that food coloring red-around-the-edges look. It came with sweet soy sauce on the plate, as well as a little plastic cup of extra sauce that turned out to be essential.
Also unusual was a giant Chinese “tamale” ($1.99), wrapped in bamboo leaves and tied with string.
Instead of masa, the dense tamale was made with sticky rice and studded with mung beans. Inside, as a prize, were pieces of Chinese sausage and pork. It was odd but good.
There are six soup choices, many of them slight variations of each other. The beef brisket wonton noodle soup with choice of three types of noodles ($6.50) is a good pick.
The giant, meal-sized bowl was filled with a flavorful broth as well as giant shrimp-filled wontons, lots of big chunks of well-cooked brisket and a tangle of vermicelli egg noodles that had to be eaten with a fork.
Vying for the best ingredient of the bowl were delicious chunks of Chinese cabbage.
From the bakery case, the BBQ pork bun ($1.09) was a steal — a light, sweet, buttery roll housing the same small cubes of pork that filled the crepes.
For dessert, the cream bun ($1.09) with small shavings of coconut on top, was also a winner, filled with what tasted like sweet butter, and obscenely rich.
I’m a big fan of the Macau-style egg custard tart, another bargain at $1.19. It seems like Yan could get double the price.
The custard had the perfect sweetness and the crust was buttery and light.
Macau, if you are wondering, is an island off the southern coast of China.
We didn’t get around to eating a sesame ball filled with mung bean paste (89 cents) until the next day, later realizing that this is a delicacy that can’t sit around. The thick shell just gets firm and greasy. I’ve had the same ones fresh from Asian Midway Foods on Park Street, also owned by Yan, and they are a huge treat.
In a more traditional dessert sense, the attractively packed bakery case boasted container after container of chocolate mousse and mango mousse cake ($3.99). We tried the latter and it was great, with sponge cake alternating with tall layers of whipped mousse.
Yan, who is also co-owner of Imperial Garden West, did an amazing job transforming Carnival’s, a former snack shop, into a bright, contemporary mini restaurant.
There is one table in the main room and a counter that seats four. A side room has four tables, and they are usually all full at lunch or dinner. The bakery closes at 7, so plan accordingly.
Asian Sweet Bakery opened in September and offers a little taste of Chinatown in Madison. I’m certainly sweet on it.
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