Hawaiians call it manapua. The Chinese call them char siu bao. We're not talking about mythical creatures or ancient gods here. These exotic sounding terms boil down to something the modern American palate is familiar with: BBQ pork buns.
The Downtown Phoenix Public Market offers more than just organic veggies and grass-fed beef. Every week, there's an assortment of food trucks and other hot food vendors such as The Tamale Store and Raimondo's Catering. The folks at Wisdom-Nectar are usually tucked underneath the carport area next to Wei of Chocolate. Just follow your nose there.
We've passed by many times and noticed the spicy smell escaping from a bamboo steamer on their table. Wisdom-Nectar used to offer two types of bao, one with curried vegetables and the other a traditional char siu version. The veg-head variety wasn't popular enough to stick, so now omnivores have the upper hand here. Nonetheless, the booth still smells amazing.
We ordered up one of their Ka-Pao! steamed pork buns for four bucks, which seemed a little steep. Wisdom-Nectar's pork buns are the more traditional Chinese type, made with a yeasty soft bread shell crammed with pork that's been marinated in soy or hoisin and spices for flavor. We bit into the bun, which turned out to be as light and fluffy as angel food cake. The flavor was savory, but a little bland; similar to the taste of plain wonton wrappers.
Inside were a couple of spoonfuls of pork diced into one-inch chunks. The sauce was thick and pungent, with a hoisin-like flavor profile and a tangy sweetness. The meat was tough and dry, and fattier than we like. A better-trimmed pork would be preferable. The toughness could stem from the length of the time the buns sit while waiting for farmers' market patrons to order them. Your best bet would probably be to hit the Saturday market early in the a.m., when the steamed buns are fresh.
In the Other Corner: Donna's Bakery & Cafe
710 W. Elliot Rd. in Tempe
We didn't hold out much hope for Chinese pork buns at a place with such a non-ethnic name and vibe, but the outlook improved when we walked through the door. The eatery is small but open, with a glass-walled ordering counter, seating area and shelves of fresh baked rolls, buns and cakes. Trays of buns were being loaded up with filled rolls. The shop's aroma mingles the sweet smell of bakery frosting with the savory scents of egg sandwiches and BBQ pork.
Everything at Donna's is insanely cheap, especially for homemade goods. Buns filled with custard, pork, red bean paste and more ranged from $1.29 to $1.99. A whole mocha or lemon log cake was just six bucks. Breakfast sandwiches with turkey sausage, egg and cheese were two bucks, and the daily special included a BBQ pork sandwich with chips and a drink for $3.99. Damn, that's some cheap eating! But is it any good?
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Thw downside of ordering here versus getting a fresh steamed bao at the farmers' market is that unless you catch them making the bun you want, you'll have to ask for yours to be warmed up in the microwave or bring it home to reheat later. We grabbed a pork bun, requested a quick nuking and sat down to savor it with green iced tea.
Donna's pork bun is more like Hawaiian manapua, sweet round bread filled with BBQ pork and spices. The bread is absolutely amazing; soft and sweet, with a perfectly browned outer coating. It's the same bread they use for sweet pineapple and custard buns, so it's almost sinfully dessert-like. The pork here was surprisingly lean (especially considering the $1.29 cost of the bun). The flavor was also sweet, with an underlying smokiness from the Chinese spices. The pork was overly cooked and dry, probably from the microwave reheating, but we look forward to snagging one of these babies fresh from the oven one day.
The Winner: Donna's Bakery & Cafe