Avoid the Soups and Stick to the Buns at Fuji Bakery
Peeling back the culinary underbelly is one of the fun things about working in Midtown – hell, that’s why we’re all here looking at this, at least I should hope so. You keep hoping, waiting for that shining beacon, that one place you never knew about or even knew to look for despite the omnipresent eye of Google and the caring, wonderful, universally intelligent and physically attractive contributors of Midtown Lunch. Fuji Bakery, nestled in the middle of nowhere at 224 West 35th between 7th and 8th, strikes you as that place out of nowhere. Without a menu in the window or any real welcoming signage, it strikes you as an industrial food production facility. Is this a Chinatown transplant that we didn’t know jack about? Do the steam-table empire of Ming Du (formerly Ying Du) and the noodle-soup warriors faithful need to up the ante? Only one way to find out.
Fuji Bakery really does have some splainin’ to do, in the words of the late great Desi Arnaz. Why name a very obviously Chinese bakery for a mountain in Japan? Should we be asking if it’s proper Fujianese cuisine? Whatever the case, look for this yellow sign. It’s right across from Best Bagel, which definitely does live up to its name. Another story for another day, but that yellow sign is the only clue you have that something’s even there.
When you walk in, you’ll immediately note the steam table and bakery counters. Danny had a hit and miss box lunch a couple of years ago, but worry not, you aren’t tied to just those offerings. Paper menus are up on the counter. Grab one and take a look, or check it out here. The soups and noodle soups are a pretty decent selection. There’s also a big list of dishes served with rice (Donny kind of liked the lamb over rice.) Mixed in with the Generic Dragon specialties are some interesting things – beef with sour cabbage, you say?
When we arrived at around 1:45 on a brisk, hot Wednesday afternoon, they were completely out of egg custard tarts. This is a sure sign that they’re something else entirely. Through the course of our stay there, around 45 minutes, no more came out. Does this mean they make it fresh and do them in big enough batches to merit for an evening dinner rush? Or is it just one shot a day and that’s it? Rest assured, there’s plenty of other buns – coconut buns, pineapple buns, and more sweet ones to go with scallion buns, pork floss buns, and the perennial Chinese bakery classic – the roast pork bun.
Some nice looking cakes. You could easily do dessert here, but don’t bring a date unless you’re past the “trying to impress” phase. They do serve Chinese and Western-style teas and coffee, or even Ovaltine if you’re saving up for that decoder ring. They also serve bubble tea, bubbles optional. Next time, I’m gunning hard for the Flos Prunellae Tea simply because it sounds like it’s from some super-exotic deathcap mushroom that just happens to not be poisonous when boiled (I hope).
There’s steam table cuisine out, but it looks authentic – however, I think it’s only two choices with rice, and I’m not sure of the price on that. Fuji Bakery is geared towards the Chinese-speaking crowd, so if you have a friend who knows their Cantonese you may have a fair shot at getting the details. Still, there were plenty of interesting-looking options. I saw pork belly in a brown sauce, and one patron walked off with what looked like stir-fried eggplant with either bitter melon/gai lan/some other Chinese green veggie. If you want turbo variety, Ming Du will give you three or four dishes with rice for around $5.50 a few blocks up, but next visit might merit the steam tables. They give you a LOT of rice, though, and plenty of the steam table choices. Come hungry.
My friend got the chicken fried rice ($5.50). I gotta admit, it looked pretty darn authentic. This plate was piled about three inches high with the stuff. If you think in terms of labor, this may well be cheaper to just swing by Fuji on the way home to grab some rice as a side dish for a meal. The ingredient costs alone would justify it, let alone the labor cost, right?
Hell, this fried rice looks perfectly prepared. It wasn’t greasy or yellow from excess oil, and it was tossed with a very decent amount of scrambled egg for body. It had a mild, subtle flavor with just enough saltiness from dark soy to make a difference. The peas were a wonderful offset, not too mushy at all – enough texture to give a good bite back. With some barely-cooked fresh cabbage and scallions tossed through, just barely warmed up, this should be one hell of a dish of fried rice for the money.
Unfortunately, this didn’t quite prove to be true. The chicken was quite tender, but definitely in some sort of cornstarchy, very light crust, but way too tender to be normal untreated chicken. Something was done to it, maybe just unflavored meat tenderizer powder, to get it to melt away in my mouth like that. It didn’t taste funny (this becomes VERY important later) but it looked that way. One or two pieces of chicken looked like the tripe you’d order in pho – long, almost translucent. At that point I could no longer identify it as chicken. We were very much playing the “which part of the chicken went into this McNugget?” game, and that’s not a game you want to play with your meat (risqué pun not intended).
My wife ordered the mixed seafood noodle soup ($7.95). The broth was the best part of the equation – light in body but big on flavor, definitely some sort of chickeny base to it with just a tad – BARELY present – sesame and mushroomy flavors toned under the initial perk of the broth, which was piping, PIPING hot. It was well garnished with tons of scallions and mushrooms, so it seems like it was doing the right thing of a noodle soup – cooking in the toppings just a little as it cooled. Good stuff.
That, however, is where the good stuff starts to get NOT good. First and foremost, the noodles were a giant mass of super thin egg noodles. I admit, these are okay in most respects and normally wouldn’t command an entry in the “Suck” category, but our noodle soups had one giant morass of the noodles that didn’t really come apart easily. We had to separate our chopsticks and pry the masses apart to make them pick-upable. It was either that or just pick up the giant noodle ball and take a bite, sending piping hot broth splashing everywhere as the noodles came down into the broth like an old Apollo capsule parachuting out of the atmosphere into the Pacific. Trust me – you didn’t want this to happen.
The not-good state of the seafood noodle soup continued at the seafood itself. Fake crab (chopped and formed cod), fish balls (chopped and formed… fish), fish cake (chopped, aerated, formed, and baked… more fish) were the main drivers, with some awful, awful squid. The same kind you get frozen at Chinese markets and get served at restaurants that can’t or won’t do fresh squid. Completely forgettable and way, way overcooked. The shrimp were darn near salad shrimp and not overcooked, but that’s all they were.
This part, though, made me want to call the DoH and ask them to invent a new letter grade for the place. My wife took a bite of scallop and made a face, thinking something wasn’t right. “Maybe it’s dried scallop?” I thought, having tried that in Chinese dishes before – it’s different enough to make people question it. I took one to taste it, and alas, no. This was rotten scallop. Foul-tasting, oddly textured fresh scallop that had gone bad. I hadn’t even chewed it, just taken one bite, and immediately spat it out. At that point – and I can’t blame her – my wife stopped eating her soup.
My shredded pork and cabbage noodle soup ($5.25) was at least not sickening. It was generous as hell, with the same balls-of-noodle situation as the seafood, but it was absolutely COVERED in bean sprouts, some shredded carrot, plenty of mushrooms, a good bunch of shredded pork… but damn near zero cabbage.
Main Noodle House (6th between 37th and 36th), Ginger’s (7th and 37th), and Chef Yu (8th and 36th) all have a plethora of pickled shredded cabbage in their noodle soup, and I was exceptionally disappointed that what should be a central ingredient and flavor component was barely there. I dug through the noodle soup to find cabbage to put into this picture, and couldn’t find enough to dig up and put in. The above photo shows all the toppings in approximate proportion to what they have in the soup, and the sad lone piece of pickled cabbage is visible only if you squint really hard at the 90-degree intersection of bean sprouts. A shame, really. I did taste it in a few bites – but too few to endorse this as a noodle soup of choice at Fuji.
The broth itself wasn’t great. It didn’t have the depth of flavor that the seafood noodle soup had. Zero umami happened here. Main Noodle House’s broth is worth drinking with a straw by the gallon, but as you can see here, I just let it be. The noodle soups are as massive in scale as the fried rice was, so there’s a bunch of chow there for you. If you leave Fuji Bakery not hungry – that is, setting aside bad scallops – it’s your own darn fault for not finishing your food.
Thus far I’m not too impressed, but there’s a very real reason to care about Fuji Bakery – and it’s so obvious under the veneer of the other food on the menu that we had. The buns. Okay, so it’s hard to ignore the gargantuan Lunch Box Buffet on 34th and Ming Du on 38th, but the one bun we had is the one reason I’m going to keep coming back to Fuji Bakery. Above, the roast pork bun ($0.90) is as good as I have had this side of Chinatown or anywhere else. Shown next to a soda can for comparison, it’s a big ol’ bun.
The bun is not too crusty on the outside, and the yielding softness that you experience biting into this bad boy is quite simply the acme of baked roast pork buns. This continues through with the roast pork itself: perfectly yielding and just sweet enough, one hell of an amazing balance. This is char shu pork the way it ought to be, and it’s in just enough juice/sauce to offset the mild subtle savoriness of the fluffy bun itself. If they had steamed buns, I didn’t see them, but you could definitely make a real filling lunch out of a bun or two and a can of soda.
The red bean bun is wonderful, even if you don’t like red beans. Sometimes they can be one giant schlog of red bean paste which more or less kills the texture, but the red beans are swirled throughout the inside of the bun and in the middle, too. It’s not a big overdose of sweet. It’s very well-balanced; the bread part has a very slight sweetness and the red beans aren’t overkill-sweet either.
Fuji Bakery deserves a shot, but I can’t really say much about the noodle soups after trying what we tried. If they can’t get the basics like pork and cabbage right, it may not translate well for the other noodle soups as well. If you get something with meat, stick to the beef and pork since those are probably easier for them to pull off without questionable food tactics being involved. I just hope that if you have to have seafood and you can only eat at Fuji, you don’t have the same rank scallops that we ran into. To be honest, though, I’m going to make my way over there for breakfast and avoid the instinctual urge to go to Best Bagel across the street – there’s dim sum options for breakfast.
The +s (what someone who likes the place might say)
- It’s a no-holds-barred hidden gem
- Chinese food – or any food – doesn’t get much cheaper
- Amazing buns
The -s what someone who doesn’t like the place might say)
- Corners are cut on the ingredients and it shows
- Spoiled food is served to customers
- All the ambiance of a cafeteria with a Guan Yu statue
Fuji Bakery and Restaurant, 224 W 35th St (btw 7+8th Ave), 212-629-7588