Sunday, October 11, 2009

The Char Siu Bao Challenge!!

Welcome to my 25th post!   I can't believe I've already done 25 postings.  Guess I'm really a "blogger" now,  LOL.   Well, for my 25th post, I wanted to do something special.   So I decided to conduct a little experiment.  Just a little blind taste test, like you always used to see in those Pepsi vs. Coke commercials.   In this case, featuring my favorite little mini-meal, the manapua.

In Hawaii, it's pretty much the mainstay of business.   If you're going to a meeting, visiting a new client, or giving a presentation, you bring a box of food with you.   You can go with something sweet, like malasadas from Leonards, naples from Zippy's, or cream puffs from Liliha Bakery.  But for me, especially if it's a morning meeting, I like to bring something a little more substantial for breakfast, like a box of manapua.   Everyone swears by their favorite shops.   So I decided to put this to the test, and see which one was really the best.   One morning, my wife and I drove all around town to the classic manapua places to pick up a couple representatives of their main item, and deliver it to an impartial panel of judges.   As we're talking about bringing food to a client's office, I thought, what better test than to bring the candidates to an actual office, namely my mom's office at Guardian Escrow Services, Inc.   

Char Siu Bao Challenge
So here were the ground rules of our little competition.    First, the contenders were all local style manapuas, and not dim sum style char siu bao, otherwise we really wouldn't be comparing apples to apples.  Also, although there countless different fillings you can get these days, we stuck with strictly char siu manapua.   Secondly, to make things fair, I did not disclose any of the locations, so that no one's personal bias could factor in.  Thirdly, I divided the manapuas up into 1/8 wedges, and assigned them numbers, again to insure a blind test.  There were 3 categories.   The staff was to tell me:
  1. the number of the steamed manapua they liked best
  2. the number of the baked manapua they liked the best
  3. the number of the manapua they liked best overall
So, without further ado, let me introduce you to the contenders...
(BTW, you can click on the pictures for a high res zoom)

Beginning with the steamed manapua division:
First up was the classic manapua from Char Hung Sut.   Unfortunately, Char Hung Sut was closed on the day of the competition.  So I had to use a bao that was left over from a few days before.  This means that their breading was not going to be nearly as soft and fresh as it should have been.  It put Char Hung Sut at an unfair disadvantage, but I didn't want them not to have any representation here.

Steamed Manapua from Char Hung Sut
Next up, the steamed manapua from Island Manapua Factory.   In high school, when I had an off campus pass, I remember going to Island Manapua in Manoa Marketplace to pick up lunch.   Since then, however, they've merged with Regal Diner, and now have locations all over the place.   I picked these up from the one in McCully Shopping Center.

Steamed Manapua from Island Manapua Factory
Next, we have the manapua from Libby's Manapua Shop.   Right on Kalihi St., when you see one of their famous for their pink boxes, the same color as butcher paper, you know you're in for some classic manapua.

Steamed Manapua from Libby's Manapua Shop
Right across the street from Libby's, is Chun Wah Kam.   The famous noodle factory is also the home of some very classic manapua.   Their store in Waimalu is much prettier, but there's nothing like going to the heart of Kalihi for that classic old school feel.

Steamed Manapua from Chun Wah Kam
You may not be familiar with U-Choice Inn, but I used to work in the Ala Moana area, so visiting Daiei for lunch was not uncommon for me.  There on the end of the eateries outside, is where you'll find some fairly decent manapua.

Steamed Manapua from U-Choice Inn
Finally, just to throw in a "control group" as it were, I decided to stop off at 7-Eleven and pick up one of their manapuas.   After all, they are definitely the most visible and convenient place to pick up some last minute manapua.

Manapua from 7-Eleven

Next, for the baked manapua division.
First up, the "home of baked manapua", Royal Kitchen in the Chinese Cultural Plaza.  They are known for having smaller, baked manapua, with less breading.   With less bread, you can eat more of them.  Tastes great, less filling.

Baked Manapua from Royal Kitchen
Besides, their great steamed manapua, Island Manapua Factory, makes a fantastic baked manapua.

Baked Manapua from Island Manapua Factory
Chun Wah Kam also makes a terrific baked version of their manapua.

Baked Manapua from Chun Wah Kam
Finally, U-Choice Inn also makes a baked manapua that we put in contention.

Baked Manapua from U-Choice Inn

So, onto the results of our competition.

In the steamed manapua competition here were the results:

Votes Shop
3     7-Eleven
2     U-Choice Inn
1     Char Hung Sut
1     Chun Wah Kam
1     Libby's Manapua
0     Island Manapua Factory

In our baked division, here were the results:

Votes Shop
3     Island Manapua Factory

3     U-Choice Inn
2     Royal Kitchen
0     Chun Wah Kam

Finally, for best manapua overall, here were the results:
Votes Shop
2     7-Eleven
2     Island Manapua Factory (baked)
2     U-Choice Inn
1     Libbys Manapua Shop
1     Royal Kitchen
0     Char Hung Sut
0     Chun Wah Kam

The real jaw dropping surprise here is obvious.  7-eleven??   Really???  7-eleven?!?  I gotta tell you, honestly I don't like 7-eleven's manapua.  Before, they were made by a company called Dim Sum Chef, and I actually did like them.  But since then, they've found a new distributor, and to be honest, I think they sit in that steamer way too long (as in all day waiting for someone to buy them).  So really I think the bread is kinda mushy, and the meat has way too many fillers in it.   But the office staff seemed to really like it, saying that it was lighter than the other buns.  U-Choice Inn also surprised me.  I only knew of them because I worked nearby.  But apparently, my wife told me, that her Goong Goong used to drive in all the way from Nuuanu (bypassing Chinatown) to buy their manapuas.   U-Choice's strength, is that their meat is covered with a sticky, sweet barbecue sauce.  The addition of a little sauce seems to set them apart.   Other comments that I heard during the baked competition, were that people really enjoyed the bun from Chun Wah Kam, which was more of a sweet bread bun, but that they liked U-Choice's meat better.   Island Manapua also has a sweet sticky glaze on the outside of their baked bun, setting it apart.   I was also surprised that in general, people preferred the steamed manapua to the baked ones.  I personally like the baked ones, with the sweet glaze they put over it and the usually lighter dough.  I also can't help but wonder what the result would have been if Char Hung Sut had not been closed, and I had a fresh entry from them.   Also, during their conversations, I noticed no one ever discussed the meat-to-bun ratio.  This may have been a drawback of using small sample wedges, because usually this is a strong influencing factor either for or against.  

As you can see, the overall results were pretty even across the board.   I guess everyone really does have different taste, and a different shop to fit each taste.    Don't agree with the results of the competition?   Here's your chance to participate in my blog.   On the right you'll find a new gadget to cast your vote for your favorite manapua!   May the best bao reign surpreme!

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