Hot Dog BunChinatown wakes up in the morning much the same as any other New York neighborhood—with a jolt of caffeine. Every block seems to have its own bakery where throngs perch at tiny tables to slurp hot tea or coffee before starting the day. But these are no Dunkin Donuts. The pastries everyone nibbles alongside their steaming cups are anything but ordinary—though some look familiar on the surface. What appears to be a custard doughnut is actually filled with sticky red bean paste. Don’t mistake that one for a cheese danish; what’s inside is chicken minced with scallions and spiked with hot Sichuan pepper. And is that a hot dog sticking out of that sweet bun? Why, yes, it is. (This may in fact represent your only chance to eat a wiener for breakfast respectably.)

The racks in these cafes present an array that can bewilder, since usually labels are in Chinese and the clerks too busy to puzzle through English with you. It may feel like a shell game, but chances are high you’ll win. The risk is low anyway since prices are obscenely cheap—around $.70 for a bun. It’s not the sort of breakfast you want to eat regularly. The dough is quite greasy, sweetened, and decidedly not whole grain. But if you’re sick of the same old bran muffin, these bakeries provide plenty of tasty diversions.

There’s not a huge differential in quality or selection among Chinatown bakeries, so step inside any that looks tempting. Here are a few starting points located near the Grand Street stop on the B/D lines and near the Sara Roosevelt Park, where you can have your breakfast on a bench watching tai chi practitioners who assemble after 8am:
Grand Bakery, 295 Grand Street, tel: 212-334-6968
Egg Custard King Café, 271 Grand Street, tel: 212-226-8882
Golden Dragon Boat Café, 111 Bowery, tel: 212-274-1822