Macau-style egg custard tarts, Chinese tamales and noodle soup showcase sweet and savory options.
Chinese baked desserts are less sweet than Western-style ones. There's no immediate sugar rush the way there is when you bite into, say, cupcake frosting or doughnut glaze. This can be a surprise for Americans, who are used to syrupy toppings and an instantaneous jolt that crescendos into a blood-sugar rush. At the same time, Chinese savory pastries can skew a bit sweet, and if you're not accustomed to honeyed meat or candied curry, the flavor combinations can short-circuit binary expectations.
But once you're accustomed to the difference, it can be difficult to go back. Meat or vegetable fillings without a touch of sugar begin to seem downright unsubtle and monochromatic.
The new Asian Sweet Bakery (which offers plenty of savory, despite the name) is Madison's first Chinese bakery, serving classic treats out of a tiny building on the corner of South Park and Lakeside. Outfitted with glaringly clean white walls and a stark interior, the bakery also serves breakfast and lunch staples like congee and noodle bowls.
As owner of Imperial Garden in Middleton, proprietor Ken Yan is a veteran of Madison's dining scene -- but he also has his finger on the pulse of the Park Street neighborhood as owner of Asian Midway Foods. This is perhaps the reason the bakery seems pitch-perfect for the near south side, and is already often full to capacity after only being open for a few weeks.
Baked goods are best fresh, and it's no exception here, where treats are baked in-house daily. Expect an eye-popping array of rainbow-colored items, large chocolate cake rolls, sponge cake cones, cheese and bacon twists, and glazed buns filled with beef, chicken, or pork. There are also delicate and elaborate-looking buns with the texture of brioche but including bits of hot dogs -- like pigs in a blanket, but better. Most items are priced at 99 cents.
Among the most popular items are the Macau-style egg custard tarts, individual-sized, four-bite (or two!) snacks that are an adaptation of the Portuguese pastel de nata. Here, they're nearly ethereal custard with wickedly devour-able, crispy crusts.
Equally addictive are small barbecue pork turnovers, which register somewhere between a croissant and a pasty filled with rich pork.
But Asian Sweet isn't just a bakery. A Hong Kong breakfast (including fresh bread, congee, and noodle soup) is served daily, all day. Lunch is available from 11:30 a.m. on.
Noodle bowls arrive as medium-sized portions of comforting chicken broth with topping options such as shrimp wontons, beef brisket or potstickers. Brisket, more akin to beef tendon, is reminiscent of pot roast and makes for a great combination with house-made green onion-studded potstickers.
The menu is rounded out with popular items like beef with bitter melon and salt and pepper shrimp. A popular dish is fish fillet with pickled mustard green, a generous portion of diced fish, vinegary mustard greens, and both cooked and fresh celery. It's a dish of surprising depth and exciting textures; as with all the lunch specials, it comes with white rice.
There is a short list of steamed crepes available. Impossibly white and fluffy, the crepes are almost noodle-like pillows that can be filled with shrimp, beef, pork or vegetables. They make for a filling snack and fly out of the kitchen at lunch.
Much of the business appears to be takeout, although there is no menu online, or any menus at all other than one taped next to the front door and one taped to the counter.
Service is extremely pleasant and swift, with a serious effort to answer questions from customers who are unfamiliar with Chinese bakery items. "What is sweet?" asked a customer looking at the bakery case while we were dining. "Everything is sweet, but not too sweet," answered the helpful woman behind the counter. "Just the right amount."