The Bakery Making Kuih Popular in the East Village
Lady Wong has quickly made a name for itself thanks to the Southeast Asian-style cake that's usually steamed instead of baked.
On the south side of East 9th Street between 1st and 2nd Avenues in Manhattan’s East Village sits Lady Wong Pastry & Kuih. A rather nondescript black awning with gold letters advertising “Coffee – Pastry – Kuih” hovers above a few steps down to a compact space, and it’s here that you’ll find the most extensive selection of Southeast Asian sweets in the Eastern United States.
You don’t have to go to the East Village to find coffee and pastry. But even the generally sophisticated, often jaded people in this trendy neighborhood, once the epicenter of American punk rock, can be found scratching their heads about what exactly kuih is.
For the uninitiated, Malay to English, kuih translates to “cake.” Further, it’s a Southeast Asian-style cake that’s usually steamed instead of baked. Malaysian-born husband-and-wife team and owners Mogan Anthony and Seleste Tan didn’t have electric ovens growing up. In fact, you can ask anyone over 40 who grew up in Malaysia, and they’ll likely tell you that the wok was their oven, at least until their teenage years.
Standard kuih ingredients include glutinous rice, coconut, palm sugar and pandan. The latter is often referred to as “Asian vanilla.” If you see any green in kuih, that’s the pandan. And while there’s no strict rule in terms of shape, the steamed kuih you’ll find at Lady Wong are rectangular-shaped and tend to be an inch thick by four, diagonally. Nian gao is the baked pandan slice, while kuih pandan bakar is grilled. All three have a chewy texture and will stick to your plate.
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As it stands now, Elmhurst is the only New York City neighborhood where more than half the residents might be familiar with these Southeast Asian desserts. Still, Anthony and Tan chose to open in the East Village. According to Anthony, “When we looked at this spot, everything clicked.” He was confident that the young, open-minded neighborhood would embrace the desserts he grew up eating in the Kedah state of Northwestern Malaysia.
Anthoy met Tan while working at the Four Seasons Singapore — he worked the front of the house while she was the pastry chef. According to Mogan, “my background is more savory, while Seleste does the desserts.” Seleste Tan grew up in Johor, which is located in Southern Malaysia on the border with Singapore.
The selection at Lady Wong seems like something you would find in Chinatown or Elmhurst, but the presentation is pure Madison Avenue. The display glass, behind which you’ll find hundreds of cake slices and kuih, is impeccably clean, to the point where you would never guess that you were just a five-minute walk from where Dee Dee Ramone once copped heroin before boarding the Ramones tour van.
Post-2000, the section of the East Village where you’ll find Lady Wong is replete with vintage clothing stores, bubble tea shops and regional Chinese food. Yet, despite all this densely packed variety, Lady Wong still manages to stand out. There’s usually a line outside the door, although, in true New York fashion, it moves quickly.
While many of the people you’ll see lined up at Lady Wong look and sound like they live off the L train, others travel for this taste of home that was previously unavailable in most North American cities. Jenny’s Kuali co-owner and namesake Jenny Lim grew up in Penang and made the journey from her home in Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley just a couple of months after Lady Wong opened. Lim was thrilled to enjoy some of the kuih she grew up eating in her hometown of Butterworth. She also brought a few items back to offer as specials on her already extensive dessert menu.
Philadelphia transplant and James Beard-nominated chef Angelina Branca had been to Lady Wong a few times since they opened. Like Lim, Branca had offered a few different kuih options as occasional dessert specials at her restaurant. According to Branca, “Kuih is the French pastry of Southeast Asia.” She recalls bringing a friend the first time and trying nearly everything on the menu. “We have the biggest Southeast Asian outdoor market in the northeast but can’t find kuih like this in Philly. And the prices are more than reasonable,” she says.
The friend that Branca brought with her for the initial New York visit was Sarawak-native and suburban DC resident Cynthia Trimmer. According to Trimmer, the kuih she tried at Lady Wong was very similar to what she grew up eating in Malaysia. When asked if she’s able to find anything similar in DC or Falls Church, she’s quick to say, “not this variety and not with the same taste.”
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The three aforementioned Malaysian-born women have another thing in common aside from growing up in Southeast Asia without electric ovens: they all found Lady Wong on Instagram. On the fence about whether or not to give this elegant dessert boutique a try? One look at their feed will likely be enough to change your mind.
Even before opening in February 2022, Lady Wong had thousands of followers on Instagram. According to Anthony, “We were in lockdown, had nothing to do, and started baking in the basement for fun. We had so many leftovers that we started giving them away for free via social media.”
Anthony and Tan were used to making the trip back home every year or so but, during COVID, flights were no longer available. People who grew up eating kuih were really craving a taste of home. Over the course of the year leading up to the opening on East 9th Street, Anthony and Tan loaded their car up with desserts and sold them out of the back in what he refers to as “ghetto-style” on 14th Street. According to Anthony, they were taking up to 50 orders before making the journey from their home in Westchester County.
Lady Wong was not, however, the first dedicated kuih spot in Lower Manhattan. That distinction belongs to Kuih Cafe on the border between Chinatown and the Lower East Side. And Kopitiam (also on the LES) was one of the first sit-down cafes in the area to have kuih talam on its regular menu as a dessert.
That said, places like Lady Wong, Kopitiam and Kuih Cafe are perhaps helping reinforce the idea that you can find anything in New York. After the Pre-COVID loss of Cambodian and Burmese restaurants on the Upper East Side, it seemed like South Philly and Northern Virginia were the hands-down culinary champs when it came to having a variety of Southeast Asian food.
As for Anthony and Tan, barely seven months after opening their first brick-and-mortar location, Lady Wong has become one of 17 vendors at Midtown’s Singapore-themed Urban Hawker food hall. And while there is some overlap, two-thirds of the Urban Hawker location menu is different — savory, in stark contrast to the East Village location, where it’s nearly all sweet.
When asked about personal favorites, Mogan prefers kuih, while Seleste prefers her cakes. It’s easy to see why— even if you’ve never seen a mille crepe cake before, it’s impossible not to notice the attention to detail that goes into the best-selling pandan mille crepe cake. All Lady Wong crepe cakes have 21 paper-thin layers. And the handful of eclairs on offer are usually a mix of Southeast Asian ingredients like ube, taro, lychee and Vietnamese coffee.
Lady Wong is open until 10 PM on weekends, but they’re perpetually out of certain items by mid-to-late afternoon. The good news is that — because everything looks so aesthetically appealing — having fewer items to choose from makes the selection process far less stressful. They also introduce a new item every weekend.
And, if you show up before 4:30, you can still sit outside. Thoughnot as elegant as the bakery itself, the outdoor seating area does give patrons the option to try items like talam pandan, or angku kuih, before they get home.
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