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New Yorkers are used to waiting in lines — for burgers, sneakers, the latest tech gadgets. But on a recent Sunday morning, the line at the Japanese teahouse Nippon Cha in Bayside, Queens, was different. For one thing, people weren’t hunched over, staring at their phones. They were too busy chatting about the intrigue of the pop-up inside.
One young woman asked how quickly the products sold out. (“I think within the first two hours” came the answer from somewhere farther up.) An older woman joining the line announced that she was here with a specific order from a friend in the hospital. Japanese families at wide wooden tables briefly looked up from bowls of ramen to survey the crowd gathering at the entrance. Two French bulldogs who had tagged along with their owners were squatted on a bench made for humans, but no one seemed to mind.
Those in line were waiting to pick up the latest treats from Black Label Donuts, which has had a residency at Nippon Cha several Sundays a month for much of the last year. The pop-up has become so popular that Richard Eng, the owner, is looking for a bigger space. It’s been quite a year for Mr. Eng, whom many customers hadn’t expected to see back at work so soon, if at all.
After midnight on June 5, 2018, Mr. Eng was the victim of an armed robbery. Accosted at gunpoint and shot in the face while getting out of his car on the way home from work, he’d remained conscious the whole time. As he was rushed to a nearby hospital, his thoughts turned to his business. “For me it was about not wanting to lose traction,” he said, “not wanting to lose the community that had been so loyal.”
Glowing articles about the global culinary reach of the 7 train have put neighborhoods like Elmhurst, Jackson Heights and Flushing on New Yorkers’ radars. But the subway doesn’t come to Bayside. And yet, for running a two-year-old business that didn’t even have an official website, Mr. Eng had developed a devoted following for Black Label through social media and word of mouth.
After that June night, it was possible he could lose all that. He had months of recovery, which included facial reconstruction, as well as doubts that he could regain his skills as a pastry chef. “I had to make sure that the nerve in my hand wasn’t going to flare up, that my sense of taste was more or less intact,” he said. Through it all, Mr. Eng kept in touch with fans through Instagram, while a local Facebook group posted updates. In the end, he concluded it best not to dwell on the past. After all, it was just one more twist in a long and varied career.
A Bayside native who studied biology before turning to gastronomy, Mr. Eng spent time as a consultant for Asian mega-restaurants like Megu after a stint as the maître d’ at Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s Thai-inspired restaurant, Vong. A self-proclaimed “walking Zagat guide” of New York food, he was inspired to try his hand at doughnuts after reading Grub Street’s annual Absolute Best Doughnuts in New York list in 2016. He remembers challenging himself not just to join the list but to conquer it. “There are few doughnuts I find perfect in restraint and balance,” he said. “Most of them are just too sweet.”
Last year, Black Label made its debut on the Grub Street list at No. 6, just ahead of Greenpoint’s long-running Peter Pan Donuts & Pastry Shop, and the only one of the Top 10 in Queens, just weeks before Mr. Eng was attacked. Buoyed by this initial success, which confirmed that his hard work had paid off, Mr. Eng tried to get back to work as soon as possible, continuing to refine the basics of even his most popular his recipes.
According to Nigel Sielegar, who runs the Moon Man stall, an Indonesian dessert stand at the Queens Night Market, these basics are a key to Mr. Eng’s success: “While most doughnut shops focus on the glaze and filling, a lot of times they neglect the dough itself. This is where Black Label excels. You can taste the deeper flavor in the bread, and it’s not at all greasy.”
Black Label’s flavors also seem to be unlike those in New York’s boutique doughnut shops. In a nod to his Chinese-American background and his fine-dining experience, Mr. Eng’s doughnuts are infused with popular flavors from Japan, India, Southeast Asia and France. One of his earliest recipes was a doughnut interpretation of the sweet French bread gibassier, with ingredients like orange blossom water, orange zest sugar, anise and fennel seed.
There is also a miso pecan sticky bun, a matcha custard bun, or a brioche doughnut with a kalamansi lime and buttermilk glaze. For Thanksgiving, there was a Chinese five-spice pumpkin custard doughnut. A satay peanut flavor is in the works.
Mr. Eng’s glazes, marmalades and custards are made from scratch. Two days before the scheduled pop-up, the dough is mixed and cold-fermented over 24 hours. “There’s a reason why they taste the way they do,” Mr. Eng said. It’s also the reason why, at $4 to $6 per doughnut, the sweets are at the higher end of the price spectrum for Queens.
But even in Queens no one seems to mind paying the premium, or waiting in line, or for many people, trekking to Bayside for the privilege. For one of the last pop-ups of the year, in less-than-favorable weather conditions, the wait was about two hours, Mr. Eng said.
Still, there’s something to be said for a good comeback story. His attackers are still at large, but Mr. Eng’s brush with death certainly hasn’t hurt his popularity. In fact, it may have increased it. “I really didn’t have the time to go until I read about his tragedy in the news,” said Mr. Sielegar, of the Moon Man stall. “So when the pop-up was back up and running, I told myself I would at least go and try. We ended up becoming friends.”
Mr. Eng wants to keep the momentum going with his doughnuts, but at this point, needs a new homebase for his pop-ups. “I don’t know where I’m going to be and now I’m putting everyone else in limbo,” he laughed. “I’ve flipped it back on them.” For now, he plans to stay in his own borough, a fitting home, he said, for his multicultural doughnuts. “You’re not going to find anything as diverse in this country as Queens.”