NY Chinatown redux -- a challenge
OK, so there are a number of Cantonese cuisine experts out there that have claimed that NY chinatown is pretty subordinate when it comes to quality. Some of these claims have been made with such a degree of condescention and vagueness that nothing really constructive has been said in the earlier threads. I'm not one to disbelieve these claims, but I want to know more. Don't tell me that you can find better food in back alleys of Hong Kong or things just taste better in LA/SF chinatown, etc. -- I don't dispute these claims. What I do want to know is what is:
1. What is the best NY has to offer?
2. What kind of dishes/menu items are benchmarks of true quality and bases for comparison?
3. How do you "taste" the quality of the cuisine? Give us some details.
So, this is the challenge to TWC, BJ Son, Frank Lee, among others to give us some clues. Give us poor, untraveled novices a chance to catch up to you guys.
It's so silly -- NYC Chinese can easily stand up to LA's Chinatown, or the Ocean Stars etc. out on LA's East Side. And it's certainly as good as anything in SF's Chinatown with the exception perhaps of some kinds of dim sum. There's newer more interesting stuff in SF's Richmond area and surrounding districts, but we're more talking apples and oranges than absolute quality.
Places to try in NYC (I'm assuming you're not only interested in Cantonese) if you haven't already:
-- Village Congee, Allen & Delancey
-- Sweet & Tart, branches on Mott St. in Manhattan (the small one for snacks and teas, the big one for a full, but different menu) and in Queens
-- Peking Duck House, Mott St. (for Peking Duck only)
-- Joe's Shanghai, Pell St. (soup dumplings here are still the best anywhere, I don't care what people say)
-- Phoenix Garden, 40th St. between 2nd and 3rd (real old-style Cantonese, moved here from Chinatown, still great)
-- Fuleen Seafood, Division Street
-- Full Ho, Flushing
-- Ocean Plaza, Homecrest, Brooklyn
and a million million other places. Search the boards -- not just Manhattan, but Outer Boroughs and New Jersey.
Btw, there are 4 Chinatowns within NYC's city limits.
I grew up in southern California so I understand where TWC, et al. are coming from. I'm not as harsh as they are to say that Funky Broome and Ping's Seafood on Mott are complete trash but they are average and even sub-par compared to the cantonese back in LA. Details?
Shrimp stuffed tofu: They do it with shrimp in Chinatown, but in LA it's done with fish paste. The fish paste is more distinctive tasting than the shrimp. The crispy exterior of the tofu and the creamy interior are good indicators of how well the dish is done. Funky Broome's version fits these criteria. However, they cover the top with a gelatanous sealant to prevent the shrimp paste from falling out when it is fried. This is absent from the LA version. It's not simply a matter of taste because this sealant tends to get chewy which ruins the texture. Finally, the dipping sauce that goes with the dish is saltier and not as delicate as the LA version.
Pan Fried whole Flounder: Funky Broome again does well in this department. A huge flounder deep fried to a golden crisp. The fins are completely edible and they should be. Again, the light soy sauce that goes with the dish is a tad saltier. This becomes a significant factor since the bottom side of the flounder rests on the sauce and can become too salty.
Lobster/Crab with ginger and scallions: Never had the version in Chinatown manily because it is much too expensive. It's cheaper in LA, but that's not the argument. LA also offers several other versions of sauteed fresh lobster which includes XO sauce and a broth that is made from slowy boiling a pork shoulder (gao tang). I've yet to see these preparations make an appearance on the NY scene.
Fresh steamed fish/shrimp: Simple and rests entirely on the quality of the fish or shrimp. The latter is a moot point since New York doesn't even offer these beautifully sweet steamed fresh water shrimp. I've included a link to a previous LA post in which I get a little carried away on the merits of Cantonese and Taiwanese food in Rowland Heights.
Aside from these personal favorites in Cantonese restaurants, there's of course dim sum. In that, let's just say that selection is greater in LA than in NY. By that I mean there are certain dishes that may be distinctive to each dim sum restaurant in LA (akin to a fingerprint) that's not seen here. Even Ping's which serves excellent dim sum, has yet to separate itself from the rest by offering innovate dishes not found at the other dim sum places. Granted, the quality is better, but it's time to take the next step.
Finally, I understand your frustration when someone merely says that "it just tastes better". Imagine you comparing Kuruma Zushi sushi to even something like Tomoe. The difference in freshness and quality there, that is the difference between the freshness and quality found in NY cantonese restaurants and LA cantonese restaurants. Or better yet, it's the same concept as the Ramen in the US versus the Ramen in Tokyo argument. People have cited slight differences in the broth, and in the noodles. But it all adds up to make a world of difference.
Again, scan through my previous post to see what we're missing here in New York.
San Fang in flushing serves incredible Taiwanese Hotpots. Everything else looks great there, but one problem -- there is no english. And I can't read Chinese.
I would like to refer back to an earlier posting by Jim Leff. It's true, the one thing this board does not do is track chinatown chefs.
About twenty years ago, my wife knew a bunch of editors at the Asian Wall Street Journal. Every friday, they went out to eat at 6:30 and stayed till almost midnight, eating and drinking in small takes. They seemed to know the whereabouts of every chef in Chinatown. They would always tell us where to go and what the chef's specialties were. Sometimes we'd end up at counter-intuitive spots .. like the China Garden somewhere on the east side. The good places would always change. A place that was great two weeks earlier, might now be ordinary because the chef had moved on. These folks just knew the scene.
Well, the years have gone by and we've lost contact with the AWSJ. I wish there were somewhere I could still get the intelligence we used to get. It was amazing.
re: Mike C
Those people (who monitor the Chinatown chef "shell game") are out there. Shoot, for a while I WAS one of those people! Just too busy these days.
Chowhound has become the site I always dreamed of. Our lack of savvy tracking of good places in Chinatown is one of the very few disappointments. I don't mean the Standard Choices--the Zagat places. I mean the insider choices, which have to be tracked zealously as chefs move around.
But as with any other topic, posting about these issues, offering whatever tidbits of info you come up with (we've got a LOT of people here, so if everyone contributes minutae, the sum total will be encyclopedic), generally getting people energized can make it happen. The site's what we make it.
Fulleen's is really quite good for seafood. I've not decided quite HOW good yet, because I've been meaning to get back there and do serious investigation.
It's not manhattan chinatown, but New Kim Tuong in Elmhurst (83-34 Broadway, near Dongan Ave.; 396-5603) makes terrrific rice pots and really distinctive vegetables. Their sticky rice "tamales" rival the best in SF. I'm betting that the more intricate dishes kill as well...it's a serious place.
The Tindo chef is almost certainly working somewhere...we've just not found him yet. Outstanding hot pots and Hong Kong dishes both high and low (prawns with mayo and honey walnuts, chopped pork with salt fish, etc).
Sweet and Tart in Manhattan makes some very good things, but the Queens branch kills. Very top level cooking (though, even there, there are a few things that shouldn't be ordered. I've got to find my takeout menu before I can remember specifics, but it's eluding me right now).
Chowhound Barry Strugatz found a place, I think in Mott, which I've got to get him to post about.
There are always places beneath radar where kitchens are cooking their hearts out. I must confess that I've not had time to track the latest. You can't just consider the Obvious Choices. That's a chowhound anthem in general, but it's even more the case in Chinatown.
Many restaurants excel in certain dishes--but do badly in others. (Ollies, at 84th Street and Broadway, for example, turns out fine freshly-made noodles--but if you order their other typical American-Chinese dishes, they are often horribly mediocre.)
What would be very helpful is if posters could point out what specific dishes they did--and did not like--in the individual NY Chinatown restaurants they tried. (Particularly, since NY is my hometown and I'm not likely to get home delivery from Seattle, Ca or great spots in Asia, no matter how frantic my phone call sounds.)
This thread has probably been abandoned, but anyway, I had lunch today at Big Wong in Manhattan's C-town, at 67 Mott St., and I found their soup delicious, cheap and filling. I had the pork and vegetable dumplings soup, $3. Any other recommendations for specific dishes at specific C-town venues are much appreciated.