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Secrets of Chinatown

Early this morning I decided to write a post for "Not About Food" on the challenges I face when trying a new restaurant in Manhattan's Chinatown. The purpose would be to find out if these things are unique to Manhattan or if it's the same across the country. So I sat down to write and the post ended up longer than I intended. But the point is the same. Please, reader, tell me if things are the same where you are. I'm especially interested in Monterey Park and also the bay area.

" Do you ever get the feeling that there's something going on that we don't know about?"
-- Timothy Fenwick (Kevin Bacon) in "Diner" (1982)


I usually end up eating dinner in Manhattan's Chinatown. It's the high point of my day, always rewarding, and sometimes the reward is unexpected -- and not only the food. Last night in a nearly deserted restaurant on the gritty eastern fringe of East Broadway, a party of drinkers were engrossed in loud and blustery conversation. The waiters were eating what looked like a banquet at a nearby table while an obnoxious little boy -- one of the waitresses' sons -- ran all over, throwing a paper airplane someone had made for him. It was like a genial family gathering, and for a short while I felt part of it.

Always rewarding, rarely easy, never boring. Chinatown dining is like a Chinese box... boxes within boxes within boxes and if you look at it you won't even know it's a box at all. Here are some of the boxes, some of the secrets.

Secret menus

"Please, could I have the other menu?"
" I gave you the menu"
". No, the other menu. The one in Chinese"
" There is no other menu"
"There it is, those little books near the register."
"That's not a menu."

Of course those little books really are menus, written in Chinese only, with all the good stuff on them. To spare myself this dialogue, I usually grab onto a menu (it's usually near the cash register) and hold on for dear life. They might try to tug it away. Once they see me order and use the menu, everything changes. Everyone hovers around, excited, friendly, asking questions. Where did you learn Chinese? Have you been to China? What cities? At one restaurant, the Chinese menu was written on the wall and I ordered from it. The place was packed and everyone applauded.

Secret Chefs

If celebrity chef Mario Batali quit his restaurant and set up shop in a pizzeria in Brooklyn, it would be front-page news. Chinese celebrity chefs hop from place to place all the time, and outside the community no one knows. In fact, I don't even know who the superchefs ARE, except of course for movie-star-handsome Chen Ping Hui, owner of Ping's. But when a top chef leaves a banquet hall, the quality of the food plummets. And, since I don't know that the cast has changed, the understudy now the star, I have no idea why the food went south. The last thing the restaurant owners would do is tell people their star has left the building.

Of course if you walk in to one of those cavernous, bustling banquet halls and order a dish, the celebrity chef won't cook your food. The order probably will go to the least experienced guy in the kitchen. You may leave underwhelmed, wondering how the next table got such dazzling dishes.

Secret Restaurants

"No, you can't come in here, you're not Chinese!" It was a tiny dive on Eldridge and the waiter was hustling me out. I replied in Chinese, saying how much I wanted to try Fujianese food. "Let him stay, he speaks Chinese!" shouted the people at the other tables. And they did, and showed me to the best table.

Usually, restaurants are more subtle. They hide. Often in plain view. About four years ago while strolling through Chinatown I blundered upon a restaurant that served the best Chinese food -- by far -- that I have ever encountered. Under the Manhattan Bridge, this cavernous banquet palace was totally hidden from the street and the only reason I found it is that the first week it was open, they had a huge banner on East Broadway. I have eaten there about twenty times and never saw a diner who was not Chinese.

They're not set up for casual diners. It is primarily a banquet hall. It is usually given over to wedding receptions -- boisterous, fun, lively, but about half the time I went, I couldn't get in. Sometimes there'd be a tiny part of the hall, screened off, for walk-in diners. Once or twice, after they got to know me, they'd sneak me in to a reception. And what a joy that was! There would be act after act of entertainers: Peking opera, costumed dancers, comedians, Taiwanese rock singers with dancing. Even when I was behind the screen, I could hear the action and wished I was part of it.

And the food. It was the only Chinese place I've encountered that was incredibly creative but worked within tradition. (Most Chinese places that try to be creative go overboard and feature shrimps with mayonnaise or ham and cheese with spaghetti.) One entree was perfectly cooked eel steaks of the plumpest juiciest eels I've seen served atop a bed of fried candied apples! It was a bit sweet, but the sweetness and the salty eels worked in harmony and given a bit of tweaking and this dish could be served to applause at Jean-Georges. Another was a version of a seafood casserole I've had in other places (one Chinese character has three tiny squares, another has a horizontal line, meaning number one) but infinitely better. A big clay pot with a little burner under it. In the pot, bubbling in a rich, thick brown sauce that varied in thickness so you'd in effect have several different sauces, were slices of good-quality abalone, beef tendons, chicken feet, tiny puff pastry balls filled with what tasted like pate, scallops, all perfectly cooked, reclining on a bed of fresh spinach leaves. Every time I left that place, I'd be planning the next visit. I haven't been there in two years but I can still taste that eel, see those swirling dancers.

[the account of the secret restaurant is adapted from a post I made to the Manhattan board last December]

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  1. When we want to explore the capabilities of a Chinese restaurant in Monterey Park (or elsewhere in the San Gabriel Valley) we always want to have our friend Peter along with us. Peter's mom was an accomplished chef, specializing in traditional Cantonese cuisine, and he grew up knowing and loving that and every other kind of Chinese food. That, plus the fact that he IS Chinese, and speakes and reads the language, makes him the perfect sidekick for these expeditions. The waiters and the dim sum cart ladies all go right to him, which is fine with us! We've never had a bad meal when he's been along, and quite a few superlative ones.

    1. Ahh, the hiding staff thing! That brings me back. In 1986 I went with some friends to Lhasa (back when I remembered the Mandarin I studied in college). We stayed in the typical ramshackle hostel, and after a few days, we decided to treat ourselves to dinner in the new Chinese but Western sytle hotel on the outskirts of town. We were the only people in the restaurant, but we waited for half an hour in the empty room. We could see the staff poking their heads out of the kitchen, waiting for us to leave. Good times...

      In any event, next year I'll be shepherding 50 French winemakers to a lunch in Chinatown. What is the place beneath the Manhattan Bridge? Sounds like Triple Eight palace, which I haven't been to in 15 years. I definitely want to avoid the Chinatown version of Western fusion (where everything seems to have some mayo in it).

      3 Replies
      1. re: sbp

        I sneaked into Lhasa a few years before you, back when no foreigners were allowed, apart from tour groups. The food was dreadful and I didn't care!

        The Manhattan place is not Triple Eight, which is well known and is where Chen Ping Hui first became famous. It's
        Ming Dynasty, 75-85 East Broadway, New York, NY, 212-732-8886
        Just remember I haven't been there in two years and for all I know it went way downhill.

        Organizing a Chinese banquet for 50 French gourmets is an incredible challenge and would make a good topic for this board. You might get some helpful advice. And then another post on the Manhattan board to see what restaurant is best.

        1. re: Brian S

          Yes, I was lucky with Lhasa. In 1986, you could go anywere in China. Technically, we were supposed to get permits, but in reality, it was hop on a plane or train and go. And you are right, the food in Lhasa was horrific. Everything tasted like it was stir fried in motor oil. But being able to stroll around the Potala -- amidst monks carrying solid gold statues and thousand year old tapestries -- made starving worthwhile.

          I've done the lunch thing 3 times now over the past 6 years. In 2005, we all went to Dinosaur BBQ in Harlem, which they loved. I'd like to go to a Colombian joint, but the logistics just won't work.

        2. re: sbp

          I've just found -- thanks to Chowhound -- a restaurant which would be ideal for you. It's on the Manhattan board. (Just make sure to go to the right one, there are two with the same name next to each other!

          http://www.chowhound.com/topics/show/...

        3. Here in Washington DC, we had one celebrity chef the Chowhounds all knew about. He made a name for genuimely authentic Szechuan cooking at one small restaurant in the Northern Virginia 'burbs (it largely retains his mark), moved with great fanfare to another (it sort of retains his mark), quickly left and moved to another and BEFORE THEY COULD EVEN CHANGE THE SIGN, left in a huff for parts unknown.

          We're left with happy memories and (glad to say) a better idea of where the 'real stuff' is, plus a fair amount of acceptance at those spots (no trouble getting a Chinese menu, and few of those are written in Chinese only.)

          It's just tough explaining to a fellow diner why my Kung-Pao Chicken off the Chinese menu is so much better than his Kung-Pao Chicken off the American menu.

          I must add, though, that in the FAR 'burbs there is one place that, for years, has quietly been doing 'fusion' things to some dishes, and doing them excellently, subtly, and without much fanfare. No mayonnaise, but zucchini? Tomatoes? Somehow they work - plus a hot-&-sour soup with a bell-like clarity I've never tasted anywhere else.

          1. One of part of me says: it's not fair!! The other part says, if you learned Chinese -- which doesn't LOOK or SOUND very easy to me -- you deserve it.

            1 Reply
            1. re: Jefferson

              I concur-- "that's not fair!" for me really means "i'm sooo envious!!"

            2. Brian, That quote from "Diner" is so true! Even a casual observer in our International District will notice that tables with local Chinese diners are getting completely different food options than the "outsiders". Fortunately, I've recently found a Szechuan restaurant with just one menu--and it's not "Westernized". (Which can be scary to first time visitors who are not used to seeing "Spicy Pork Intestine" as a lunch option.) The food there is incredible.

              6 Replies
              1. re: Leper

                HI, Leper, it looks like your home board is mine too (Pacific NW). If your Szechuan place happens to be in Seattle, would you mind sharing the name? I don't speak Chinese, but I love the real/traditional food, and am always frustrated when I order something that should be really spicy and not goopy, but then it turns out bland, sweet, and thick (as was my last order of szechuan shrimp). I always feel like shouting out something like "don't judge the customer by the blond hair . . . I want the chicken feet!" but never do.

                Brian, I'm jealous of the food you've been getting, and next time I'm in NY I want some recommendations!

                1. re: HAF

                  It would be the privilege of all of us on the Outer Boroughs board to make such recommendations.

                  In the meantime, what you can do is get menus which are in Cninese and English and learn some characters. Or you could bring the menu along and use it to translate some of the Chinese menu. Here's the menu of the best Sichuan restaurant in New York. It's in Flushing Queens. Unfortunately, some of it is blurry.

                  http://www.bridgeandtunnelclub.com/bi...

                  And here's a San Francisco hound's dinner there, with a link to delicious photos.

                  http://www.chowhound.com/topics/show/...

                  1. re: Brian S

                    This is great--I have no problem with bringing along a menu and pointing to what I want! Although learning some characters is a great long term goal. And those pictures look yummy . . . if I hadn't already done my mise en place for tonight's dinner we might have to go out!

                  2. re: HAF

                    HAF, It's Seven Stars Pepper restaurant in the International District. I tend to order odd things like the "spicy pork intestine" just to try them. Some dishes are just too edgy (like those cooked in blood). Their hand cut noodle dishes are fantastic as is their crab and hot pots. A true Chowhound destination spot.

                    1. re: Leper

                      For what it's worth, chef Cheng Biao Yang left Seven Stars Pepper and opened a new restaurant in Bellevue called Szechuan Chef. But I guess you'll have to check the Seattle board for info about this.

                      1. re: Leper

                        FANTASTIC! I work in SoDo, and will have to hit Seven Stars soon. I have to admit, that's one I've never hit. I agree though, stuff cooked in blood is a little much--although if I don't know what it is of course I'll try it. Excited to try the hot pots--one of my favorite comfort foods. I'll report back once I've tried it (hmm, lunch tomorrow????)

                        And Brian, I had heard about the new Szechuan Chef, but didn't know it was the same chef--a good one to look for next time I'm on the Eastside.

                        Thanks, both of you, for giving me some good new Chinese ideas!

                  3. My only reply to this is that my best friend in college, at NYU, was originally from Taiwain and her father was in the restaurant import business. I ate at some of the best Chinese food in my life during my time in NY, both at restaurants with her family and at her home. I still dream of the bao her Aunt used to make. Sigh!

                    But the best was when she and I travelled together in Europe. You must be thinking, what were they doing, eating Chinese food in Europe, but I have to tell you, sometimes you want something different, especially after being abroad for weeks upon weeks. We ate some really delicious Chinese food in Paris, and in Rome, we went to a recommended restaurant, and my buddy spoke Chinese to the waitress -- turns out she was born in Italy and only spoke Italian. She got her older brother, who did speak Chinese, and we were served a darn fine meal.

                    In my experience, familiarity with the language is key to getting into the secrecy, and deliciousness, of the food. That, and being able to convince the staff of the restaurant that you can handle it (it being whatever local/regional delicacy they have to offer that you want to try).

                    I know some of my best ethnic meals have been at the hands of "locals," per se.

                    1 Reply
                    1. re: DanaB

                      Dana, It's interesting you mentioned eating Chinese in Europe. When traveling in Scotland, I suggest Chinese should always be your first dining option.

                    2. OK, I'll admit I don't know much about "authentic" Chinese food, though growing up outside NYC I'm used to much better quality than other places in the US.

                      I was up north visiting with my cousin's fiance from Florida, and I took her shopping in Chinatown, and she thought it would be fun to eat there. (I never had.) So we found a restaurant, with an all-Chinese staff, and mediocre food.

                      Here's what weirded us out: Every single other person in the restaurant -- all the patrons, and all the staff, who all looked Asian and sat together speaking Chinese -- every single one of them used FORKS. Now, I only use chop sticks for sushi, and I stink at them at that, but my companion loves using them and had to ask -- more than once -- for them. Even at DISNEY WORLD they give you chopsticks at the table without having to ask. Sheesh.

                      Like Kevin Bacon said, what the heck was going on? Why were they all using forks??

                      7 Replies
                      1. re: Covert Ops

                        C.O., That is weirdly suspicious. (I've never seen our local Chinese population use anything but chopsticks, even the youngest children.) Since the food was mediocre, is it possible that the Chinese have secretly launched an Asian version of The Olive Garden and you were at the beta test?

                        1. re: Covert Ops

                          One reason may be the Chinese who happened to be eating there that day grew up eating w/ fork & spoon rather than chopsticks... in college I met a fellow student who had grown up in Harbien (Northern China near Russia) and she asked me to teach her to use chopsticks (I'm born & raised in CA, USA). In the region that she's from, people eat w/ fork and spoon; its pretty rare to see chopsticks there.

                          1. re: S U

                            I went to Harbin many years ago and I believe people used chopsticks. Though you could get stuff like borscht, served without chopsticks. It could have been a Malaysian Chinese restaurant? People there often use fork and spoon. Though most people eating in a NY Malayan place use chopsticks. I've never seen anyone using forks in Chinatown.

                            1. re: S U

                              In college, my friend's mom owned the Harbin Restaurant in SF, and we used chopsticks for the staff meals after the restaurant closed. But it could have been a "just in SF" thing. The staff meals were fantastic - not just left overs from the day's larder, but whatever the chef felt like creating.

                              Ditto for the staff meals at my uncle's restaurant in Queens: such black bean lobster and abalone dishes that I still remember 30 years later! Even better than my mom's cooking...

                              BTW: there's another thread elsewhere on using chopsticks. My family only uses chopsticks when there are rice bowls. Using chopsticks off plates is silly. Often, in a restaurant, my husband (the token Caucasian) will be using chopsticks while the rest of us use forks for those errant oyster mushrooms, etc. LOL!

                              1. re: S U

                                Eating with "fork & spoon" is the Filipino way of eating. One of my favorite Los Angeles Chinatown noodle joints called May Flower is patronized predominently by Filipino's and all the tables are pre-set with fork & spoon. When I go there I have to ask for chopsticks.

                                1. re: S U

                                  Eating with fork and spoon is very common in S E Asia.

                                  1. re: limster

                                    Like knife and fork in Europe.

                                    The May Flower is heavily patronized by Filipinos. Believe me, I've been going to this restaurant from the first day they opened and it wasn't always like that. Owners are Vietnamese from China.

                              2. I just wrote a companion piece to this for the Manhattan board, called "Eating in Chinatown -- a Beginner's Guide" It has about 20 restaurant recommendations as well as an essay about the food to be found in Manhattan's Chinatown.

                                http://www.chowhound.com/topics/342344

                                1. Yep, the revealed "secret" to get into and be part of the 'unavailable' to non-chinese is to take a Chinese friend with you who must speak Cantonese, Mandarin or both, and if you don't have one, then try adoption, kidnapping or the Central Casting Agency!
                                  It's the only way they'll even acknowledge your existence and the only way you'd ever be able to sample 'forbidden cuisine'',.

                                  7 Replies
                                  1. re: Thorn

                                    Fortunately, no. My Chinese is rudimentary but it works. The people realize I have taken time to learn a part of their culture, and they respect that. It's taken me to some secret restaurants, such as this one:

                                    http://www.chowhound.com/topics/show/...

                                    1. re: Brian S

                                      I have to put in a plug for a great book by the late Jim McCawley, The Eater's Guide to Chinese Characters.

                                      http://www.amazon.com/Eaters-Guide-Ch...

                                      McCawley was a University of Chicago linguist who originally published the book (as a photocopied stack of pages) for his students and colleagues. It was picked up by a publisher, went out of print and continued to be distributed as samizat until it was re-issued a few years ago. Calvin Trillin wrote a profile of him, reprinted in The Tummy Trilogy

                                      1. re: ernie in berkeley

                                        I've run across this book, I think, but I used to learn Chinese characters by collecting as many takeout menus as I could, provided they had both Chinese and English text side by side.

                                        1. re: Brian S

                                          The book isn't that simple, I've studied Chinese for years (in Taiwan and at Cal and informally since) and unless you are really interested in Chinese, not just menu Chinese, I think it would be more a hindrance than a help.

                                          1. re: buttertart

                                            I found that a few months with eStroke and Pleco got me a lot further than years with McCawley's book. (Pleco can now even do live OCR/translation.) It's so sad he didn't live to use these modern tools.

                                            1. re: KWagle

                                              I'm not surprised, it really did seem surprisingly daunting and I think it would likely put almost anyone off (unless they were just looking for a glossary, which it does include, I think?). You might keep a lookout for this sort of post - I see them quite often - and suggest your new tools to the interested.

                                        2. re: ernie in berkeley

                                          I have also enjoyed Swallowing Clouds by A Zee. I brought it to China with me and enjoyed reading the billboards with its help. Looking at the menus was way easier too.