Eating in Chinatown -- a beginner's guide
For me, Chinatown is New York's biggest treasure, an unending source of wonder and delight. Walk along Mott St south of Grand or East Broadway near Chatham Sq, and join the throngs of people strolling past outdoor vegetable stands and live fish markets, and you'll feel closer to Canton or Hong Kong than to SoHo and Greenwich Village. The people around you do.
Yes, New York has five Chinatowns, two in Queens and two in Brooklyn, and immigrants who work hard and earn enough move out to one of those. But they always feel a special attachment to the original Manhattan Chinatown and return there to shop, stroll and above all to eat. A meal in Chinatown is a very special thing; it's a chance to immerse yourself in China. I used to want to eat in every restaurant but there are just too many. Each time I eat in a new place I pass two or three places I hadn't seen before. Finding the best food at a restaurant can pose unusual (and interesting) challenges. For why, see my post. http://www.chowhound.com/topics/show/...
Chinatown wasn't always this way. Forty years ago it was much smaller, and a bit forlorn. For a bit of history, see my post: http://www.chowhound.com/topics/show/... Most of the immigrants came from Taishan, near Hong Kong. Today, you can find people -- and food -- from every region of China. Still, most of the restaurants in Manhattan's Chinatown serve food from the Hong Kong/Canton region. Here's a post describing one such restaurant and the food you will get there. http://www.chowhound.com/topics/show/... I love those casseroles! You can also get fresh whole fish, steamed to bring out the best flavor. Though most people think of Chinese food as stir-fried, much of the best, like the fish and the casseroles, never sees a wok. It's steamed or cooked in a clay pot. Most of the sauces are clear and simple and accentuate the flavor of the food. Not all, though; black bean sauce has a rich, complex flavor caused by fermenting soybeans, using as much care as with a good wine.
Some good restaurants for Cantonese food are
Cantoon Garden 22 Elizabeth St
New Big Wang 1 Elizabeth St
Chatham Sq Restaurant 9 Chatham Square
and the restaurants in this post: http://www.chowhound.com/topics/show/...
All of these restaurants are relatively simple. There are others, some of which specialize in big elaborate banquets for weddings but also serve the casual diner:
Chatham Sq Restaurant 6 Chatham Sq. (totally different from the other place of the same name
)Ping's (run by celebrity chef Chuen Ping Hui) 22 Mott St
Grand Harmony 98 Mott
Oriental Garden 14 Elizabeth
East Ocean 53 Bayard St
Oriental Food 103 Mott
Jing Fong 18 Elizabeth
Cantonese isn't the only food available. The newest immigrants to Chinatown are from the coastal province of Fujian. Traditionally the most outward-looking province, its immigrants went to Manila and Bangkok centuries ago.In New York, though, they are the most recent arrivals and the poorest in Chinatown. They use wine a lot in their cooking, and make a bright red sauce from the lees. Most of their restaurants are concentrated around East Broadway and nearby Eldridge St. For a description of a very unusual one, see this post. http://www.chowhound.com/topics/show/... Some of their shops on Eldridge St serve superb handmade noodles in soup. You can watch the chef kneading the dough and making the noodles. Here's a description: http://www.chowhound.com/topics/show/...
There are also several restaurants serving food from Shanghai and the rich region to the south. They are best known for their broth-filled dumplings, but I prefer the fish. They serve whole yellowfish (a relative of croaker fish) in one of seven ways: steamed, braised with a rich brown sauce, served with a savory spicy sauce, braised with a West Lake vinaigrette sauce, served in a casserole, made into breaded fillets, served fried with a sweet and sour sauce. I usually order the brown sauce (it's called red-cooked in Chinese). You can get this yummy sauce with other things as well: with pork shoulder for example, or with pork belly. This last dish is perhaps the oldest recipe in the world, first written down a thousand years ago by a famous Chinese poet. See http://www.chowhound.com/topics/show/...
Some Shanghainese restaurants are:
Joe's Shanghai 9 Pell St
Joe's Ginger (same owners) 25 Pell St
Yeah Shanghai 65 Bayard St
Shanghai Gourmet 57 Mott
Shanghai Cafe 100 Mott
Shanghai Cuisine 89 Bayard
There are so many restaurants in Chinatown! But it's hard to go wrong. The restaurant that is the worst on the block would, in most other cities, be by far the best in town. And half the fun is the exploration.
Wonderful post, Brian! Just great! If you are feeling really ambitious sometime, I would love to learn tips on planning a banquet for a small group of friends..where to go, what the planning process entails, any tips you can think of. It seems like such a great idea for a not-too-pricey way to entertain (for those of us who would rather take friends out than plan a diner party at home!) but I feel a bit intimidated being a non-Chinese... Thanks again for all of your informative posts!
ps. Good book idea for you here!
I always happy to read about your excitment on Chinese food. Doesn't seem like everyone knows the depth of the Cusine and the culinary history goes back to Peking Man. I'm glad you caught the bug and sharing your excitment!
"...half the fun is the exploration".
Beautifully put, Brian.
If I ever need a reminder of why I love NYC, I make a beeline to Chinatown. It is full of wonder, labyrinthian byways and hidden treasures, the stuff of life itself.
I would add to this primer a section on the great bakery scene, places like Mei Lei Wah and the Custard Egg King on the corner of Grand and Chrystie. As you say, it is hard to go wrong. I would also give special mention to Hong Kong eateries, such as the wonderful XO Kitchen on Hester.
The breadth and variety of Manhattan's Chinatown makes even those who - like myself - yearn to get to China but who have yet to make the journey, understand what T. Bourdain meant when he said that chinese food is "the mother of all cuisines".
About the bakeries.... I think if a top French chef thought there was only one great cuisine in the world (French), and he went to one of the places listed above and ordered the right dishes on a good night, he would change his mind. But if a top French chef went to a Chinatown bakery... he wouldn't change his mind. Not at all.
That being said, I always round out a meal in Chinatown with a stop at a bakery. I do like them. I wish they didn't all close so early! After 9 PM, there's nothing but the Egg Custard King.
re: Brian S
I see the bakeries as an integral part of the Chinatown experience, their overall atmosphere and vibe being every bit as important as what they serve. When I think of the times when I have connected with the people in the neighborhood, had conversations with various regulars, it has been at places like the Mei Lei Wah, where people kick back with a Chinese newspaper and hang out. This is why I think they deserve special mention in any Chinatown primer. They are omnipresent, cultural landmarks. That said, the combination "big bun" has and always will be high on my list of Saturday morning treats and guilty pleasures.
You're right. Years and years ago I got one of my first glimpses of the Chinese world spending lazy hours at a long-gone place on Mott that was a lot like Mei Lei Wah, watching the old men gossip. But I wouldn't call Mei Lei Wah a bakery. I was thinking about places like Fay Da or Tai Pan -- places you wouldn't want to linger very long.
re: Brian S
I do adore the cakes from Taipan Bakery even if it sounds like a Nintendo RPG game during a sad scene in there. Weird music. New Yeah Shanghai's music is about 1,000,000 times weirder when they're not playing Chinese pop. Really odd selection there. Even funnier when you're sitting in the back and your waiter is betting away his tips with the entire kitchen crew over cards and mahjong all while you're eating and he's checking up on you after every few hands. I miss the real world.
Oh back to the point. The cakes at Taipan are damn good and super cheap. Had one for every b-day of mine for the last 4 or 5 years.