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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.

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  1. Great post. LA Chowhounder here, we're going to be in town on christmas and want to do chinatown -- what do you suggest? Mid-price restaurant. "New York Chinese" would be welcome or more authentic... thanks!

    2 Replies
    1. re: Silverlaker

      What do you mean by "mid-price"? Most Chinese restaurants in New York, and particularly in Chinatown, are cheap (less than $20/person and usually less than $15, except for some really elaborate banquets). Perhaps you would like Oriental Garden.

      1. re: Silverlaker

        NYC Chinese is incredibly cheap. My friends and I used to go and eat after school almost every day. Sharing two appetizers, one or two entrees and a soup to finish the meal would generally come out to something like 4 dollars a person. Crazy low prices.

      2. Great summary and thanks for confirming that I'm on the right track!

        1. 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!

          1. BrianS,

            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!

            1. "...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".

              8 Replies
              1. re: Polecat

                There's a Chowhound who goes under the name Roboppy who has a food blog ("The Girl Who Ate Everything") and specializes in bakeries. Here are some Chinatown bakery pictures from her Flickr page.

                http://www.flickr.com/photos/roboppy/...

                1. re: Chandavkl

                  ah, yes...i've seen the site. she took some great pix of the pork buns at Chatham...made me want to return.

                2. re: Polecat

                  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.

                  1. 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.

                    1. re: Polecat

                      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.

                    2. re: Brian S

                      Theres two on east broadway (underneath the bridge) that stays open pretty late..past 12 I believe.

                      1. 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.

                        1. re: JFores

                          Where is Tai Pan Bakery? And what kind of cake do you recommend? (My birthday is coming up!)

                    3. how timely. I am headed to NYC early tomorrow am by way of Cleveland. And of course, as always, guess where I go first? C town of course. dumplings (Dumpling house) for breakfast, shopping and then back to Chinatown to find a banh mi sandwich. The next day back for dim sum (whats the lastest recommendation?) and bargain massages. I only have 36 hours but I will take most of my meals here.
                      edit: Is Jing Fong still open?

                      3 Replies
                      1. re: lyn

                        I'm a huge fan of Jing Fong in Flushing, but the Chinatown location seems to run out of food after 12 pm on the weekends. If you just want the basics, you can go to Dim Sum Go Go. I am all about the true "cart" experience, but my friends convinced me to try Dim Sum Go Go. They have a menu where you select what you want. The quality of the food was quite good. Ping's is another good alternative to Jing Fong. They have a few carts there and don't seem to run out of food. Also, you don't need to chase down carts. Good luck!

                        1. re: teresa

                          I went to the Dumpling House in Chinatown. not a dim sum place but OOOOOh My goodness. I can't wait until I go back in February. I also had this Scallion and Beef "pancake" which had the flavors of those Vietmanese banh mi sandwiches. On the way back to the subway, I went in to this lovely bakery and picked up a bun with roast pork, quail egg and chinese sausage in it ($.80 ha!)...I wish I could remember the name of the place. very clean and inviting (which I believe narrows it down). anyone?

                          1. re: lyn

                            Lucky King Bakery, 280 Grand St.

                            I've avoided this place because it was the dingiest bakery around. I walked along Grand St looking in every bakery in search of the place you ate. Now Lucky King is the spiffiest, most modern bakery around! A huge seating area, so crowded it should be called Lucky if you get a seat bakery. I had a delicious fruit tart for a dollar.

                      2. that's a dai bao. you can get them at many bakeries.

                        3 Replies
                        1. re: wleatherette

                          ah yes. actually I am struggling with the name of the bakery...it was just around the corner from the dumpling house and near the subway. all the items were to the left when you walked in. Nice set up. I will have to pay better attention when I am back. And I will be back to the dumpling house...I can't stop thinking of those...

                          1. re: lyn

                            By all means, please re-post when you get some names and addresses.
                            P.

                            1. re: lyn

                              are you talking about excellent dumpling on lafayette? or the place on eldridge?

                          2. the dumpling place (dumpling house?)was on Eldridge off broome. I can't stop thinking about them...that and the beef pancake. The bakery was right near the grand subway stop- about a block or so I believe. I am a fool for not remembering the name.

                            1 Reply
                            1. re: lyn

                              next time try prosperity dumpling further down eldridge (almost at canal), which has been mentioned a few times here. i like it much better than excellent dumpling.
                              the bakery you're talking about could be lucky king. they have superb dai bao and lots of other good stuff as well. however, there are quite a few bakeries in that immediate area that are new-ish looking, bright, and well-kept so i'm really not sure.

                            2. Prosperity Dumpling over Dumpling House, every time.

                              Nosher

                              NYCnosh* http://nycnosh.com

                              1 Reply
                              1. re: Nosher

                                I'm so there -- thanks for the tip!

                              2. wow, no kidding? even better? I can't wait to check it out! thanks all

                                4 Replies
                                1. re: lyn

                                  i find the dumplings at prosperity to taste fresher and be more succulent and flavorful. i've never been a huge fan of excellent dumpling house and think the name should be "okay dumpling house." i owe nosher a thank you for this, because otherwise i may not have discovered it.

                                  1. re: wleatherette

                                    I think the one I went to was just called "dumpling house" on 118 Eldridge.(Is this "excellent" or is there yet another?) I think Brian S may have found the bakery! My next project for when I come back in Feb will be to find(with CH help of course) authentic Sichuan...and I want it very hot.

                                    1. re: lyn

                                      I know of no Sichuan-style place in Chinatown. You should go to Flushing. Or go to Grand Sichuan's ~50th St. and 9th location and tell them you want everything very hot.

                                      1. re: lyn

                                        Check out the separate szechuan menu at Szechuan Gourmet on 39th btw 5th and 6th.

                                  2. Hey - what about durian pastries? I'm salivating remembering the flaky dough surrounding stinky durian inside I ate at Chinese banquets. Anywhere you can think of?

                                    1. Ok here is the dumpling run down. Last Oct I had Dumpling House (118 Eldridge) and swooned over the hot and fresh dumplings, and great beef pancake. I had wanted steamed but the counter lady recommended the fried as she was just finishing them up -they looked great so I went for it. I returned to Eldridge to hit Prosperity Dumpling based on board reviews. I must have hot them at a bad time. When I ordered the fried pork and chive they served them right away(I think they were being kept warmed) and they did not taste as fresh. I would have believed them to be commercially made if not for seeing the lady in the back rolling the dough. The skin was not as crisp and chewy as Dumpling House and the filling was a little too oily. The scalllion beef pancake was as good as Dumpling House, but again not as fresh. The hot and sour soup was quite nice (but this is not my area of expertise). The prices were the same at both.I think I caught dumpling house at a fresher, busier time. I also decided to try the same dishes at Excellent Dumpling House on Laffeyette. This as opposed to the afore mentioned DH and PD, is a sit down place with table service, and prices were at least double (although they served tea and had other menu items) . I also ordered a scallion pancake rather than beef. the dough was very different than the bread like quality at DH and PD. It was very good but I prefer the sandwich-like one at PD and DH. The dumplings at Excellent, were, well- excellent. In the end when I return I will probably go to DH for sure. there is something insane about the rock bottom prices and great taste. The atmosohere of PD and DH is a little stark and dingy though. So if you like eating in slightly gussied up digs, Excellent probably fits the bill. In my world I declare Dumpling House the winner!

                                      2 Replies
                                      1. re: lyn

                                        Good report, worthy of a thread in and of itself. What are some of your other favorite dumpling joints?
                                        P.

                                        1. re: Polecat

                                          I've always liked Tasty Dumpling on Mulberry. They have the most options for types of dumplings, plus the scallion beef pancakes (and a few options of those as well). More room to sit, too.

                                      2. Those are the only ones I remember now that I started taking note. On trips before I would wander in to random stalls...one was a mini mall like place. thanks to chowhound I have stepped up my documentation as I feel the need to give back so to speak. I was temped to start another thread but I love bumping this thread. I do think dumpling debates are woven through many threads.

                                        1. Joe's Ginger in Chinatown does not exist anymore.

                                          1 Reply
                                          1. re: italianwife

                                            Having actually gone from dumpling spot to dumpling spot on a single afternoon, voting here for Fried Dumpling on Allen Street. But at 5 for a dollar, who can afford the place?

                                          2. Let me add my voice to the chorus of praise for this post and the thread it inspired. Today I went to the Dumpling House at 118 Eldridge, fully intending to order dumplings, and instead I was won over by the sight of the sesame pancake beef sandwich. What a wonderful sandwich, so simple and so tasty...and so cheap at only $1.50. It compared favorably to some of my favorite sandwiches I've had at Mother's and Central Grocery in New Orleans! The counter at the dumpling shop was a bit chaotic, but it was definitely worth the 10 minute wait at lunchtime.