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Nov 3, 2009 12:54 PM

A few underreported cheap thrills in Manhattan's Chinatown

1. On the northeastern corner of Mott and Hester in the early afternoon on weekdays, there's a zhong zhi (aka "Chinese tamale") vendor who sells some pretty decent zhong zhi. She doesn't speak English or Mandarin, but sometimes there's a very cute, assertive little girl (about ten years old) who translates for her. Get the fatty pork, hard boiled egg and boiled peanut kind. Rice is tender and very fragrant, fillings are very nicely proportioned. She usually also has a fatty pork and mung bean variety, which I don't think is as good. Price: $1.50. (But I'd tip an extra 50 cents for translation services if you get 'em.) If her translator is not around, point and you have a 50/50 chance of getting the pork and peanut variety -- or buy one of each. :)

2. Almost directly across from Bahn Mi Saigon Bakery on Mott St., there's a place that sells huge steamed buns filled with a mixture of pork, Chinese sausage, cabbage / greens and hard boiled egg. The filling may not be to everyone's taste, but if it is to yours, they buns are well made and very nice straight out of the steamer. A pack of four is $3.75. It's a good way to tide you over if you have to wait an hour for your bahn mi at Saigon.

3. Nam Son, just down the street from the Grand/Chystie St. subway stop, has surprisingly good, balanced broth for pho. I was surprised to discover that it's as good as Xe Lua some days. You only get the standard Thai basil, bean sprouts and lime with the pho, but it's very fresh. I hadn't been to Nam Son for a good, long while and remember it being far less delicious than this. A bowl of pho will cost you between $5 and $6.

4. There's an interesting Taiwanese-style roll (slightly sweeter than Japanese style) that the sushi vendor by the registers in Hong Kong Supermarket sells that I'm pretty enamoured with. It's filled with wakame, tamago, julienned carrots and cucumber, kani kama. It's prepared a bit in advance and suffers all the implications of this, but the rice is short grained and not hardened by refrigeration, the combination of fillings is very nice. It's $4 and about 1000x better than the glop they sell at places like Trader Joes. I personally would not try this vendor's fish-based maki and nigiri, though.

Xe Lua
86 Mulberry St, New York, NY 10013

Nam Son
245 Grand St, New York, NY 10002

Trader Joe's
142 E 14th St, New York, NY 10003

Hong Kong Supermarket
157 Hester St, New York, NY 10013

Hong Kong
78 5th Ave, New York, NY 10011

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  1. Thanks for these thoughtful recommendations cimui! I'd been eyeing that Taiwanese-style roll a few weeks back but was ultimately dissuaded by grocery-vendor-phobia. Glad to hear it's as good as it looks.

    4 Replies
    1. re: CalJack

      Very glad to be of assistance, Jack! I passed by it about 50 times before trying it, too, because I've had some pretty scary run-ins with supermarket sushi in the past. (And also, I have to admit to being a close-minded sushi bigot / traditionalist who usually doesn't like "creative" rolls.) But this one's pretty good for the genre. A nice snack if you already happen to be down that way grocery shopping.

      1. re: cimui

        thanks again cimui...that big steamed bun with the chinese sausage and egg and such was a staple of my diet many many years ago at a bakery at the fringe of k-town (on 35th street, closed for probably 15 years). will have to try!

        1. re: david sprague

          if you do, i'd very much like to hear what you think of it!

          1. re: david sprague

            I love the aptly named "big bun"! there should be a comprehensive survey done of that; I can think of a handful of places that have them . . . . hmm . . .

      2. the zhongzi lady only there on the weekdays? (tough to make it that early on a weekday). curiously what does she speak? (i'd assume only cantonese, but even amongst the old chinatown people its rare to find ones who don't speak mandarin at all)

        never seen the place across from bahn mi saigon...anything that is a steamed bun immediately catches my attention (i love almost all steamed buns)

        20 Replies
        1. re: Lau

          The place across from Bahn Mi Saigon (visible from the door) is probably newish. It's bright and clean. There's a shelf of different kinds of steamed buns on the left as you walk in (pork/veggie/sausage/egg buns on the upper left hand side) and a cashier in the back. It's a pretty small place.

          I have only seen the zhongzi lady there on weekdays, but she might just have different hours on weekends... or be all sold out by the time I drag my lazy ars out of bed and down to that nabe. I wasn't able to ask, unfortunately. There are a surprising number of folks in Chinatown who don't speak Mandarin *or* Cantonese. She tried to speak to me in a dialect that wasn't either of these. I do think her zhongzi are worth seeking out. I've been buying a few zhongzi from different vendors to sample every time I visit Chinatown. An awful lot of them are terrible, with hard, dry rice, a far too high rice to filling ratio, or just simply bad fillings. While this vendor's zhongzi aren't the best I've ever had in the world, they are better than any I've tried in Manhattan in recent years.

            1. re: fourunder

              Oh, yours look and sound a LOT like the ones I got from my tamale lady! A very nice writeup, btw!

              (Incidentally, I just took mine home and nuked them for a minute in the microwave. They were fully cooked.)

              1. re: fourunder

                Fourunder, the northeast corner of Grand and Mott is the correct usual location, NOT Grand and Hester. I think she sometimes switches corners if there's construction or any other unusual activity.

                BTW, I poked around on this site and the earliest reference I can find to this zhongzi lady was by ammel_99 in Jan. 2008. ( ) So credit and kudos go to him/her for the "discovery" and to you for that wonderful writeup... with pictures! Thanks!

              2. re: cimui

                hmmm i'm curious now, i like zhongzi, but i haven't found a good one since mei mei closed (they are surprisingly easy to mess up)

                i wonder what she speaks, in flushing or in LA i hear people speaking dialects all of the time that i have no idea where they are from, but not in manhattan ctown.

                ill def have to try this baozi place soon

                1. re: cimui

                  I just noticed the place across from Banh Mi Saigon last week. Any ideas on what else there is besides bao? I thought I saw a steam table thinking they might be a better takeaway option than Deluxe.

                  1. re: JungMann

                    Don't think they have a steam table, actually. It's pretty clearly a specialty store for steamed bao, but they do have a few pastries (savory, I think; I didn't examine them closely since I was trying not to lose my place in line) on offer towards the back, by the registers, as well.

                    1. re: cimui

                      The place across from Bahn Mi Saigon (visible from the door) is probably newish.
                      Is the name Golden Steamer?

                      1. re: wew

                        haha i really hope the name is golden steamer....that comes off very funny in english

                        1. re: Lau

                          There is a place across the street who's english name on the sign is Golden Steamer

                        2. re: wew

                          Yep, that's it! Nice going! All I could remember is that "steam" was in the name somewhere.

                          LAU!!!! =P I would never had thought of that on my own. Thanks a lot. Guess it does make the name easier for me to remember...

                          1. re: cimui

                            Somehow I missed a good line here.
                            Try the roast pork buns if you like them on the sweet side. The rice rolls tend to be on the thick side and I avoid the egg custard - go to the Orange Bakery for them

                            1. re: wew

                              Speaking of egg custard (tarts), let me spring another question, since you seem to be so good at store names! :) There's another place I walked into on Mott St. the weekend before last, on the west side somewhere a block or two south of Golden Steamer. It's a small bakery, counter and two registers to the left, selling bubble tea and nice smelling coffee and sweet rolls baked in round pans. The egg custard tarts there were great. There've been lots of complaints about how egg custard tarts have become thinner in consistency, lately; these were the traditional, thicker consistency with as nice of a pastry crust as I've had anywhere. Any idea what the name of the place could be? I know that's not really much to go on.

                              Where is Orange Bakery?

                              1. re: cimui

                                the best dan tat (egg custard) ive found is at ka wah (bakery town) at 9 eldridge (thanks to Hling)...i think its really old b/c its looks old and its a random tiny cantonese bakery amongst a purely fujian neighborhood, but their dan tat are much better than i've had at any other place. Get there sort of early b/c they aren't open that late


                                1. re: Lau

                                  HLing has such a good nose for these things. What an amazing 'hound. Thanks so much for passing on the rec! It's actually only a few doors down from where my friend's Cantonese parents live (so a few old timers still hang on in that part of the nabe). I look forward to trying it!

                                  1. re: cimui

                                    "There've been lots of complaints about how egg custard tarts have become thinner in consistency, lately; ..."
                                    The Orange Tea Shop is on 121 Mott, but their dan tat are very much on the thin side, much more towards a caramel custard than those at ka wah. Maybe you should try the Golden Steamers version after all. Golden Steamer does have other dim sum items listed on an illuminated board inside but I have had some trouble getting anything but rice rolls so far. The deep fried thick sweet rice balls filled with a bit of roast pork found on the left rear have taken the place of a three snickers lunch for me.
                                    Yours still lost in translation clutching my McCawley,

                                    1. re: wew

                                      Oh wew, you know you are far too polite for not pointing this out, earlier. I just found your earlier, informative review of Golden Steamer:

                                      I tried a tiny bite of those egg custard tarts from Golden Steamer this weekend. The cookie-like pastry shells weren't really to my taste, either. The filling / custard was so-so, medium thick in consistency, but not as aromatically eggy as the versions I prefer. Also tried a bite of the pumpkin pastry rolls. I imagine they would've been wonderful straight out of the oven, since the flavors were good. As it was, however, the pastry was slightly soggy.

                                      I think they do make things to order, though? The guo tie they were making on the counter when I was there looked good (nice looking filling), but they looked so much less appetizing cold, in the bin, after being pan fried.

                                2. re: cimui

                                  Aha. The dan tat / egg custard tarts bakery I had in mind was Manna House Bakery. It's only a few doors north of Orange Bakery.

                                  [BTW, this is a great site for anyone else who's as abysmally bad as I am at remembering place names: (If you remember the st. you were on, you can at least check out all the storefronts and see if you can recognize the place.)]

                            2. re: wew

                              Sounds like that's the space formerly occupied by K&D Bakery. Maybe Golden Steamer is named in honor of the Golden Venture.