Chinatown COVID-19 Update

This too shall pass. Most of us 🤞 will emerge from this dreadful episode unscathed. But Chinatown businesses are taking a double hit because they were unfairly singled out at the very beginning of the COVID-19 scourge and consequently may have less chance of survival. We can help. Some Chinatown restaurants are still doing takeout and delivery and we can show our support by patronizing these establishments.


I realize this table may be difficult to read and it’s hardly dynamic, but you can find an even better, up-to-the-minute, printable grid view here. Note that all listings are subject to change as time progresses.

Learn more at the Chinatown Partnership Local Development Corporation and sign up for their e-newsletter. And check out Explore Chinatown NYC for more information.

If you’re on Twitter, you can follow the tweets from the Chinatown Business Improvement District @ChinatownNYC.

And you can see my original posts from early on, when restaurants were open but Chinatown was practically deserted here and here.

Stay safe and be well.

#supportchinatown #keepcalmandcarryout #supportsmallbusinesses
 
 

Support Chinatown!

These days, businesses in Chinatown are struggling to make ends meet as potential customers’ trepidation over COVID-19 festers and deters patronage. Chinatown has been an ineffable source of joy, gratification, and comfort for so many of us. That’s why I’ve organized a visit to one of the neighborhood’s stalwarts, Wu’s Wonton King, with one of my dinner groups to show our support. Now is the time for all of us to do the right thing.

Read Chinatown Needs Your Love More Than Ever Right Now in Food & Wine.
 
 

Wu’s Wonton King

Instagram Post 2/21-24/2020  and  3/16-22/2020

It seems to me that authentic Cantonese cuisine is often overlooked in favor of other, less subtle, regional Chinese fare. That may be because Chinese-American food, a poor excuse for gastronomy IMO but a stepping stone for the totally uninitiated I guess, has its roots in Guangdong.

Our group recently visited Wu’s Wonton King at 165 East Broadway in Manhattan’s Chinatown and came away more than pleased – so much so that I brought another group there a few weeks later! Here’s a compilation of everything both groups enjoyed.

(Click on any image to view it in high resolution.)

You’ve probably had mediocre wonton soup with nondescript flaccid dumplings in Chinese restaurants so many times that you don’t even bother to order it. It seems to be ubiquitous. But I urge you to try Wu’s New York Number 1 Wonton Soup. The sturdy dumplings packed with shrimp, pork, and watercress are bathed in a bone broth soup, cloudy, flavorful, and rich with collagen. A great starter for which they are justly famous.


Solo.


The inner workings.


Here are two dumpling orders from the Dim Sum section of the menu. Pan Fried Shrimp with Green Chives, just what it sounds like and totally delicious…


…and Steamed Chaozhou dumplings, halved so you could see the filling (and yeah, so we could share). Peanuts provide the crunch in these classic pouches in addition to an ample complement of carrots, peas, shiitake mushrooms, ground pork, and dried shrimp. Love these.

I was especially keen to try their take on a dish I’ve had elsewhere that features osmanthus clam/mussel. My “clam/mussel” equivocation stems from the fact that the seafood in question is actually neither. Rather, it is an internal component of the sea cucumber, an echinoderm that inhabits the ocean’s floor.

If you’re unenthusiastic when it comes to even reading about innards, skip to the next paragraph. Now. Sea cucumbers have a soft, sausage-shaped body with no solid appendages and don’t even have a proper brain, so one might reason that they wouldn’t be particularly adept at self-defense against predators – but for one saving grace. From Wikipedia: “Some species of coral-reef sea cucumbers…can defend themselves by expelling their sticky cuvierian tubules to entangle potential predators…in an autotomic process known as evisceration.” [I’ve heard the term “stomach eversion”. Simply put, they literally puke their guts out.] “Replacement tubules grow back in one and a half to five weeks, depending on the species.” The tubules look very much like squid tentacles which is how they appear on the plate. Here’s a photo in vivo.

That having been said, the name of this absolutely delicious dish is 脆奶拼雙蚌, #10 on the Seafood section of the menu; its English name is Sautéed Clam with Fried Milk (although the menu uses a different word for “fried”).


As presented: there are king oyster mushrooms and sautéed asparagus beneath the Chinese chives and clams. It’s pricier than some other menu items, but I thought it was excellent.


Post-bite close-up of the crispy, sweet, creamy fried milk; these could be a snack by themselves. So good.


Close-up of a clam; its flavor and appearance are similar to that of a razor clam but perhaps a bit more slippery and chewy. Now here’s where I need some help from the cognoscenti among you. Is that red bit (which tasted completely different from the other part, brinier and spicier for sure) part of the clam, or something different? TIA for the info!


Our foray into the real deal at Wu’s Wonton King was rewarded with this bowl of Pan Fried Noodles with Seafood.


Revealing the crispy noodles beneath that are the raison d’être of this dish.

They say that timing is everything and that’s surely the case with this presentation. Mix well: if you start crunching before the sauce has a chance to permeate the noodles, you’re missing the point; wait too long and the rich seafood mélange will have saturated and drowned them into a submission of sogginess. Nope. There is a window of culinary opportunity in which the noodles still have crunch but have absorbed enough of the sauce to be flavorful – and that’s what you’re going for.

This may very well be the best rendition of Cantonese pan fried noodles with you-name-it I’ve ever had.


You’ve probably gazed at the awesome roasted/BBQ meats (and sometimes cuttlefish if you’re lucky) hanging in the windows at Cantonese restaurants: roast pork, roast pig, soy sauce chicken, and so many more. The collective term for these favorites is siu mei (燒味), not to be confused with the popular dim sum dumpling, shu mai (燒賣). But if you’d like a change from roast duck, give this marinated braised duck, beautifully rare and perfectly succulent, a try.


I’ve worked my way through most of the duck options on the menu from roast to marinated braised. This one is Honey Roast Duck; gotta love that sweet and shiny skin protecting the succulent meat within.


Check out the framed posters on the wall and you’ll spot “Dried Squid Sautéed Fried with Silver Anchovy”; it was that photo that tempted us and it proved to be another outstanding choice. (It’s “Dried Squid Stir Fry”, #16 on the Seafood section of the menu, if you don’t see it on the wall.) Tender squid contrasted with the crispy little fish, but don’t envision European salted anchovies packed in oil like you might find on a pizza; these are half a world apart. Literally. I’ll be returning with a different group very soon, and this dish is at the top of our gotta-do-this-again list.


If you’ve never tried a Chinese casserole you should add it to your repertoire. The cooking vessel is a clay pot and the variety of recipes and ingredients seems limitless. Often a rice dish with a crispy bottom layer, this one is a rich home style stew featuring chunks of lamb and bean curd sticks – another example of bean curd skin’s many guises (see this recent post).


To me, this dish is Sichuan comfort food: the menu calls it Shredded Pork with Garlic Sauce, the commonly used descriptor. The Chinese characters are 鱼香肉丝, literally fish flavor (or fragrance) shredded pork, but don’t infer that it tastes like (or contains) fish from the phrase “fish flavor”; it simply refers to a method often used for cooking fish, and it’s delicious. A little sweet, a little sour from vinegar, accented by the omnipresent garlic and ginger, it’s chili sauce based – and it’s the kind of chili sauce that tastes a bit like ketchup. (As a matter of fact, one theory holds that the word ketchup comes from the Cantonese words “keh jap”, literally tomato sauce, but there are others of course.) Etymology notwithstanding, the dish is classic.


This is Snow Pea Sprout with Dried Scallop. The dish as presented has the appearance of an ocean of sauce with a school of shredded dried scallops swimming just beneath the surface.


Only by parting the sea are the snow pea shoots revealed. Subtle and delectable.


Chinese Broccoli (gai lan), stripped of its leaves, included here to dispel the myth that I tend to overlook vegetables. 😉


Complimentary mango jelly for dessert.
 
 
Wu’s Wonton King is located at 165 East Broadway in Manhattan’s Chinatown.
 
 

Lower East Side Ice Cream Factory

Instagram Post 2/26/2020

(Click on any image to view it in high resolution.)

Easily identified as an outpost of the Chinatown Ice Cream Factory by the insatiable dragon logo, the Lower East Side Ice Cream Factory also produces delicious high quality ice cream in Asian inspired flavors like durian, ube, and lychee as well as “exotic” ones like vanilla and chocolate 😉. I particularly like the fact that the LES offspring features exclusive flavors that give a nod to the neighborhood’s roots like Rainbow Cookie and Horchata.

One of the two flavors in this cup was rainbow cookie. I don’t know if it’s always available or if it was an experiment; pretty good, but I wish it were more intense and had more pieces of rainbow cookie in it.

That horchata tho! For the uninitiated, horchata is a luscious beverage that can be made from tiger nuts or jícaro or rice (as in Mexico) depending upon the provenance. This rendition actually had actual grains of actual rice in it and it was outstanding! Find it on the street level of Essex Market, 88 Essex St, on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.
 
 

Tonii’s Fresh Rice Noodle

Instagram Post 2/16/2020

Tonii’s Fresh Rice Noodle, 83 Bayard St in Manhattan’s Chinatown, serves up a wide variety of agreeable Chinese rice rolls (cheung fan, amid alternate spellings) in a casual, no-frills atmosphere; you’ll find the usual beef, pork, chicken, shrimp, and veggie options among numerous tempting multicomponent combinations. Condiments are available tableside, but we had to request peanut sauce, so be forewarned.

(Click on any image to view it in high resolution.)

Our choices for the day included this crab & egg version, fully dressed,


roast duck (prior to condimentation, just for comparison),


and Tonii’s Special: pork, chicken, and dried shrimp, the best of the three.

Incidentally, way back in March 2016, I did a comparison of Chinatown sponge cakes here called “Sponge Information” and the winner was Kam Hing. Perhaps you’ve been enjoying these puffy paragons of perfection a few storefronts away but if you’ve noticed that their doors have been shuttered recently, not to worry: both business are owned by the same folks and Kam Hing’s peerless sponge cakes are available at Tonii’s.
 
 

Jian Bing Man

Instagram Post 2/10/2020

(Click on any image to view it in high resolution.)

Part One. Someone mentioned Korean food and my thoughts went straight to Northern Boulevard in Queens. But I realized I hadn’t visited Manhattan’s Koreatown in far too long and that includes the time since the renovation of Food Gallery 32 (11 West 32nd St) so a jaunt was long overdue.

One of the first floor vendors there wasn’t Korean at all (don’t worry, there’ll be Korean food in subsequent posts); Jian Bing (煎餅), literally fried pancake, are Chinese street food, griddled crepes flipped, filled, folded, and frequently found in Flushing’s Chinatown. The eponymous stall, Jian Bing Man, serves these along with a few noodle and rice dishes. It’s a familiar DIY format – [1] choose your type: signature (crispy bao cui, like deep fried wonton skins on steroids), you tiao (like crunchy fried savory crullers), or egg (neither crispy nor crunchy and therefore flaccid and pointless IMO since the first two incorporate egg anyway); [2] your sauce: spicy, hoisin (they call it soybean paste), or both; and [3] extra toppings (actually fillings, but why quibble?).

The 16 toppings included the usual suspects like pork floss and sausage in addition to the less common BBQ chicken and cheese. I’m a traditionalist when it comes to jian bing so my first mistake was to investigate what they did with BBQ pork (actually pork belly) and BBQ chicken. As you can see, there was an abundance of meat inside, but less would have been more; better yet, I should have cleaved to my time-honored favorites. My second mistake was to get it to go. It arrived tightly wrapped then boxed which had the effect of steaming any crispy crunchitude out of it and left me biting into a study in sogginess.

Don’t do what I did and you’ll probably end up with an okay jian bing. More KTown soon.
 
 

The Case of the Uncrackable Case

(One of my “Favorites” that never fails to resonate this time of year. If you enjoy reading it, there are more in the column on the right side of my home page.)

Gong Xi Fa Cai! The callithump of Chinese drums and cymbals played havoc with my ears as the pungent miasma of spent fireworks assaulted my nose. “These are my people!” I beamed. An equal opportunity celebrant, I was in my element.

I picked my way through the ankle-deep sea of technicolor metallic streamers and confetti. “Looks like a dragon exploded,” I mused. Shuffling from market to crowded market, each festooned with the accoutrements of the holiday, I searched for authentic goodies with which to welcome the Chinese observance of the Lunar New Year in style.

Definition: Chinese New Year, also known as Spring Festival, is a dazzling two-week long celebration occurring in January or February, a banquet for the soul that is laden with more symbolism than a Jungian interpretation of a Fellini dream sequence inspired by a Carlos Castaneda novel.

The shape of the holiday’s foods suggests their analogue: dumplings are crafted to resemble Chinese gold or silver ingots, long noodles emblematize a long life, melon seeds epitomize fertility. Color plays a significant role as well: mandarin oranges allude to the color of gold. Sweets are often tinted red, the color of good fortune in Chinese culture.

But nothing is more traditional to the Chinese New Year banquet than food-word homophones. As any precocious third grader will tell you, homophones are words that sound alike but have different meanings (for, four, and fore in English, for example). At these festive gatherings, a whole fish will be served, because the word for fish (yu) is a homophone for surpluses. Also gracing the table will be Buddha’s Delight, a complex vegetarian dish that contains an ingredient the name of which sounds like the word for prosperity.

(We don’t have that kind of thing in western culture, but maybe we should. Imagine if you rang in the New Year at an American restaurant by ordering the surf ‘n’ turf, a certain portent that this would be the year that you meat your sole mate.

Just don’t wash it down with wine.)

And no traditional food is more important than the ubiquitous Chinese New Year delicacy, nian gao, a glutinous rice cake sweetened with brown or white sugar and a homophone for “high year” — with the connotation of elevating oneself higher with each new year, perhaps even lifting one’s spirits.

Now, I had seen nian gao dished up and steamed in aluminum pie pans in every market in New York’s five or so Chinatowns. But one particular variation packaged in a six-inch wide container shaped like a Chinese ingot (as many items are this time of year) caught my eye and beckoned to me. As I inspected it more closely, I realized that I could not for the life of me fathom how it open it! This fact alone was sufficient bait; I stood in line with my fellow revelers, paid, and took it home.

With bugged-out eyes and a glower that betrayed both puzzlement and frustration, I turned the semi-translucent vessel over and over again like someone who had reached a cul-de-sac with a recalcitrant Rubik’s Cube. The object was fashioned of two mirror image concave pieces of plastic fused together — plastic somewhat thicker than that of the average shampoo container — too thick to squeeze easily, for sure, and inseparable along the seam. I could make out an air bubble which migrated as I shifted its orientation, so I had a clue as to the texture of its contents — typical semi-firm glutinous rice cake, perhaps with a little syrup around it. Searching for an instruction manual, I found that Google had abandoned me: either no one else on the planet had ever encountered these contrivances or everyone else on the planet buys them every year and I am the only soul who is too inept to persuade them to yield their bounty. There was a tissue paper-thin label stuck to the bottom that showed the “best before” date as May, so even allowing for my customary procrastination, I had some time to solve the mystery. As long as that case remained closed, the case was not closed.

Wait a minute. What if some sort of key was hiding beneath that slip of a label? A slot to pry the two halves apart or a helpful arrow embossed on the obdurate plastic? Slowly, carefully, I began to peel back the label. THHHHPPP! The tiny air bubble instantly expanded to fill half the case as air rushed inside. Could it be that this gossamer leaf was the only protection the rice cake had from the elements, furry predators, and me? Such was the fact.

But then, I was confronted with a further conundrum. Lurking beneath said label was a hole the size of a half dollar. (Remember those?) This carapace was obviously a mold constructed so that its contents would delight the eye when served. But the only way I could see to get to the goods inside was to dig the stuff out with a fork! Not what they intended, I was certain. Somehow, there had to be a way to pry the halves apart without damaging the springy contents.

I hooked my thumbs on either side of the hole and yanked. Gnrrgh! Nothing. I laid it on the kitchen counter and pressed down with as much muscle as I could muster hoping that it would split along some weak, unseen fault line without damaging the contents. Again, it did not succumb to my efforts. I grabbed my nastiest knife and attempted to slice through the case along the seam. Nope, that’s not it either, I thought as I licked my finger where I had cut myself when the blade slipped.

Silently, the ingot mocked me. Was it designed this way on purpose? Some sort of arcane object lesson about anything worth achieving is worth struggling over? Or conversely, was it perhaps trying to tell me that I would never achieve riches, no matter how much I persevered?

Frustrated, I stashed the thing in a corner of my fridge. Days passed. The days melded into weeks. It was time to begin plans for Thanksagaingiving.

Definition: Thanksagaingiving is a joyful, annual family ritual. Not content to celebrate the merely dozens of diverse international and American holidays, each with its own panoply of tempting traditional foods, I created one more.

Over many years, I have developed, tweaked, and perfected an elaborate Thanksgiving menu that I prepare annually, much to the delight of my clan. And over those many years, we would ask ourselves, why don’t we do this more often? Pondering the possibility, we recognized that just about every month has some delectable holiday or seasonal foods associated with it. But there is that frigid, desolate chasm between Chinese New Year and the promise of tender spring vegetables that cries out for a joyous — and delicious — festival to uplift us from our disheartened doldrums.

Enter Thanksagaingiving. When we give thanks. Again. And rerun the whole November spectacle.

Invariably, each day as I loaded the fridge with more ingredients for our feast, it became necessary to move the Chinese ingot around to make space for the latest bounty. Now onto the second shelf, the customary residence for leftovers, now far back into the lower left corner where that jar of homemade boysenberry jam had been languishing for the last three months, now precariously balanced on a tall bottle of pandan syrup lying on its side in the least accessible corner — where the ingot unfailingly teetered, slipped, and fell, locking its neighbors into an exasperating jigsaw of jars and urns that prevented anything from being extricated from the shelf.

I had no choice but to toss it.

Our annual Thanksagaingiving tradition came and went. We happily devoured our Roast Turkey with Chestnut Cornbread Stuffing, Dandy Brandied Candied Yams, Maple Sugar Acorn Squash, Corn Pudding, Scalloped Potatoes with Leeks and Bacon, and the subsequent procession of turkey sandwiches, turkey tetrazzini, turkey burritos, and turkey soup.

The fridge was once again barren. Wistfully, I gazed at the empty spaces that my forlorn little nian gao had been sequentially evicted from. Had I forsaken it prematurely? Would one more hour of negotiation have solved the mystery? Nostalgically, I remembered all the time we had spent together getting to know each other.

But then, I realized that all was not lost — come next Chinese New Year, I could purchase another ingot-encased nian gao and try again. I felt my spirits lifting.

And suddenly, I comprehended what had come to pass without my even being aware of it. In the light of that existential moment, the words “come next Chinese New Year, I could purchase another…and try again” echoed in my mind — and the cosmic meaning of this episode, the raison d’être for this tortuous journey became brilliantly clear:

It had been the maiden voyage of a new annual tradition!

 


(And speaking of maiden voyages, please join me on one of my ethnojunkets, food-focused walking tours through New York City’s many ethnic enclaves. Learn more here.)
 
 

Chinese New Year 4718 (2020)

Instagram Teaser 1/25/2020

(Click on any image to view it in high resolution.)

恭禧發財! Gōng xi fā cái!

The Chinese celebration of the Lunar New Year is upon us!

4718 is the Year of the Rat 🐀. I’m no Chinese zodiac scholar, but based on what I see in our subway system, rats are extremely talented when it comes to accessing food and are happy to indulge in a comprehensive variety of cuisines, never playing favorites.

I can relate to this.

And apropos of eating, there’s one aspect of this spectacular holiday that I particularly enjoy and that’s the way wordplay and homophones factor into the selection of traditional foods. An example is nian gao, a glutinous rice cake sweetened with brown or white sugar and a homophone for “high year” – with the connotation of elevating oneself higher with each new year, perhaps even lifting one’s spirits.

But there was one year when my inner rat was thwarted in attempting to access a particular nian gao – and what should have literally been a snap turned into a complete mystery.

Curious? Please read my very short story, “The Case of the Uncrackable Case!”
 
 

Nan Xiang Xiao Long Bao

Instagram Posts 1/17 & 1/18/2020

Finally got around to visiting Nan Xiang Xiao Long Bao in their new digs at 39-16 Prince St in Flushing, Queens – or so the Google would have it: the first thing you need to know is that the entrance is actually on 39th Ave (133-42) at the corner of Prince St. Elusive geography notwithstanding, our hungry horde congregated to devour a representative sampling from their menu. Everything we ordered was tasty, but the soup dumplings overshadowed the dishes they consorted with.

(Click on any image to view it in high resolution.)

Arguably best known for their Xiao Long Bao (soup dumplings), we selected three varieties from among six options. These charcoal gray, brooding purses are fabricated from dough fragrant with black truffle, fulfilling my expectations; the soup, secure within, was fine.


Insider’s view of the Truffle Soup Dumplings revealing flecks of truffle peppering the pork.


Chicken Soup Dumplings. The soup brought a touch of spice and ginger to the meat, good contrast to the preceding round.


But the champion of the trio was their classic Steamed Crabmeat and Pork Soup Dumplings, the filling everything you could hope for, the soup surprisingly full-bodied and a bit sweet, the genesis of Nan Xiang’s reputation, and which may very well have been the highlight of our meal.


Pan Fried Pork Buns (aka Sheng Jian Bao) from the Signature Dim Sum section of the menu were top notch.


Four Happiness Kao Fu – braised wheat gluten with bamboo shoots, wood ear and shiitake mushrooms. I admit I’m a sucker for Kao Fu and I was pleased to see the dried lily flowers as a component – no guarantee of that in some versions.


Spicy Bamboo Shoots from the Little Cold Dish section of the menu; a little too chewy, could have benefited from a touch more spiciness.


Beef Tendon in Chili Oil from the same part of the menu. If I had been paying attention, I would have suggested the Spicy Beef and Tripe in peanut chili sauce (fuqi feipian). Next time.


Shanghai Pan Fried Noodle – thick noodles stir fried with bok choy, shredded pork and “house special sauce”. Nice chew, not bad.
 
 

Cupid Cheese Fruit Cake

Instagram Post 1/13/2020

(Click on any image to view it in high resolution.)

Cupid Cheese Fruit Cake, a relatively new kid on the block, is my new durian gateway drug dealer. Find them in Flushing (of course) in the New York Food Court at 133-35 Roosevelt Ave, Stall 18. The menu touts Regular Durian Pie and a Super Durian Pie that’s even more abundantly filled than the former (you’re lookin’ at it). I was more than pleased. A return visit is in order to sample some of the other flavors – mango, banana, raisin, hawthorn, dragon fruit, and seven fairies – the last two topping my list. Ice Rice is on the agenda as well, but not before I run the table of fruit pies.

I can only imagine what this would be like with a scoop of Flushing Ice Cream Factory’s durian melting on top!
🤤


The #obligatorycheesepull