Chinatown, My Chinatown

October 19th, 2015 § 0 comments

The explosive growth of the Chinese population of New York has led to the creation of a number of new “Chinatowns” scattered throughout the five boroughs. The Flushing neighborhood of Queens is much larger than Manhattan’s Chinatown and far outclasses it in terms of quality and variety of cuisine. (Along Northern Boulevard and in the surrounding community of Murray Hill, there are also many good Korean restaurants and supermarkets). SJ is a Flushing expert and has led HG and BSK to some extraordinary eating adventures. There are also growing Chinatowns in Brooklyn. Sunset Park is the largest. But, for nostalgic HG there is only one true Chinatown: Manhattan’s Chinatown. HG has been dining in that Chinatown for 76 years. It all began when 10-year-old HG and his late beloved sister, Beulah Naomi, would board the Third Avenue El at the Fordham Road station in The Bronx. The leisurely train voyage had its delights. We would peer into tenement windows along the route (saw some remarkable family scenes). A highlight was the huge shiny brass brewing vats of the Jacob Ruppert Beer Company in the East 90’s neighborhood. (A sidebar: Ruppert, which went out of business in 1965, was once America’s best selling beer and Jacob Ruppert, son of the founder, was the owner of the New York Yankees baseball club. He brought Babe Ruth to New York, a move which led to decades of baseball supremacy.) HG and his sister descended from the El at Chatham Square. Chinatown was quite small in these days (bounded by the Bowery and Canal Street with Mott, Pell, Bayard, Elizabeth and Doyers as its principal streets. It was many years later that Chinatown metastasized, taking over much of Little Italy and the Lower East Side.) The street scenes of Chinatown delighted little HG (they still do). The strange and often inscrutable foods spilling onto the sidewalks. The exotic, musical language. The appearance of the neighborhood inhabitants (Years ago, many older Chinese men still sported pigtails). Luncheon choices for HG and sister were conservative. Won ton soup. Egg rolls. Barbecued spare ribs. Chicken chop suey (or chow mein). Rice. Tea. Almond cookies. It was a feast. The cost (for two) was 65 cents (with tip). The El fare was 5 cents. A wonderful day of sightseeing and feasting for less than a dollar (for two happy people). HG’s Chinatown food tastes became more sophisticated through the years. Shrimp in lobster sauce, Moo Goo Gai Pan, stir fried beef and broccoli became favorites. Chinatown remained wonderfully cheap, the perfect venue for college dates. In the 1950’s, HG and pals would dine at Yuet Sun. Our table of six or eight would devour shrimp in black bean sauce, pork livers, fried dumplings, garlicky greens, stir fries of pork, beef and chicken; noodles, rice. On the table were many cans of icy beer purchased from an nearby grocer. The jolly meal cost about 2 dollars a person. Later, HG’s favorite restaurant was Bo-Bo’s on Pell Street.Esther Eng, an imperious lady of the theater and one of the first (and greatest) female directors of Chinese language films, ran Bo-Bo’s. Bo-Bo’s was one of Ms. Eng’s five restaurants and enormously influential in exposing the sophistication of Chinese cuisine to America — the lobster rolls and steak dishes were outstanding. HG took BSK to Bo-Bo’s on their first date in 1963. When living in New York and New Jersey, HG/BSK and children were weekly visitors to Chinatown. Oriental Garden for great squab and pepper-and-salt grilled shrimp. Hong Fat for fried crabs. Phoenix Garden for flounder in black bean sauce, HSF and Nom Wah for Sunday dim sum brunch. (For years, Nom Wah on Doyers Street was the only dim sum eatery in New York). There were other places on the Bowery and elsewhere (names forgotten) that specialized in fried chicken, snails, clams in black bean sauce, etc. Chinatown changed and grew. Big Hong Kong-style dim sum palaces. Bubble tea store fronts. Congee made an appearance. Shanghai soup dumplings became a craze. HG still likes Chinatown food. Sad news is that Full House on Bowery near Hester has morphed into Flaming Kitchen. This super-modern, hi-tech space prepared superb Cantonese fish dishes and now caters to the hip, new style of Szechuan heat. However, Dim Sum Go Go is still dispensing good dim sum. Big Wong does superior congee and maintains the funky, old time Chinatown flavor. Nom Wah has been spruced up but retains its original vibe although foodwise HG/BSK had one good and one bad experience there. Bo Ky on Grand serves very good Vietnamese food. There’s good ethnic eating from a variety of Chinese regions on Eldridge, Chrystie, Allen, Forsyth and East Broadway. Yes, Flushing and Sunset Park have stolen some of Chinatown’s food luster but, HG remains loyal. And, it’s easier to get to than Flushing.

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