Chinatown, My Chinatown

October 19th, 2015 § 0 comments § permalink

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.


Chinatown, My Chinatown

September 19th, 2013 § 0 comments § permalink

Arrived at LaGuardia Airport following the usual flight delays and discomforts. Friday night traffic in New York was a mad maze and HG/BSK were mighty hungry after checking in at the Hanbee Bowery Hotel in Chinatown. SJ provided the remedy. A block from the hotel was Ninh Kieu, a wildly eccentric Vietnamese restaurant with steaming bowls of beef pho, crispy spring rolls, stir fried water spinach and thin squares of pork grilled with lemongrass. Next morning HG/BSK met Vancouver pals Jamie and Karen, plus HG’s Restaurateur Daughter Victoria at Big Wong King, a traditional Cantonese restaurant on Mott Street. Grim decor. Abrupt service. Super busy (with good reason). This is real Chinatown. Fresh, flavorful cheap food. The group had two types of congee — pork and fish. No stinting on the ingredients. Just the best congee ever. Spicy Mo Pu Tofu and exquisitely cooked firm slices of eggplant in garlic sauce. Crispy Chinese crullers accompanied the congee. Rice crepes and tea. A happy meal for next to nothing. Tonight is the 50th Wedding Anniversary Party for HG and BSK. Dim Sum A Go Go is the venue. Some 50 years ago, HG and BSK’s first date was in Chinatown. So, the non-stop Chinatown fressing brings back many joyous, tasty and sentimental memories.


July 16th, 2013 § 0 comments § permalink is one of HG’s and SJ’s favorite food blogs. While it is indispensable for lovers of Chinese and other Asian food, the reviews touch on a wide range of deliciousness (even introducing HG and SJ to the best Greek pastries in NYC). Lau’s restaurant reviews have unusual depth, analyzing anywhere from six to a dozen of a restaurant’s offerings. But, like any restaurant reviewer, Lau is not infallible. He recently called Hong Kong Cafe the best restaurant in Chinatown. Based on that praise, SJ (and famille) and HG’s Restaurateur Daughter Victoria dined there. Their unanimous verdict: Ungood; however SJ’s faith in Lau is unshaken — every restaurant can have an off night, and SJ will give Hong Kong Cafe a second chance. What makes reading Lauhound a delight is his straightforward prose, devoid of any hint of irony or humor — a sort of Friday (from Dragnet) of culinary delights — “Just the food ma’am.” He can be unconsciously funny. HG was beguiled and amused by his recent review of Main Street Imperial, a Taiwanese restaurant in the Flushing neighborhood of New York. In particular Lau discusses a dish of “Putz Fish” with seemingly no mention or understanding that “Putz” is the Yiddish word for penis (turns out the Taiwanese “Putz” is a berry or fruit — in Lau’s own words “The thing that I ended up liking the best about this dish was the putz; it reminded me of a sweet olive”). Irregardless of Lauhound’s lack of Yiddish skills, HG and SJ will continue to look forward to his posts and discovering wonderful food based on his acute observations.


Street Food Renaissance

March 3rd, 2013 § 0 comments § permalink

HG has always enjoyed street food starting with the sweet potatoes, chickpeas, ices and chunks of coconut that were sold along the Bronx streets in HG’s youth. During early manhood HG fancied the grilled Italian sausages with onions and peppers sold from the back of trucks in Greenwich Village. The classic New York City Sabrett hot dog, topped with onions and mustard and sold from a “hot water” cart, was always a treat. In Chinatown, anything sold on the street (no matter how unhygienic it looked) was always good. HG had excellent wurst and rye bread on the streets of Prague and even better wurst at the foot of ski slopes in the Italian mountain town of Selva Val Gardena. HG bought a very savory spleen (yes, spleen) sandwich from a Palermo vendor. HG was not a tripe fan (HG is now a Menudo — Mexican tripe stew — addict) when HG unhappily nibbled a tripe sandwich from the famous truck in the Florence wicker market. In Brazil, HG was too timid to taste the pungent stews being sold by women tending steaming caldrons outside of public markets in Rio de Janeiro and Bahia. The largest array of street food HG ever saw was in the colorful, surreal, slightly insane Djeema el Fnaa, the famous public square in the Moroccan city of Marrakesh. Established sometime around 1147, the square is a virtual maelstrom of noise, aromas and people (native Moroccans and tourists)/ There are magicians, snake charmers, water sellers, acrobats, story tellers, young men with chained Barbary apes, dancing boys and dentists (with large displays of pulled teeth as proof of their skill and prowess). When darkness falls, scores of food stalls appear and the air is filled with smoke. Hundreds sit on benches eating, grilled lamb (and its innards), chicken and every variety of seafood. Somehow HG found the square exciting but sinister (beneath the square is a police center for the vigorous interrogation of suspicious individuals). HG never patronized any of the stalls. Today, street food is having a renaissance moment in the United States. Serious and creative chefs are opening food carts and trucks alongside the ethnic specialty trucks (which had long dominated the market) in cities throughout America. Both groups of chefs are equally drawn to the food cart’s low overhead and the ripe possibility of building an audience for your cooking before dumping a fortune into a brick and mortar restaurant. And not only are the food trucks opening, urban planners and city governments are recognizing their civic importance. Cities such as Portland are actively supporting food trucks and creating a supportive business environment to help them thrive. The trend has reached New Mexico where excellent street food can be relished all over Santa Fe. This is an attractive trend bringing interesting, affordable food to folks who haven’t the time or patience for the traditional, leisurely, sit down restaurant meal. Finally, a culinary trend HG can stand by.

Downtown Observations

January 14th, 2013 § 0 comments § permalink

HG spent a week this last December wandering around the Lower East Side, Little Italy, Chinatown and parts of Soho. The LES is becoming more than cool. It’s frigid. Good little art galleries showing challenging work. Excellent restaurants and bars. It’s a venue for the hip and the beautiful. The old parts of Chinatown (the borders of Chinatown have expanded so massively into the LES and Little Italy that HG needs to define which parts of Chinatown HG is talking about) look a bit sad. Swathes of Mott Street have been taken over by stalls selling the worst kind of crap to tourists. Yes, it’s still a food obsessed community awash with fresh fish and vegetables (absurdly low prices). And, street life is lively. But, the neighborhood seems to lack some of the elan and zest of yesteryear (It may that HG is looking at it with the nostalgia clouded gaze of an old guy). Little Italy has been shrunken, vulgarized and totally touristified. Pity. Reports about old ethnic restaurants like Vincent’s, Umberto’s and Grotto Azzura are not promising. HG has been a great fan of the fiery scungili, shrimp and clam dishes that were once available in Little Italy. Now, if you desire food a la Diavalo, you’ve got to travel to Sheepshead Bay or Howard Beach. Foodies claim that Chinatown cuisine has gone downhill and if you want superior Chinese cooking the Flushing neighborhood of Queens is the place. Yes, there’s great food in Flushing. But, HG ate some superior Chinatown food while visiting at Peking Duck House, Dim Sum Go Go and Full House Cafe. It is still the New York neighborhood where the impecunious can dine for very few bucks. One of the hot items in Chinatown is peeled noodles. Basically, hand pulled noodles but cut into wide strips with a knife. HG had a big plate of these noodles with a super spicy lamb sauce at Xi’an Famous Foods (on Bayard west of Bowery). Fabulous. Cost six bucks. HG had a very good dish of peeled noodles with baby bok choy at Sheng Wang (on Eldridge). Cost five bucks. One night, HG and BSK were feeling peckish before settling down to watch some silly stuff on TV. HG walked down the block to J.J. Noodles (Catherine and Henry) and came back with two big containers of congee with fresh fish filets. Perfect comfort food. Cost eight bucks. Yeah, you can still get nourished in Chinatown.

Shhh….Shhh….Shhh….Quiet Please.

January 1st, 2013 § 0 comments § permalink

HG will whisper the name. Full House Cafe (in New York’s Chinatown — east side of Bowery at Hester Street). SJ was tipped to the restaurant by his Chinese dentist, a bit of a health freak, who raved about the clean and hygienic food. Other than this cleanliness-obsessed gentleman, It seems only a few people know about this restaurant even though it is serving some of the most exquisite Cantonese cooking HG has ever encountered. The ground floor restaurant is decorated in Hong Kong style. Ultra-modern. Flat screen TVs. Pink neon accents. It is quiet and uncrowded (most of their business seems to be the karaoke rooms on the upper floors). HG and BSK dined there a few times and were astonished, The scallion pancakes were crispy miracles of flaky pastry and slivered scallions. The crab meat and pork soup dumplings (xio lum bao) and chive dumplings were sublime. The Ma Po Tofu was powerful, redolent of Szechuan peppercorns and hot chili oil. And, the fish dishes. Wow. Filets of fish with yellow leaks. Minced flounder on a bed of baby bok choy topped with crab roe. Wonderfully light while intense in fresh sea flavor. HG and BSK also enjoyed extraordinary pork belly and pea shoots with garlic. HG is writing all of this with reluctance. Fears crowds and popularity.

The Dumpling Explosion

November 4th, 2012 § 2 comments § permalink

Years ago there was only one New York restaurant specializing in steamed Chinese dumplings and other staples of the delightful dim sum menu. The eatery was Nom Wah Tea Parlor, tucked away on Doyers Street in Chinatown. It was refurbished recently and is very good. Now, Nom Wah is but one of scores of restaurants in Chinatown, Flushing and Sunset Park specializing in dim sum. There are modest little joints and sumptuous, vast Hong Kong dim sum palaces. HG is delighted. There are few things better than sharing dim sum with a table of friends. Also heartening is the explosive growth of small Beijing-style dumpling restaurants (many also offering soups and basic noodle dishes) along Eldrige Street, East Broadway and Henry Street. Cheap and tasty. Two or three dollars buys a filling, delicious meal. HG also likes the fact that many Chinatown places are offering Fuzhou hand pulled and peeled noodles. Winter is fast approaching and these joints are poised to offer steaming bowls to the chilled and hungry folks on strict budgets. They deserve applause.

An Extended Love Affair With Chinatown

September 30th, 2012 § 0 comments § permalink

HG has had a long standing love affair with Manhattan’s Chinatown. It all began when eight-year-old HG and his beloved older sister, the late Beulah Naomi K., would climb the steep steps at Fordham Road in The Bronx and ride the scenic 3rd Avenue Elevated train (fare — 5 cents) all the way to Chatham Square in Chinatown. Little HG was fascinated. The strange language. The exotic (to little HG’s eyes) people. The vast variety of food being sold in shops, outdoor stalls and by itinerant vendors. And, the restaurants. Ducks hanging in the windows. Fish swimming in tanks. Barbecue experts slicing pork. At first, HG and sister were timid eaters — won ton soup, chicken chow mein, almond cookies for dessert. Ridiculously cheap, of course — 20-25 cents. But, the two fledgling gourmands quickly became more adventurous. Shrimp in lobster sauce. Roast pork over rice. Moo Goo Gai Pan and much much more. In his late 20s (some 56 years ago!) HG discovered dim sum. Nom Wah on Doyers Street was the only dim sum restaurant in Chinatown (now there are scores). HG became an addict and every Sunday morning devoured Nom Wah dim sum while reading the hefty Sunday edition of The New York Times. (Blessedly, Nom Wah has been revived by a new generation of the original owners and they have maintained the wonderful charms of the original decor while giving the place a much needed spruce up.The dim sum are as good as ever). HG realizes that Flushing (and maybe even Brooklyn’s Sunset Park) have replaced Chinatown as the great centers of New York Chinese cuisine. HG and BSK have rented a Chinatown apartment for one week this December and there will be a thorough exploration of the current Chinatown food scene. HG relies upon three Chinatown culinary guides: SJ, David Sietsma of the Village Voice and the blog, HG remembers when Chinatown only had Cantonese cuisine. Now there are many restaurants featuring regional cooking — Chiu chow, Fujianese, Szechuan, etc. Dumpling and noodle restaurants (many strictly hole-in-the wall) have proliferated. There are many Vietnamese restaurants, including an HG favorite, Nam Son. Chinatown has expanded into the Lower East Side and Little Italy. Mission Chinese, an adventurous California/Chinese venture, has a pastrami dish on its menu. Does this represent a challenge to Katz’s?

Nam Son – Chinatown Bargain

July 8th, 2012 § 0 comments § permalink

When Paris cab drivers (and many French truck drivers) want a cheap, tasty and filling meal they head to a Vietnamese eatery in one of the less classy arondissements. When in New York, HG often follows their lead and goes to Nam Son, a Vietnamese restaurant at 245 Grand Street in Chinatown. On previous visits, HG had an exemplary steamed flounder and crispy fried soft shell crabs. The bargains here, however, are the spring rolls (four for four dollars) and pho, the Vietnamese national noodle soup dish. Nam Son has about 15 varieties of pho, all good, at prices between six dollars and $7.25. Feeling peckish a few afternoons ago, HG popped in for a plate of spring rolls served with the ubiquitous fish sauce for dipping and lots of lettuce and mint. Adjacent to HG was a table of ten good looking young people joyously eating spring rolls and pho. They were having a very good, affordable time. Yes, you can eat very well for few dollars in pricey New York. You just have to know where to look.

Chinese Food Heaven

July 2nd, 2012 § 0 comments § permalink

HG and BSK have been in New York and, with SJ as an informed guide, have been dining in Chinese restaurants in Chinatown and one in Brooklyn (on the border of Bay Ridge and Sunset Park). Glorious gluttony.

First stop was dinner at Oriental Garden on Elizabeth Street. A bit pricey and formal and (surprising for a Chinatown restaurant) a reasonably ambitious wine list. First some steamed chive dumplings and a dish of delightful little cubes of bean curd, deftly deep fried and then smothered in parsley, garlic and ginger. Then came the most heavenly prawns any of us ever had. Big ocean prawns presented to us wriggling in a net before going into the wok. The prawns were juicy, firm fleshed and filled with flavor and seemed almost like a cross between a prawn and a langoustine. Then a big flounder, steamed in rice wine and finished with hot oil, garlic, ginger and parsley. Continuing the sea food theme there were giant sea scallops (still attached to their shells) in a light black bean sauce. Final course was chow fun noodles. These were charred in the wok and mixed with scallions in a lusty brown sauce and melded with generous quantities of squid, scallops and chunks of cod.

Next was a fiery lunch at Shanghai Hepking Restaurant at 100 Mott Street. First, some fried pork dumplings, then, a fiery Ma Po Tofu — tender little chunks of bean curd in mouth tingling chili oil. Fish filets with bok choy and mushrooms in a slightly less blazing chili oil. HG restored his taste buds with the restaurant’s special cooling coconut milkshake.

HG also lunched solo at the tiny, plain spoken Henan Flavor Restaurant on Forsyth Street. A lovely young woman with a winning manner turns out soups and noodle bowls from her native province of Henan in China (Don’t confuse Henan with Hunan, the province noted for sophisticated peppery food). Big bowls of noodles and chicken topped with a variety of fresh vegetables cost five dollars. The noodles are hand pulled and silky (broad like pappardelle). The flavors are rich and hearty, redolent of cumin seeds and varieties of pepper. The taste is vaguely middle eastern, reflecting Henan’s history as an outpost along the Spice Road, and portions are huge. Henan Flavor has proved to be a savior of indigent lower east side artists who flock there on cold days to enjoy a warming, nourishing cheap bowl. The restaurant’s two dollar pork pancake is the best food bargain in New York.

On to Brooklyn for dinner at East Harbor Seafood Cuisine, a majestic place at 714 65th Street. Here, there was perfect Peking duck served with Bao, puffy buns rather than flat pancakes. Filets of tender flounder were served with the vegetables of the season plus some delectable slices of winter melon. There was a nice platter of chicken breasts and vegetables in a subtle sauce, all nestled on a bed of chow fun noodles. There were more vegetables in the form of garlicky sauteed pea shoots. Adding crunch to the meal were fried squid dusted with garlic and chili pepper. Fresh melon and slices of orange for dessert. Family and great Chinese food spell a winning combination for HG.

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