nora on 02/05/2014
Dim Sum

Where to Eat: Adventures in Manhattan’s Chinatown

Whenever I have friends or family  visit me in NYC, inevitably the culinary corner of the city that holds the most intrigue and the most reverence is Manhattan’s Chinatown. Pushing your way through its crowded streets can make even the most seasoned New Yorker sweat. So when you are a hungry tourist trying to determine the most “authentic” experience to have in a neighborhood packed with vendors every-which-way peddling a thousand variations of green tea, unnameable creatures that walk the ocean floor, and more whole ducks than one sees in Central Park, it can be intimidating to say the least. But in holding its ground as one of the oldest Chinese enclaves outside of Asia, with a population of almost 100,000, Manhattan’s Chinatown should not be missed. So I thought it best to try and offer up my two cents on the best places to eat along Canal Street before the old ladies shelling lychee on the corner scare you off.

And while I cannot, by any means, claim to be a Chinese cuisine expert, I do feel that I am a pretty seasoned aficionado. I spend a lot of time down at The Museum of Chinese in America, due to my other job and familial ties, and I LOVE dim sum, pulled noodles, dumplings of any shape and size, Szechuan to the spiciest degree, and the big pots of green tea most restaurants provide you with gratis. I love fancy-dancy, cloth-napkin Chinese and I love 3am grease-dripping-down-your-chin Chinese. I could eat it for morning, noon and night, if I was better at cooking the darn stuff myself.

Now, just to be clear, I know that Chinese food in the U.S. is supposedly very, very different from the Chinese food of its homeland. But, I can say without hesitation, that I don’t really care. I mean, I would of course love to try any and every dish on it’s home soil, but I do not scoff at Americanized Chinese food and feel that it should be celebrated in its own right. And besides, isn’t Manhattan’s Chinatown about as close to authentic as you can get outside of China? So the next time you find yourself stepping off the Chinatown bus ready to dig in deep, hopefully this culinary road map will help point you in the right direction.

 

Nom Wah Tea House

Nom Wah Tea House
13 Doyers St, New York, NY 10013
(212) 962-6047
Now I know that this early in the game I should not pick favorites, but I cannot help myself. This little dim sum hub holds claim to fame as the first dim sum restaurant in the city, incorporating back in the 1920s. But unlike other “classic” restaurants in the city, it has been able to maintain its authentic credibility over the years. Nestled in a crooked corner street south of Canal, Nom Wah is hard to spot if you don’t go looking for it. Doyers Street is truly like nowhere else in rest of the city. In fact, it is legend that there are secret passageways between the buildings and the sharp Eastern turn it takes led the street to be called “The Bloody Angle” in the 1930s because of the gory fights that would occur amongst the Chinatown Tong Gangs.

But don’t let it’s gruesome history cloud your vision of Nom Wah. The retro diner interior may make you feel as if you are turning back time as you slide into the red rubber booths and pick up a paper menu, but the food definitely satisfies modern palates. My favorite fare includes the incredibly delicious and filling pork buns, which at $1.50 are the biggest steal in NYC, the scallion pancake, pan fried dumplings, and Chinese broccoli with oyster sauce. To note, if you are an adventurous eater, try the chicken feet. But be aware, they are not for the faint of heart. Last time at Nom Wah my boyfriend and I placed an order and as someone who prides herself on having eaten like a local and consumed odd dishes to the tune of bulls balls, grasshopper tacos, and goat heart, I thought the chicken feet would be no problem. But, to my dismay, even when cooked, chicken feet really do look and feel like chicken feet and there really is not that much meat on the bone.

 

Sheng Wang

Sheng Wang
27 Eldridge St., New York, NY 10002
(212) 925-0805
While the decor of Sheng Wang may leave much to be desired, the noodles do not. I recently took a trip off the beaten track to this hand-pulled-noodle spot with a friend who has lived in China many times. He suggested the Fujian style noodles, after hearing friends rave on and on about its authentic cred. The two types of wheat noodles served — lamian strand spaghetti style and dao xiao mian peel noodles — hold up alongside the flavorful broth and my friend gave them two thumbs up for the authentic preparation. While you are slurping up noodles and peeling your elbows off the vinyl tables, take a look to the back of the shop and watch the chefs make fish balls and pull the epically long strands of noodles on site.

 

Red Egg

Red Egg
202 Centre St. NY, NY 10013
212.966.1123
Red Egg fills a much needed role in the world of Chinatown cuisine – a tasty restaurant that comes with a sophisticated decor and clean tablecloths. Sometimes you find yourself craving delicious Chinese food, but you are in the company of friends or family who may not be quite as gung-ho about “authentic” culinary experiences that often include basement restaurants with plastic tablecloths. Instead you want a well shaken cocktail and a relaxing ambiance with your vegetable wonton. Red Egg is the perfect place. Red Egg employs a classic Chinese menu and ups the ante. It embraces the dim sum style, while still offering up mouthwatering plates of Peking Duck, General Tso’s chicken and filet mignon.

 

Vanessa’s Dumpling House

Vanessa’s Dumpling House
18A Eldridge St, New York, NY
(212) 625-8008 ‎
If you are looking for a sweet dumpling fix, but don’t have a lot of change in your pocket, head over to Vanessa’s Dumpling. This well-known Beijing-style dumpling house offers four chicken and pork dumplings for only $1.00! And even with such a low price tag, they hold up to their “pot-stick” name with just the right amount of soft, chewy, and slightly crunchy textures. I must say, I cannot vouch for much else on the list, as I have never known anyone to visit Vanessa’s and purchase anything other than dumplings. I know it has happened, as they have a much larger menu with many other options that differ from dumplings. But really, who would be crazy enough to not just scarf down a couple of orders of dumplings and feast like a king for less than the price of a subway ride?
NOTE: Insiders know that one of the ways that Vanessa’s keeps the cost low is by watering down their soy sauce. So I would advise bringing a packet or two of your own.

 

Shanghai Cafe Deluxe

Shanghai Cafe Deluxe
100 Mott Street, New York NY 10013
While interactive soup dumplings are often not for the serious eater, they are quite a fun and tasty experience. My first time slurping soup dumplings was actually during an initial meeting of Abbott & West, where Kate and I hashed it out over a few too many plates of soup dumplings and beef and broccoli. But thank goodness for the sustenance, for that was the night that we came up with our namesake — Abbott & West! But all personal biases aside, Shanghai Cafe Deluxe is the best known soup dumpling place in town, and that is no small feat. The dumplings are freshly rolled and steamed to order and provide a tasty little pocket of flavor perfection. Way better than some of the other over-hyped soup dumpling places in the area.

 

Chinatown Ice Cream Factory

Chinatown Ice Cream Factory
65 Bayard Street NY, NY 10013
(212) 608-4170
While it may seem counterintuitive to satisfy your sweet tooth in Chinatown with something other than fortune cookies or lotus cakes, don’t worry about being too “westernized” at the Chinatown Ice Cream Factory. The ice cream parlor holds down local cred with twisted flavors like red bean, taro, black sesame, and zen butter. And as it is a family run operation that has been scooping out sweet treats for almost three decades, the Factory is definitely a neighborhood institution.

 

Dumplings

A Few More Ideas…

A few more places in town to whet your appetite:
**Full disclosure, my fabulous friend and Chinese food aficionado Christine Kim helped me put this list together.

A-Wah
5 Catherine Street NY, NY 10038
(212) 925-8308.
Specializes in Bo Zai Fan (loosely, “clay pot rice” in Cantonese). Think Korean bibimbap meets Chinese food. No frills.

Xi’an Famous Foods
67 Bayard Street New York, NY 100133
Specializes in the Xi’an style (Middle Eastern meets Chinese). It’s cheap and a favorite place for lots of famous Chinese/Asian chefs in NYC.

Yunnan Kitchen
79 Clinton St., New York, NY 10002
212-253-2527
Specializes in food from the Chinese Yunnan province. Think small plates of wild mushrooms, cured ham, and edible flowers. Yunnan borders Vietnam, Myanmar, Laos, Sichuan, and Tibet, so don’t expect “traditional” Chinese.

Great N.Y. Noodletown
28 Bowery NY, NY 10013
212-349-0923
Lives up to its name with expertly prepared Cantonese cuisine. Cheap and VERY no frills.

 

Images by  amesis and christine_w_wei  via Flickr Creative Commons.

COMMENTS
  1. oh, nom wah! so good! for dumplings i also love tasty dumpling on mulberry just south of bayard. equally cheap (i think you get 5 for $1), and the spicy cucumber salad is not to be missed! and for vegetarians: buddha bodai, where you can get all of the traditional dim sum meat-free.

  2. Shelby Martinolli said on April 2, 2013

    Asian food is every bit as diverse as it is delicious. I used to think that I knew Asian foods growing up. You see, we used to go out to Chinese and practically every weekend. They were a couple Chinese restaurants in the neighborhood, and they were perfect for us kids. They were greasy, flavorful, and we got a cookie at the end of every meal. What more could a child ask for?:

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Harbouring a serious sweet tooth and keen eye for composition, Nora Chovanec is an artist, designer, food justice advocate, pie maker, and avid cyclist living in Brooklyn. She is also the co-founder of Abbott & West and co-host of The Innocents Abroad.