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Off the Menu - A New York City Sampler

by Harley Spiller

Chinese Food in the USA

Fall Volume: 1996 Issue: 3(3) page(s): 7 and 8

Manhattan’s Chinatown on the Cheap and Little Shanghai Redux. Yes, Manhattan's Chinatown dining is not what it used to be. In the past fifteen years, Asian food purveyors have spread throughout this borough of New York City, concentrating around the original Chinatown but expanding south to the Brooklyn Bridge and north to Spring Street, river to river. Chinatown is no longer confined to Manhattan.

Chefs and gourmets are setting up all over the borough of Queens, especially in Flushing, Jackson Heights, and Elmhurst. Brooklyn’s Bay Ridge used to be an Italian and Scandinavian neighborhood; today it boasts major Asian, Soviet, and Arab populations. An even newer Chinatown in this borough, once home to the Dodgers, is rapidly developing along Avenue U around Gravesend. Staten Island and the Bronx, the other two boroughs of New York City, are still awaiting their Chinatowns.

Despite the burgeoning population and large number of successful enterprises in Manhattan’s Chinatown, it can be tough these days to find excellent fare hard by Mott Street. Older superstars like Kuan Sing Dumpling House and Little Shanghai Restaurant disappeared without a trace. Small family street carts have given way to homogenous dumpling fryers. Even the big dim sum houses have lost steam.

On the ever-changing food map, though, some standouts remain. Vegetable and fruit markets are more exciting as once rare items like baby snow pea leaf, mangosteen, and cherimoya become commonplace. Fish and meat seem more abundant and fresher. A stroll through the heart of the oldest of Gotham’s mighty Chinatowns yields inimitable Canal Street characters gleefully chomping 'dawgs wit mustid,' but they are missing out on scores of fabulous ready-to-eat Chinese treats.

Let’s take a look at dozens of delectables, all under $5. Also included are suggested markets. Let us know what you think, and advise of other great finds!

On Manhattan's Spring Street cusp of Chinatown and the Lower East Side, the 202 Mott Street Rice Shop; phone: (800) 378-0191 has been serving blue plate lunches to the working class for nearly a decade. Timid? Try fried shrimp or spiced scallops over rice, or any of the ninety-two tangy and bounteous rice dishes on the menu ($3.00 to $5.00). Adventurous? Ask simply for fish or meat. These daily specials are the true Chinese dishes for the seasoned palate. There is nothing American about them except the tin fork and the Buffalo China. Strong and intensely-flavored specials vary greatly according to season. They can include spicy sliced pig’s lung with pickled mustard green; steamed ground pork with pungent preserved fish; Hakka-style shredded salt turnip with fatty pork; or sauteed freshly ground fish cakes with lavender Asian eggplant. Tell 'em 'Harley sent ya.'

Need quick sustenance? Step right up to the steam table at Grand Sausages; 198 Grand Street, and take out a small tin of Ajak ($2.99/lb.), a cold Malaysian salad with cucumber, pineapple, carrot, lemon, bean sprouts, hot peppers, sesame and more; or Beancurd Skin stuffed with fish paste ($1.00 for two rolls). Alternately, chew all day on a small but long lasting bag of wet spicy Beef Jerky ($15.00/lb.) from Dried Beef King; 89 Bayard Street. Celestial versions of the classic Chinese Pork Chops on Rice dish include the extra thinly-sliced barbecued pork chop, along with shredded pork and steamed egg cake with white rice ($5.00) at the ever-consistent Nha Trang Vietnamese Restaurant; 87 Baxter Street (this cuisine is a kissin' cousin, they say). Or you can find succor in the Taiwanese version ($3.75) at May Wah Fast Food; 190 Hester Street where it is tucked away. Be sure to ask them to add a tea-smoked egg for just 50 cents to the creamed pickled greens that come with your rice plate. By the by, May Wah is their English name--the Taiwanese names translates as 'Pork Chop King!'

Roast Duck and Rice Congee are beyond reproach at Big Wong; 67 Mott Street. Yum cha (drink tea) for free with Sui Jing Bao (elegant 'water steamed' packets of sweet pork, vegetable, and more) or Gao Choy Bao (chive-shrimp-rice 'pucks') at Dim Sum House; 31 Division Street. A steaming crock of Chicken Ginseng Soup at Yuen Yuen Snack Shop; 61 Bayard Street, scares colds away. Their rice plates are simple, cheap, and succulent.

Other great soups can be slurped at Bo Ky Pho; 80 Bayard Street, but you will have to wait because a fire swept through their building on June 19th. No one was hurt and they say they will re-open soon. Curry Seafood Soup with gan cham noodles is quite savory, and Bo Ky’s Beef Belly with Flat Egg Noodles Soup has a little belly, a lot of meat, carrots beyond compare, and a broth so dense and rich that they only fill the bowl halfway.

Greaseless, light, and feathery Chow Fun (broad rice noodle $3.50 to $4.25 per quart) is unsurpassable at WKYT; 85 Christie Street’s immaculate restaurant--also try their Foochow Yanpi Wonton in soup ($3.00) and the enriching Seafood Noodles Soup ($3.25). It is no wonder that this gracious family has been busy ever since they opened back in the 1960's. Be on the lookout for their new and enlarged restaurant/bar opening in 1997--the Year of the Fox.

Broiled Dumplings ($4.75), including bouncy watercress and shrimp packets, are proffered until late at night at the newly discovered Sweet-N-Tart Cafe; 76 Mott Street. Hurly-burly at 266 Canal Street, and Hop Koon’s proximity to the subway makes for mean waiters and a hot kitchen. Tasty rice plates like Squid with Pickled Vegetable have built a dedicated clientele who know that prices and portions are on the money here.

Thanh Vi Restaurant; 137 East Broadway operates a steam table with a choice of three Malaysian dishes over rice for the fabulously low price of $2.75 including tax--their curries, stews, and steamed eggs are winners. For a unique dessert try Tong Shui (double-boiled fruit refreshers) at Sweet-N-Tart. It’s your chance to take in a local foodstuff, the ginkgo nut that you read about in Flavor and Fortune's first issue of Volume 3. If you do not have this number, send $5.00--there are a few left, and I personally will guarantee that price through 1996.

Shopping for home? Buy all kinds of poultry at 123 Mott (easy to remember) where the freshest of ducks, chickens, and amazing pork products are prepared to order by a knowledgeable staff. Mr. Bill at Lien Phat Seafood and Meat Market; 227 Grand Street, is a seafood man deluxe. He knows the names of all the sea critters in many languages, and provides excellent cooking tips. A great selection of less common vegetables is usually found at their green market next door. Special Vietnamese herbs are in fragrant abundance year-round at Thuan Nguyen; 84 Mulberry Street and the best overall prices and selection on packaged goods seems to be offered across the street by Chinese American Trading Company; 91 Mulberry.

Look for specials at any and all of the local markets, and especially keep your eyes peeled for older Chinatown residents sitting curbside with small quantities of, perhaps, rose apples mailed by cousins in Johor, or dumplings or joong (rice packets wrapped in lotus leaves) made and sold by a long-married couple.

Little Shanghai on East Broadway always sizzled, even though it could seat no more than three dozen people This tiny kitchen turned out a miraculous array of bonafide Shanghai standards, and drew consistent crowds of regulars ever since their opening in the late 1970's. They knew just how to please New York’s international palate, from mild to zesty, from sweet to sour. Feisty vegetarian, seafood, meat, and noodle dishes included reasonably priced standouts like fresh Blue Crabs, either spicy and raw or wok-fried in black bean sauce; Crispy Orange Beef, and Vegetable Steamed Dumplings. Then Little Shanghai was gone. Closed without a word. The faithful were shattered.

Years later a friend spotted a restaurant named Little Shanghai in Brooklyn but had not had time to check it out. Could it be? Have faith, o ye of little faith. It is bonafide. Forced out by increased rent, the same owners opened the new spot, Shanghai Redux in Bay Ridge in 1994. A spacious and air-conditioned room now seats some eighty diners. The God of War and Goddess of Mercy watch over the restaurant from their altar and it’s all pink and grey with jazz muzac, live plants, and etched mirrors depicting carp frolicking in a lotus pond.

The new menu is slightly Americanized but the food seems exactly the same, if not a touch better. The prices remain low. All the dishes from the old place are served in addition to a few newcomers like Peking Duck in a variety of courses ($10.95 to $24.95). Everybody now gets deep-fried noodles and duck sauce, ice water to start with, and individually wrapped fortune cookies for dessert. The waitress noticed that I didn't touch the fried noodles or the duck sauce and said, “you do not eat this one?” I made a face and she said “I take away--it is no good.” They still accommodate many different palates at Little Shanghai.

Recommended dishes include pungent Hot and Sour Soup ($1.45), crispy Tangerine Beef ($8.95), super hot Sizzling Platters, big fat noodles piled four inches high ($4.25 to $6.50), Doong Goo Chow Ning Goa, which is mushroom with pan fried, thick rice noodle cakes ($4.75), Seasonal Vegetables such as dow mew (snow pea leaf) or fu yi ong choy (water spinach with a spicy fermented tofu sauce). I suggest that you slurp some salted Soy Bean Milk ($1.25), a wonderfully healthful pick-me-up with sliced cruller, droplets of chili oil, scallion, creamy tiny soy curds, tiny dried whole shrimp, and pickled mustard cabbage--it is savory through and through.

Appetizers (Shanghai style dim sum) include seven delectable varieties of dumplings; crisp and chewy Scallion Pancake with Egg ($2.25); and more. Special cold dishes are also listed as appetizers. It’s easy and fun to put together a well-rounded light meal of three or more of these distinctively Shanghainese delicacies. Vegetarians and others take heart when the dense, sweet nuggets of Wheat Gluten with Bamboo Shoots (and black 'wood ears') is available. They and everyone can also savor cooling Lima Beans, juicy Sweet and Sour Cabbage, dense Seaweed, and other healthful, animal-free snacks for only $3.00.

The nod for the best cold Shanghai dish goes to the thinly sliced strips of Pig’s Ear. Heavily spiced, the ear takes on the texture of corned beef--how in the world do they eliminate the cartilaginous crunch? Other standouts include Smoked Fish ($3.75), Aromatic Beef ($4.50), and lightly Steamed Chicken that has been cured for days with wine. The most fascinating preparation is the boneless Duck Foot with Celery. The waitress deboned them herself at the rate of about one a minute and she guaranteed them 100% clean. A tad funky, but there’s no denying that the crunchy web contains the rich essence of duck.

Little Shanghai continues to please all kinds of diners. On East Broadway their clientele was divided evenly among Chinese and non-Chinese patrons, but now their customer base is sixty-five percent Chinese, thirty-five percent non-Chinese. As neighborhoods evolve and tastes change, it is comforting to know that Little Shanghai’s management is resilient and resourceful. Their bounteous selections of healthful and deeply flavored food are back, so run to catch the very next N train to 8th Avenue and enjoy this newest Little Shanghai; 5405 Eighth Avenue; Brooklyn, NY 11220; phone: (718) 438-2000. They are open Monday through Thursday 11 to 11, Friday and Saturday from 11 to 11:30, and Sundays from 10:30 to 11 at night.
Harley Spiller, a food lover whose international collection of over 6,000 Chinese menus has been featured on CNN Headline News and National Public Radio, as well as in the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, and the South China Morning Post, he will travel to Tokyo for Flavor and Fortune so look for his forthcoming 'Off the Menu' column about the nuances of Chinese food in Japan.

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