Wilson Tang’s Take on the “Myth of Chinatown Restaurants”

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This article was written by Wilson Tang, who owns the Nom Wah Tea Parlor, Chinatown’s oldest dim sum restaurant, and Fung Tu, a new spot on Orchard Street.

A couple of weeks ago, New York Magazine restaurant critic Adam Platt took on the “Great Chinatown Myth,” arguing that the old neighborhood’s “dining scene has been stuck in neutral for years.”  Those are fighting words for a guy like me, who now owns two restaurants in the Chinatown/Lower East Side area and has been eating in local Chinese spots for most of my 35 years. But even I have to admit Adam’s got a point.

In all honesty, restaurants in Manhattan’s Chinatown aren’t as inventive as they could be; most are not using the freshest ingredients; and kitchen staffs are often not as focused as they should be on quality. There are a few reasons for this. At the top of the list is gentrification. High housing prices and small business operating costs are sending both residents and restaurant owners flocking to Flushing & Elmhurst in Queens and Sunset Park in Brooklyn.  The other big problem is that the best food in Chinatown tends to be out of reach unless you speak Chinese.  It’s true, in this tight-knit enclave, language barriers still exist and YES there are secret menus that you don’t know about because you can’t read Chinese or communicate with the staff! Unfortunately, most restaurants don’t educate their servers about talking about the menus in English, so unless you’ve got a Chinese friend, you’re missing out on the best this neighborhood has to offer.

Chinatown remains incredibly diverse as an Asian dining destination.  Most foodies dwell on dim sum and soup dumplings because it’s what they’ve read about on Chowhound or Yelp.  But there is an array of ethnic cuisine represented here, including Malaysian, Thai, Vietnamese, Taiwanese, Cantonese, Shanghainese, Fujianese and even Japanese! I’d encourage you to dig a little deeper, bring a Chinese friend along with you, if possible, and try something new!  Cantonese cuisine in particular has deep roots in the neighborhood.

Here are some of my top choices for Cantonese food in Chinatown:

YEE LI, 3 Elizabeth St. — Don’t come expecting exceptional service, but the food is delicious. It’s a noodle joint/BBQ place/banquet-style restaurant all-in-one. They have great roast pork with crispy skin. The duck is excellent and you can even get roast goose if you order in advance. Different rice dishes, sauteed vegetables and casseroles (salted fish and chicken is my favorite) can be ordered throughout the day for lunch and dinner. But for dinner, you can eat like a king. Steamed fish, fried flounder, lobster in garlic sauce are all good. They even have a special banquet-style menu (in Chinese only) that starts as low as $198 all the way to to $398 for a table of 10.

PING’S SEAFOOD, 22 Mott St. — Mr. Ping was actually a friend of my pops, So I have been going to this place for years. They do have stuff that is not on the menu, especially on the seafood end, so knowing some Chinese is helpful. This is a dim sum joint by day and a banquet-style spot in the evening, serving traditional Chinese dishes. The dim sum is good but dinner is better. You will see all the fresh seafood in the tanks as you walk inside. For dinner, I love starting with cold jellyfish lightly coated with sesame oil, always a steamed fish with soy, ginger and scallions, dungeness crabs and a fried t-bone and noodle dish. Perfect for banquet style dinners, too, with set prices.

SING KEE, 42 Bowery — This place offers some of the best classics in Cantonese dining. You can call in advance to special order dishes not on the menu. Pre-order the winter melon soup or black chicken and ginseng soup. They usually have a few different Chinese vegetable options to choose from, but my favorite is either the sautéed watercress with preserved bean curd or water spinach with preserved bean curd and chilies. There’s always frog or Chinese eggplant casserole, but if they have live frogs from Taiwan, the protein dish always beats out the vegetarian. They make a great Chinese fried chicken and the steamed dungeness crab with garlic sauce over a bed of ho fun noodles rivals the way my chef at Nom Wah makes it when we have a special celebration.

There you have it, Mr. Platt.  Come on back to Chinatown. You’ve got a standing invitation from me for a personal tour of this great neighborhood of mine. We’ll go experience the places with special menus and chat it up with the owners and staff. I’ll even take you to a great place for dessert afterward.

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  • Brian Kerk

    Love Ping’s, much more creative than most Cantonese places, though I find the chef spend most of his time at the Elmhurst location. His warm jicama salad with crispy fish is amazing, one of my favorite dishes in NYC of any cuisine. I don’t speak a word of Chinese and I get by just fine there!

  • RimaLES

    Even when I go with Chinese friends to restaurants in Chinatown (quite often) I am underwhelmed by the food. Yes, they order from the so-called secret menus, but it’s still not that good. Flushing is the place for really good Chinese cuisine.

  • brainqueef

    just tried sing kee for the first time. their deep fried flounder w/ginger and scallions is the tits.

  • http://www.informerly.com Informerly

    Great list and agreed with a little discovery, you don’t need to make the trip out to Flushing!

  • bx

    Taiwanese?!? Which restaurant in Chinatown?

  • zuosa11365

    Excellent Pork Chop House – Chinatown – New York, NY | Yelp
    http://www.yelp.com › Restaurants › Chinese‎
    Yelp, Inc.
    Rating: 4 – ‎329 reviews – ‎Price range: $329 Reviews of Excellent Pork Chop House “The soul food of Taiwanese food, some Lu Rou fan, and fried Chicken/Pork chops! I live in Fidi and trust me, having …
    Leong’s Legends – Chinatown – London | Yelp
    http://www.yelp.com › Restaurants › Taiwanese‎
    Yelp, Inc.
    Rating: 3.5 – ‎63 reviews – ‎Price range: ££Not the best (I still think Old Tree has got it beat, in terms of Taiwanese food inChinatown) but enough to satisfy. I really like their Coffin Bread – which is …
    Taiwan Café – Chinatown – Boston, MA | Yelp
    http://www.yelp.com › Restaurants › Taiwanese‎
    Yelp, Inc.
    Rating: 4 – ‎481 reviews – ‎Price range: $481 Reviews of Taiwan Café “Scallion pancakes are killer! … In my experience with Chinese food in Chinatown, you can get these same dishes somewhere else …

  • hardtofind

    I would much prefer Hop Lee on 16 Mott Street. We have been going there for years and years. The price is a little higher, but all waiters speak English and are courteous. Service is fast. Manager(s) would greet politely.

    True, you must know what you want to order; this is true in every restaurant. But you can’t go wrong with the fried flounder and lobster Cantonese style, and they are not on ‘secret menu’.

    I am surprised neither Hop Lee, nor Wo Hop is on Mr. Tang’s list.