Like many New Yorkers, I take pride in having a list of “off the beaten track” food establishments I hit on a regular basis. This is practically a cliché: it seems like every old schooler knows where to find what they consider “the best,” whether it’s pizza, bagels, cannolis, pickles, Italian sausages, burgers or perogies. Younger folks’ lists include items such as tacos, ramen, banh mi and soup dumplings. When pressed, some of us will even admit that we “discovered” many of our favorite places on a friend’s recommendation.
In that spirit I decided to check in with my buddy Peter Ho this week. Peter is an ardent food adventurer; a man after my own heart who has tipped me off to a number of neighborhood places over the years. He’s also a regular at Clandestino (the bar at 35 Canal Street), often bringing samples of his latest discoveries to share with patrons and staff. I figured it would be fun to ambush him there, ply him with a glass of wine and share his latest enthusiasms.
At 7 p.m. on Friday, I found Mr. Ho seated at Clandestino’s bar, a glass of red, a piece of double crème brie and a demi-baguette from Pain d’Avignon set before him. He immediately offered me a small slice of bread smeared with cheese, which I happily accepted. Right off the bat we were comparing notes on neighborhood places. He was surprised I had not mentioned Lam Zhou (144 East Broadway) in my article about cheap eats near Eldridge Street. He thinks they have the best noodles around, though he agrees with me about the fish balls at Sheng Wang (27 Eldridge St). He singled out Super Taste (26 Eldridge St) for their hand-pulled noodles with pork bones. (You suck the marrow out of the bones while eating your noodles and broth, leaving a pile of them on the table as you eat). The bones are particularly good there, according to Peter Ho.
Eventually our conversation ended up where it frequently does: Chinese BBQ, particularly roast pig. I love soy sauce chicken, roast duck and char siu (BBQ pork), but there’s something magic about simple crispy skinned roast pig when done well. Peter told me his favorite place for roast pig had just closed. I said he ought to hit my favorite place, Hsin Wong (72 Bayard St). That’s when he dropped a bomb on me: that was his favorite place as well! I just hadn’t heard of the recent closing of this long time Chinatown favorite. Peter told me he used to watch the piece of roast pig in the window, taking a walk around the block if necessary, until the coveted middle two ribs would be the likely next cut. Then he wound enter, quickly placing his order so that particular cut would be his. I like to think I’m hardcore about pork, but this dude’s got me beat.
Shocked at our losing a favorite restaurant, I offered New Big Wang (1 Elizabeth Street, now called Yee Li) as a possible replacement. Peter agreed this was a good suggestion, pointing out that the chef and a number of the waiters were Hsin Wong veterans. I remembered the BBQ in the window (including the roast pig) being good; Peter remembered the cuttlefish particularly.
He also suggested Tan Wong (in English the name is New Wong, at 103 East Broadway) as a good spot for some BBQ or a quick meal. He couldn’t argue with their roast pig over rice. I countered with Big Wong (67 Mott Street) as a possibility, to a lukewarm response from my companion. Noodle King (19 Henry Street) was my next recommendation – a well respected spot for BBQ. Peter was sure their Chinese name was something-or-other Wong; his mother had recommended the place to him.
“Do you know the rumor about Chinatown restaurants with Wong in the name?” Peter asked. I replied: “I know it means Prosperity, but I don’t know about any rumors.” The rumor is that all restaurants with Wong in the name can be traced back to Big Wong through business relationships (usually ex-employees). To illustrate this Peter pointed out that a former Big Wong waiter is now one of the principals behind Tan Wong. I’d heard the owners of Hsin Wong used to be somehow involved with Big Wong. It‘s a simple formula: modest places will attract a following if they‘re known for good BBQ and associated with the name Wong.
Of course a Wong in the name is not the only way to find good roast pig in Chinatown. But if you’re in the mood for some, and come to a place with a window full of Chinese BBQ, look up at the name. If you see the following character, Prosperity, the odds are probably in your favor:
Our talk of roast pig and Chinese BBQ culminated with Peter’s suggestion for a splurge: a whole roast baby pig to take out from Wing Shoon (156 East Broadway). They’re one of a handful of places happy to do this given enough advance notice. The cost varies by the size of the pig, but Peter figured a ballpark cost somewhere around $150. “Have you actually done this?” I asked. “My uncle did,” was his reply. A baby pig is really only enough meat to feed a small dinner party or family; 4-6 people, unless you’re rationing. So this would be a splurge indeed. But man, what a splurge! I think I have a plan for my 44th birthday meal…
JP Bowersock is a professional musician and music producer who has toured the world repeatedly, eating at top restaurants and hole-in-the-wall joints. He is a serious home cook with over two decades’ experience cooking for family, friends and fellow rock and rollers. Mr Bowersock keeps a toe in the wine business as well, consulting for the wine lists of several neighborhood establishments, including Clandestino, 35 Canal St. When not on tour or in the recording studio he’s scouring the neighborhood for frugal food finds.