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.