Our guide to Manhattan’s Chinatown, let’s call him G, is a mysterious character. Having worked undercover in the neighborhood for some years in a capacity he prefers not to reveal (FBI? Narc? NYPD?), he knows the area well. He’s a gruff, slouchy kind of guy, with a distinctive outer-borough honk, and one’s instinct is to trust him immediately.
"You know why Chinatown has more banks than any other part of the city?” he asks when we meet him on the corner of Canal Street and Lafayette.
We shake our heads in ignorance as we notice that savings-and-loans do indeed abound.
“Because the Chinese, more than any other culture, are great savers. And banks are not stupid.”
As we venture toward Mott Street, into the heart of Chinatown, G points out a display of all-gold baubles in a jewelry store. “This is for the bride to wear at her wedding banquet,” he explains. “Whenever she changes clothes, she puts on more jewelry. Generally the jewelry stays within the family, but close relatives will buy her even more loot.”
We stop at Yunhong Chopsticks (50 Mott Street; http://nymag.com/listings/stores/yunhong-chopsticks), which carries every conceivable variation on these utensils, made from bamboo to sandalwood to ebony, priced from about $2 to $600. I can’t resist browsing for a while, taking note that these would make great wedding or shower gifts, but Dave quickly shows signs of boredom.
As we stroll by one of the many ubiquitous pastry shops, G enlightens us as to why so many of these confections look French but don’t taste that way. The Chinese love pastry but they generally make theirs with Swan’s Down cake mix, he claims. At the ineptly named Manna House Bakery (27 Catherine Street), we drop in to sample the goods. According to G, the place tears through about 50 pounds of butter and 24 dozen eggs a day. It’s a modest little spot, with lines snaking outside the door on weekends, says G, but the ridiculously underpriced pastries (from 60 cents to $1.50) are worth the trip. Try the pineapple buns or egg-custard tarts, whose “diminutive crust flakes into buttery shards under your teeth, and the jiggly soft custard tastes purely of eggs and sweet milk,” raves the Village Voice. And that’s no overstatement.
IF YOU GO: Take any of several trains to Lafayette and Canal. Good maps and more info at http://www.nychinatown.org/canal2.html