Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Manhattan's Chinatown (1)

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;, 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

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Chinatown in Brooklyn

I’m not going to spend a lot of time on Brooklyn’s Sunset Park Chinatown because, frankly, I found the streets filthy and, for the most part, the restaurants uninviting. As Dave later noted, if Flushing’s Chinatown bears a resemblance to Hong Kong, Brooklyn’s enclave is closer to a provincial city. There are the usual little markets offering giant oozy clams and live crabs and exotic (to us) fruits and vegetables, and a branch of the Hong Kong Market described in an earlier blog, but this one is much less spic’n’span and has the woeful down-at-the-heels ambience of a struggling food co-op.

On our first trip, we stop at a tiny dumpling house off 8th Avenue (it is called, simply, “Dumpling House”) for Chinese vegetables and pork fried dumplings (four for $1) and a sesame pancake with beef ($2). With a couple of diet Cokes, you have a five-dollar lunch for two, and it’s reasonably tasty if not particularly inspired.

On a return visit, we decide to try a Malaysian restaurant, Nyonya, whose spare bamboo décor vaguely conjures up a tree house in Southeast Asia. We order a bunch of appetizers at random: achat (picked vegetables); chicken satay; and something called Nyonya lobak, which is a trio of fried spiced pork rolls, fried tofu, and a fried shrimp pancakes, served with hoisin and plum sauces. Everything is superb, especially washed down with a couple of Tsingtao beers, and when we see puffy pancakes floating by on their way to other diners, we order one of those too. Known here as roti canai, these are somewhat like Indian poori, and come with a soupy curried chicken dipping sauce. You eat the thing by tearing off big chunks and scooping up the gravy, a messy but satisfying carb-and-grease delivery system.

The restaurant rapidly fills up with locals, among them a family with three adorable and charming small daughters, and I realize once again that half the fun of Asian restaurants is watching these wonderful groups, often encompassing many generations, enjoying themselves in a way I’ll bet Anna Wintour never does at the Four Seasons.

On a return visit with a date a couple of weeks later, I’m not quite as smitten. We order a whole red snapper in a Thai sauce, a bland fish overwhelmed by the red-hot preparation, and a dish of sautéed frogs with ginger and scallion. I’m expecting a kickline of delicate little joints like you get when you order frogs’ legs in a French restaurant, but these are hacked into bits with annoying bones that have to be plucked out with each mouthful.

If Malaysian food appeals to you, my suggestion is to try the Nyonya branch in Manhattan’s Little Italy:

Of course, if you’re traveling with Dave, you’ll always see some interesting sights, such as this guy making hand-pulled noodles, so the trip is never totally a waste.

IF YOU MUST VISIT: Easiest access if via the N train from Times Square to 8th Avenue in Brooklyn. Trip time averages 40 minutes.