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.


Sassnor Sculptor said...

It is refreshing to treat New York City as a backyard. All those nooks and corners – some small, some large – some should become known outside of neighborhood – although I am sure the current “attendees” won’t like it. Who would have ever thought that the Big Apple still holds the charm of a tiny wild flower growing in a hidden corner.

Ann said...

Hi, Jason: I had to drop the blog for a while because of a six-week virus that robbed me of my legs and appetite. We're heading out to Brighton Beach tonight, and will probably do another trip, so let me know if you're interested in joining us. I also need to post a couple on Manhattan's Chinatown. Stay tuned.