Chinatown treats and tastes? This insider knows best
“Dong lai ta,’’ I shout to the woman behind the counter at crowded Wong Wah Bakery, my neighborhood go-to iced tea spot. Noella knows I like iced tea with milk because I’ve been coming here for the 13 years I’ve lived in Chinatown. She even taught me how to order in Chinese. With an insider’s take on Chinatown’s restaurants, food markets, and bakeries, albeit with a Westerner’s point of view, I can steer the throngs of tourists that pass my building to a snack, a dinner, a drink.
If they are looking for something to fill them up before leaving town on one of the many bus lines that serve the area, I tell them to head around the corner to Prosperity Dumpling on scruffy Eldridge Street. There are bike messengers and locals here at lunchtime lined up at the takeout counter for hot, cheap dumplings, five for $1. If you want to sit at one of the five bar stools, stop by in the early morning or post lunch. Go for the juicy, handmade pan-fried chive and pork dumplings first, then the warm sesame pancake or a hot and sour soup. Nothing costs more than $5 at this out-of-the way spot, and some make the trek for just that reason.
Up a couple of blocks is dessert in the form of cream puffs. You might miss this minuscule spot if you walk too quickly, but backtrack, for nowhere else in Chinatown will you find classic French pastries. Yvette Ho, owner-baker at Panade Puffs & Pastries, grew up in the area and left her job as a schoolteacher to bake. She landed here four years ago by choice and a rental ad on Craigslist. She makes the pâte à choux and cream by hand. Don’t miss the puff with either green tea or vanilla cream with slivers of banana. There are savory puffs as well: plain, cheese, herb, ham and cheese, and rosemary.
Bold flavors, peppercorns, and chili peppers . . . these are reasons to eat at Grand Sichuan. Ordering here is straightforward: The best choices are those denoted with a red chili pepper on the menu, like the wonton with red chili oil, or the prawns in Sichuan sauce. But the fiery chong qing hot pot is the real lure. It is popular with large groups and comes with a choice of two broths, spicy or chicken; order half and half so you get some heat without being overwhelmed. Choose from a long list of ingredients: meat and/or seafood (beef, scallops, shrimp, duck tongue, tripe, and more), vegetables (taro, lotus, tofu, seaweed knots, mushrooms, winter melon, and many more), all of which you cook in the simmering hot broth that’s placed over a burner on your table - plus a dipping sauce like sha cha, sesame paste, or peanut.
Malaysian cuisine has many culinary influences - Indian, Thai, Chinese, and Malay - clearly evident at the always-bustling Nyonya. Come here with hungry friends, for there is much to order and share: roti telur, a pancake filled with egg and onion and served with a fragrant curry dipping sauce; Mee siam, rice noodles with chives, egg, and shrimp in a Thai chili sauce; pan-fried baby oyster omelet; curry spareribs; and seafood tomyam rice noodle soup in a spicy and sour lemongrass broth.
Another spot for Malaysian is tucked away in an easily missed alley called the Chinatown Arcade. At New Malaysia order the asam laksa, a spicy and sour lemongrass soup, mango prawns that are served in a mango shell, and for dessert, Singapore ice with ice cream along with a Malaysian hot coffee that’s thick, strong, bitter, and tempered with sweetened condensed milk.
I discovered the Peking Duck House when it was a dive, years before it was renovated and the white tablecloths and waiters in black suits made an appearance. But the house specialty, Peking duck, remains the same. Dab plum sauce onto a warm pancake, layer on warm, crispy duck the waiter slices tableside, pile scallions and cucumber on top, then wrap it up. This interplay of tastes and texture - sweet, crunchy, greasy, chewy - washed down with a Tsing Tao, is a treat.
There is a Häagen-Dazs in the neighborhood, but you can buy pints at any corner deli so skip it. Instead, head half a block away to the Chinatown Ice Cream Factory. Even in winter, there is often a line snaking out the door with tourists and locals pining for flavors that captivate: Zen butter, taro, black sesame, durian, coconut, and ginger. For those with less adventurous palates, there are vanilla, coffee, mint chip, and butter pecan.
If you’d like to buy your own ingredients to take home, the groceries at Hong Kong Supermarket (Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Thai, and more) are astounding: Aisles and shelves are stocked with noodles of all sorts; large bags of rice; a huge variety of dumplings and buns, sauces and condiments like sriracha, hoisin, peanut, and fish; teas of many flavors; and snacks such as shrimp chips, edamame beans, and dried wasabi-spiced peas. This is one-stop shopping.
Any visit to Chinatown should include a walk down winding Doyers Street for its otherworldly feeling and the sense that strange things have happened here, and indeed they have. This street was once called “Bloody Angle’’ because of its 90-degree turn and its violent past: battles, gang wars, and opium dens. These days, you can safely end your day with a visit to Apotheke, an unassuming bar.
When you step into what appears to be a Chinese restaurant (the sign outside reads “Gold Flower Restaurant’’ but it is in fact a lounge), you’ll feel like you’re in a 19th-century European apothecary, complete with a marble bar lined with colorful elixirs and potions. The lush, theater-like interior is a dramatic contrast to the outside world.
Apotheke buys many of the ingredients - jasmine tea, lemongrass, lychees - at nearby shops for the homemade emulsions and botanicals used in its intriguing cocktails. End your day with a Deal Closer, which includes local Chinese aphrodisiacs, or a Five Points, made with hibiscus, New York State unfermented grape juice, and Chinese herbs - a small tribute to the rich history of this vibrant neighborhood.
Tracey Ceurvels can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.