Manhattan's Chinatown is already pretty crowded on weekends, so imagine what it's like when 50 restaurants offer food samples for $1-2 a plate. The threat of rain didn't seem to deter anyone from venturing downtown today for a Taste of Chinatown.
I took my lead from Gothamist and headed straight for Mott St.; walking from Canal, it took me about ten minutes to reach Tearrific Café, my first stop. At this point, it still wasn't raining but a dance was taking place in the middle of the street. People were shoving each other impatiently, but if they had taken a deep breath and looked up, they would have seen a bright blue dragon head swaying in soothing circles. Patience is the spice of life.
I got a plate of fried appetizers from Tearrific for $2. I liked the savory, crispy edges of the fried vegetable dumplings and will go back soon for a plate of these. The spring rolls were pretty bland, so I skipped these and finished off the shrimp toast. It started to rain so I took my first taste into a corner and watched a woman paint the name "ALLISON" on a sheet of paper. Rain had gathered on the edges of her tent cover and tumbled suddenly onto the pavement. Some of it splashed onto her paper and smudged one of the letters.
I continued walking down Mott and picked up some more dumplings and chicken skewers (delicious!) along the way. Most places have an abundant supply of dumplings, noodles, and spring rolls, but if you're patient, you'll get a taste of more elaborate treats. At Pecking Duck House the line for the duck was at least a block long. It moved briskly, and the generous portion of duck they served for $2 more than compensated for getting completely soaked. I also enjoyed my plate of fried tofu and rice at Silkroad Mocha Cafe. The rice was remarkable: a mix of various grains of rice with flecks of diced peas, carrots and red peppers (fresh not frozen) and a splash of lemon.
The real special treats, like sauteed shrimp in pumpkin sauce (Sweet-n-Tart) and Peking duck (Pecking Duck House) run out fast, but at 4:30PM several places were still bringing out more food. My last stop was Buddha Bodai, a kosher restaurant at the end of Mott, where one of the vendors was calling out "Tsimchoni!" (Hebrew for vegetarian). At this point, I was so stuffed that I could go no further. I brought home a taste of General Tso's (vegetarian) chicken and green tea sticky rice balls to savor later. You do fill up quickly on a few tastes, so my advice is to go very easy on the dumplings, spring rolls and chicken skewers and wait in long lines—the food at the end is worth the wait.
Robert Sietsema reviews Super Taste hand-pulled noodles, on Eldridge. Recommended by Sietsema, after the place was recommended to him by Calvin Trillin? You know I am so eating there sometime in the next week, right? Hand-pulled noodles with beef + pork dumplings, bring it on.
(Mike King of Twenty Bucks a day visited Super Taste recently and enjoyed himself, saying "score one for the cheapwads!")
NYC Nip and Squirt. A Full Belly patron saint Robert Sietsema reviews Mott Street's two-year-old Shanghai Café: "The most expensive ($6.95 for 8) features pork and a larger wad of crab than has ever been found in a juicy bun before. Sans crab, the dumplings are two dollars less, and I don't know which to recommend, since each is equally good in its own way. A third type cloaks gravy and pork in a doughier dumpling, fried crisp on the bottom like a pot sticker. The squirting grease will still kill you." Sounds like my kind of place! When I'm in Chinatown I almost always eat at New Green Bo, but I'll give Shanghai Café a shot next week.
I checked out the Nolita joint two weeks ago and they do seem to serve the same ice cream as Chinatown—the black sesame and mango I tasted seemed the same, as did the coconut I eventually and inevitably ended up getting—so I really don't understand what's going on.
NYC Durian Ice Cream at Chinatown Ice Cream Factory. If you've ever been to Southeast Asia for a good length of time, your nose is probably familiar with the horrible terrible no good smell of Durian.
Just how nasty does this fruit smell? So bad that airplanes will not let you travel with it in your luggage, hotels have signs saying please do not bring it back to your room, and in Singapore it's actually illegal to bring it onto public transportation. And yet devotees like my own mother swear that once you've gotten a taste of the incomparable durian creaminess, you immediately stop noticing the odor. I can't imagine that ever happening to me, but if you consider yourself culinarily adventurous then by all means get yourself to the Chinatown Ice Cream Factory and try the durian ice cream out.
(I was there the other day and couldn't work up the nerve to try it, taking it as a bad sign that the durian wasn't stored up front along with the other flavors. But maybe I will be stronger next time.)
NYC This Sunday, June 5 from 12 to 4 p.m. check out the free Egg Rolls & Egg Creams Block Party being thrown by the Eldridge Street Synagogue: "Celebrate the two cultures, Chinese-American and East European Jewish, that make our Lower East Side block so dynamic. Experience the traditions of the Synagogue's founders, as well as the customs and crafts of the Chinese immigrants who are our neighbors. This family-friendly event features storytelling, craft demonstrations, hands-on art activities, great music and, of course, kosher egg rolls and egg creams!" It's events like this that really make you appreciate living in such a melting pot of a city.
NYC Some of you may remember me posting about last month's Taste of Chinatown 2005, in which over 50 restaurants, bakeries, tea houses and specialty shops in Chinatown offered tasting plates for just $1 each. Despite the rain I went down to Chinatown and met up with some friends to see what the various places had to offer, my pocket full of singles and my belly uncharacteristically empty.
I missed last year's event so I have nothing to compare this year's to but I thought it was a real mixed bag. A dollar per serving is a wonderful price point and I hadn't been to any of the places participating before, so Taste of Chinatown could've introduced me to many new great tastes, but that's not quite what happened. Each restaurant should've taken the event as an opportunity to put their best foot forward, to offer small portions of some of their best dishes up even if they lost a little bit of money on the day itself as a temporary loss leader, to make new customers out of people who might never otherwise step through their doors. From what I saw though most places decided not to go this route and offered basic items you can get from every other restaurant in the neighborhood (not to mention the greasy takeout places all over the city), like noodles and fried rice; smacked of cheapness and was to me a bad marketing decision.
Now that I've got my little diatribe out of the way: I went around trying lots of different things, taking heed of which items the people who were clearly regulars were purchasing. I ended up doing most of my eating on Mott! Here are some of my notes, with links to photos:
They had lots of dimsum out but by far my favorites were the fried dumplings, both pork and shrimp. I went back for a second helping, making sure that my friends tried their wares too, and I will return to try a full meal.
House of Vegetarian
I'm a dedicated carnivore but I really enjoyed the two desserts from HoV, the surprisingly delicate fried banana and the very light, very refreshing mango pudding. (Their hot & sour soup is supposed to be very good, for those of you who are strict vegetarians and had given up on ever having some again!)
Rude service plus both things I tried, fried dumpling & fried tofu, were nasty. Two thumbs way down.
Everything I sampled from Ping's Seafood was just fantastic. I usually avoid chicken at Chinese restaurants but the spicy chicken on my plate was great, extremely hot but you could still taste all the underlying flavors. The real revelation though was the chow fun, none of my companions had ever had chow fun that looked anything like their chow fun and we couldn't get enough of it, we still talk about it a month later! I'm returning to Ping's later this week and will be sure to order it, and also to follow Gastronome-In-Training's recommendation to always sit upstairs, where the carts are more active.
Peking Duck House
Talk about your temporary loss leader, Peking Duck House's tasting plate was actually Peking Duck! And they didn't exactly scrimp on the servings either. So as you can imagine the line was extremely long, at least 30 minutes or so. I was tempted to approach someone near the front of it and offer to pay for their serving if they would get one for me too but chickened out and ended up not having any, but you can bet I have plans to dine there sometime soon.
This place is right beside A Full Belly all-time favorite New Green Bo so I've walked by it many times and never even so much as glanced at the menu, but it was getting cold out and congee seemed like a good way to warm up so my friend Miranda and I decided to split a tub of what turned out to be lovely hot congee with century eggs and super salty pork. I'm happy to have an alternative for those days when I fiend for congee but getting to Congee Village on the LES feels like too much of a chore.
NYC Taste of Chinatown 2005. In case you don't have it marked on your calendar yet, tomorrow (Saturday) April 23 from 1 to 6 pm, over 50 restaurants, bakeries, tea houses and specialty shops in Chinatown will be offering tasting plates for just $1 each. Even if (especially if?) you have regular haunts in the area between Canal & Worth and Baxter & Bowery, this is a great way to discover tasty cheap eats. I mean, come on, ONE DOLLAR! You can't go wrong!
NYTimes: Much better — astoundingly good, in fact — are what the menu calls fried clams ($5.25). They aren't really fried, by the way, but cooked quickly in their shells and served with crisp slivers of aromatic garlic, nuggets of minced pork and cilantro.
As a general rule, an Asian restaurant devoid of Asian customers indicates one of two things: the restaurant serves mediocre Asian food, catering to an unadventurous palate; or the restaurant has received rave reviews and is considered a safe bet. Both thoughts crossed my mind when we entered Chanoodle and I realized I was the most Asian customer present. Fortunately, we found the reviews to be accurate and enjoyed a tasty and affordable meal. We'll have to return another time to check out the $1.50 breakfast.
79 Mulberry St.