Wednesday, May 11, 2022

In New York With The Kardashians and Lots of Unremarkable Chinese Food

Well first the Kardashian part.  Once in a while we get a glimpse of a Kardashian, or really a glimpse of a crowd of people looking for a Kardashian.  Back in 2010 we were celebrating my birthday at Katsuya, on the corner of Hollywood and Vine.  We arrived for an early dinner to beat the crowd, but when we finished dinner there was an absolute mob scene outside.  As we waded our way through the crowd of paparazzi and fans we saw that one of the power couples of the day, Lamar Odom and Khloe Kardashian were coming into the house.  


Needless to say it was quite a while until the valet came with our car.  By that time the crowd had gotten significantly larger, and as we drove off a car arrived behind us.  As we drove off, we decided to drive around the block and in front of Katsu-ya again, where we saw that someone was getting out of that car amidst a frenzy of activity.  We actually didn't see the person, but it was clear that somebody was making their way into the restaurant.  We found out from the next day's TV tabloid shows that it was Kim Kardashian alighting from the vehicle that had been behind us.

All this is prefatory to my account of last week's visit to Manhattan and the food I ate there.  For more than 15 years I visited Manhattan two or three times a year, mostly on business.  But having retired in 2018, and with the intervening pandemic, it's been four years since I last visited Manhattan.   Consequently, I was eager to revisit the Chinese food scene in Manhattan to see what was new, and hoping against hope that something better may have opened up in Manhattan in the interim.  (Since this was only a four night trip, there would be no opportunity to visit Flushing, where the Chinese food is much better.)

Of course, most of the time spent in New York was playing tourist, attending Broadway shows and traveling around Manhattan.  I wanted to see the Steinway Building, the world's skinniest skyscraper at just 60 feet wide, but because of the cloudy weather we didn't come close to seeing the top of the building from any vantage point.  But bordering the south edge of Central Park, that took us to 59th Street.  Walking across the street from Central Park, we saw this massive crowd blocking the sidewalk, as well as a slightly smaller crowd directly across the street.  We asked somebody in the crowd what was going on and she said the people were waiting for someone famous to come out, but she didn't know who.  We then walked around the crowd in front of what turned out to be the Ritz Carlton and asked the doorman at an adjacent building what was going on.  "Kardashians."  Enough said.  Like us, the Kardashians had arrived in New York from Los Angeles, though their visit was more purposeful.  This was the family headquarters for that night's Met Gala.

As I have written many times in the past, Chinese food in New York has been clearly a major cut below that in California, going back probably to the 1990s.  A major factor is that Chinese food in America continues to improve due to a combination of new Chinese regional cuisines arriving on our shores, as well as the creation of new dishes, because Chinese love their food so much that everyone is looking for newer and better dishes.  However it takes forever for these dishes to reach New York.  For example, two of my favorite Chinese dishes, Shandong beef rolls and fish dumplings, came to Los Angeles around 2005.  I couldn't find either of these in New York until probably five years ago.  Likewise, new, creative types of dim sum, like crispy baked bbq pork buns came to California around 2015.  But the only reason you can find any at all in New York is that the inventor of the dish, the Tim Ho Wan chain out of Hong Kong, opened a Manhattan branch in 2018.  The crispy baked bbq pork bun is my very favorite Chinese dish,  and surprisingly I did find one other version of this dish in New York, at Awesum Dim Sum near Times Square.  This was the first version of the bun I didn't like; in fact it was terrible.


You can multiply the list of cutting edge Chinese dishes in California that you can't get in New York (not even Flushing) many times over.  Most dim sum items in New York date back to the 20th century.  And while a large number of Mainland Chinese based restaurant chains have opened up in California, just a few have opened up locations in New York, adding to the New York Chinese food deficit.

This is not to say you can't get a good Chinese meal in New York, particularly in Flushing.  Over the years there have been a number of outstanding Chinese restaurants in New York that I've liked.   But they have all seemed to have closed down, with the last three, Hakkasan, La Chine, and Joy Luck Palace not having survived  the pandemic.  So in comparing the complete body of work between California and New York, there is no comparison.

This trip to Manhattan was meant to catch up on restaurants that have newly opened since my last visit, so by design I wasn't looking for the best food available.  Consequently the description of the food on this trip as being mediocre needs to take this factor into account, as I was not looking for the best meal available, and was only in Manhattan.

First stop was Tonii's Fresh Rice Noodles on Bayard Street in Chinatown for chicken cheung fun.  I was surprised to see the new style soft stone ground, wrinkly rice noodle brought from Guangzhou and Hong Kong, rather than the old traditional Cantonese pig intestine type roll.  There's also a branch of Guangzhou's Yin Ji Cheng Fan on the block, so Manhattan is up to date on rice noodle rolls.

A couple of doors down from Tonii's is Kong Sihk Tong, a Hong Kong style cafe.  The rice noodle logs with peanut sauce was very interesting.  

The most heralded new restaurant in Chinatown is Uncle Lou, started by a Chinatown old timer who decided to go into the restaurant business and concentrate on old time favorite neighborhood dishes which may have faded from the food scene.  I took a quick peek at the menu before leaving Los Angeles and it seemed interesting.  The buzz around Uncle Lou has been deafening with the restaurant crowded most of the time.  So, arriving for dinner at 7:30pm, it was not surprising to see the restaurant at near capacity.  What was surprising, though, was that only half of the patrons were Chinese.  I later learned that Uncle Lou received rave reviews from Peter Wells in the New York Times and Eater New York.  It was also surprising that I had difficulty in finding a couple of dishes to order for a light dinner.  We ended up with the snow pea leaves, which tasted OK but was tough, and the pork belly with mantou buns which was also OK but on the soft side with nearly melted pork fat. (Insta-potted?)  


Still puzzled by the lack of selection when I went back to the hotel room, I checked the menu I had looked at in Los Angeles and it was much more extensive.  Sure didn't look like the menu being circulated in the dining room.  Maybe they cut down on the menu selection to manage the level of activity.  But even if I had other choices, I kind of wonder.  Given than the issue with New York food is that it's behind the times, would having other throwback dishes have led to a more enjoyable meal?  I don't know.

The other new heralded Chinatown dining destination was the Mott Street Eatery, New York Chinatown's first Flushing style food court, still in the process of being leased out.  Flushing's food courts are full of very good eateries and I could spend a week sampling Flushing's food court food.  Mott Street Eatery?  Not so much at this point, though we were too early in the morning to try a couple of the more interesting sounding stalls.  


The food court currently is dominated by 89 Eatery (the reverse of the 98 Mott Street address), serving Cantonese noodles, dim sum, and other Cantonese specialties.   We ordered the wonton noodles.  It was awful.  The broth was like dishwater and even pouring soy sauce in didn't make it palatable.  And the noodles were soggy.

Meanwhile, the bolo bao from Zhen Pin Cafe was equally tasteless.


Only the fish paste tofu from Yan Wo Dou Bun was any good.


Another one of our NY Chinatown favorites that closed after our last New York trip was Sing Kee Seafood on Bowery.  It's replacement, NB Wing Wong, is highly regarded, receiving mention in Resy's Guide To Manhattan Chinatown.  (Having authored a piece for the corresponding Resy guide for Los Angeles Chinese food, I take the Resy guide seriously.)  Stopping by for jook one morning, the pork with salted egg jook tasted like, well, salt water.

One real highlight was at Green Garden Village, where after ordering a beef cheung fun, they actually prepared it within sight!  Not an extraordinary tasting end product, but I was happy.

The problem with dim sum in Manhattan Chinatown is that most of the major purveyors, like Jing Fong, Golden Unicorn, Nom Wah and Ping's have been around forever and are short on innovation.  Even the most inventive dim sum restaurant, Dim Sum Go Go, has been around almost 20 years.  One newcomer which is not talked about, and draws a large neighborhood crowd is Seng Seafood on East Broadway.  Their fish balls compare favorably with what I'm used to in California.

And I did find a little dim sum innovation at E-Noodle Group, which serves mostly noodle soup but also has a few dim sum items.  This jade har gow looked great and tasted very good, too.

Another new restaurant was New Hong Wong on Bowery.  This was the interesting sounding eel with rice casserole.  Unfortunately the rice was not cooked enough and gave Mrs. Chandavkl extreme indigestion, though the flavor was good.

The beef chow fun was pretty good, but the noodle itself was reminiscent of the old style noodle which is a little less smooth, a little less chewy, and not translucent like the noodles we are used to.

Another new interesting restaurant was 95 Grand Master on Chrystie Street.  We were especially intrigued by the white board special outside listing carp in black bean sauce, so we ordered it for $48.  The owner said that the center section with the stomach was a favorite with all his customers, so we took his advice.  Maybe his client base liked the stomach, but we sure didn't, as it wasn't meaty.

So he offered to replace it with the tail section which was very meaty.  But while the tail was meaty, it wasn't flaky.  It was probably undercooked.  Also not terribly flavorful.

However the Chinese broccoli with lap yuk was pretty good, and 95 Grand Master might have possibilities.

One thing I had no problem with was the Chinatown bakeries.  Tao Hong on Christie St. had the best pineapple top bbq pork bun I had ever eaten, and their egg tarts are the best in New York Chinatown, too.  And incredibly it's probably the cheapest bakery in Chinatown with this bun going for $1.50.  Another amazing thing is that Tao Hong is located in the same building as Wah Fung #1, which probably makes the best mass produced char siu in the United States.  Two gems side by side on the little known Chrystie Street in Little Fuzhou, the non-touristy portion of Manhattan Chinatown east of Bowery.

Also all the sandwiches at all the Chinese bakeries, made with water roux, which makes the various pastries at the Chinese bakeries so smooth and creamy, were great.  Here's the fish sandwich from Bake Culture, the Taiwan based bakery chain on Bowery.

A chicken sandwich from New Kamboat Cafe on Bowery.    Really good baked bbq pork buns and Macao egg tarts, too.

And the best of all, the fish sandwich from Double Crispy, which also had a nice selection of pastries including raisin buns, apple turnovers and lemon buns.

All in all it was a successful trip which enabled me to get back in touch with the food scene in New York Chinatown.  While the food there isn't the greatest, having eaten at about 450 different Chinatown New York restaurants over the years, I've gained a level of comfort eating there which makes up at least in part for the lesser quality.