SF Bay Area
Food and drink that has us seeing gold
“Should we go in?” asked a man, middle-aged with a sort of unknowing hesitation that signaled him to be a tourist. I was loitering outside Deluxe—the hybrid Chinese market/butcher and food court that stretches from Elizabeth to Mott in lower Manhattan—waiting for a friend and clapping the flaky dust of a chicken curry puff from my hands.
The man’s more adventurous wife had noticed the crowd inside (usually a sign of something worth investigating) or perhaps the delicious whole roast ducks hanging in the window (or both) and began tugging on his vest, urging him along.
“Absolutely!” I said, siding with her. The man ceded, albeit nervously. I smiled, assured of something I’d suspected and the real reason I wanted to write this at all.
Deluxe Food Market (79 Elizabeth St), which is one part traditional Chinese grocer and butcher, and another part bustling food court and bakery, can feel chaotic, even intimidating at first blush. The narrow market with entrances on both ends is rarely not packed with people, shopping and eating, and as far as I can tell, has no discernible “slow times.” What it lacks in the cushy comforts of newfangled food halls, however—with their neon signs and vaulted ceilings—it supplements with a neighborhood’s worth of charm and plum-roasted duck so good and cheap, it ought not be legal.
Deluxe is one of a small collective of food stores and markets of varying sizes and specialities called Deluxe Food Market Inc. in Manhattan’s historic Chinatown. It’s the largest of the small group and teeters on the northern boundary, where the neighborhood abuts Little Italy. Deluxe is both the largest and busiest of the small chain, overseen by DFM Inc. president Ka Che, and unquestionably my favorite.
The unassuming entrance on 79 Elizabeth, with its slim red awning and faded sign, vaults you into the market’s food court—an attentively managed series of counters offering traditional Cantonese foods. Scattered about are high tables for standing and eating but quarters are tight and, weather permitting, I’d suggest taking your haul down one block to Columbus Park.
To the immediate right, upon entry, is a quiet juice bar with a menu boasting under-juiced fruits like honeydew and watermelon and a range of tapioca smoothies. I’ve not myself had one and was told it’s not “much of a draw” but look closer and you’ll find containers of deep-fried walnuts (among others) glazed with honey. The perfect protein-packed snack for now or later.
One counter down, Deluxe’s bakery chops are on display both of the sweet and savory sort. Shiny buns filled with pork and red bean paste are gone almost as fast as they’re brought out and buttery pastry puffs of curry chicken and beef can be eaten on the spot, or brought home and warmed.
An ever-changing assortment of sweets might include green tea cookies, lotus cake, or egg tarts, on any given visit. If you see something you want, politely wriggle your way in, fight for eye contact, and point hard. There are definitely no numbers and rarely an obvious line.
Just behind, on the opposite wall, is Deluxe’s wok/steam station with stir-fried meats, noodles, and veggies. Mostly pre-cooked, this food is boxed in combination with others or in bulk to be taken away for a fast, cheap lunch. It comes out often and rarely sits under the glowing heat lamp for long.
There’s almost too much to choose from and English is very much a second language, so be prepared to rely on sight, smell, and somewhat erratic labeling to decode and decipher. Some dishes here seem to be given more care than others but favorites include sauteed garlic bok choy, whole prawns, scallion pancakes, and some of the largest pan-fried dumplings I’ve ever seen, served with hoisin to dip.
A pace down, back toward the entrance on the same side, you’ll find men with large knives, doling out roasted meats. This is the reason you’ve come here. Piles of slow-cooked pork, beef, and other meats rest, lacquered with soy glaze as whole ducks hang; crackling skin taunting hungry onlookers from behind the glass.
“The braised beef shin, roast pork, and Peking-style duck are the absolute best in the neighborhood” exclaimed a young girl on a recent trip, when pressed for her suggestion.
After selection, the meats are laid out on a spectacular cutting board made from one solid tree trunk round and cleaved into manageable pieces with the effortless precision of a seasoned barber giving a hot shave. Try all that you can, while you’re there, but if you miss the meats at Deluxe, well, you’ve missed Deluxe.
Like most places in New York, but especially Chinatown, don’t expect an excess of breathing room, and if you idle anywhere long enough in a place where it’s not sanctioned, expect a nudge to help you along. Chinatown, in general, moves at an even more bustled clip than the rest of famously fast Manhattan, and people here seem to have only two modes; leaning (often with cigarette hanging, mysteriously hands-free from mouth), and moving fast. Very fast. This is simply the speed of life here, so take no offense. You are just visiting. Adapt.
If you stand (cautiously) in the market long enough, a rhythm begins to emerge. Mobs form around stations as trays of food are pulled from ovens and roaster, beckoning you and others. Heed the call. This is a place patronized almost solely by locals and their stomachs are well-trained.
Deluxe has been nourishing the people of Chinatown for more than two decades with traditional food at comically low prices (by any city’s standard). Though by no means the oldest in a neighborhood, which settled mid 1800s, it is one of the busiest and its patrons are fiercely loyal. A friend named Wen Wen, whom I met once while browsing the aisles, has been frequenting Deluxe since she moved to the city from Taiwan 2o years ago and shares my enthusiasm.
“There’s nothing that compares to this place. Everything they sell is fresh and flavorful, especially the vegetables. If something from produce doesn’t sell in a day, that’s it, they send it to the wok station and the low prices have made it a hub for the neighborhood, especially for older folks who don’t have money for eating out. Not to mention the best duck in Chinatown!”
On the grocery & butcher side of the corridor, down two steps and just past the produce nook, where workers in white hats sling bok choy and mushrooms, another world of exotic meats, fresh fish, and handcrafted dim sum await.
A wall of tanks is home to live crabs, lobster, and fish, like Marble Goby and Striped Bass. If one is not careful, they might accidentally kick a bucket of eels or bullfrogs, sitting on the floor and also for sale. Wen Wen assures me bullfrog is a delicacy most Americans are completely missing. She likes them wok fried with ginger.
Dressed and seasoned raw meats are another speciality of the meat market. Bright, marinated salmon, sole, and thinly sliced beef are sold by the pound and go fast, daily. Another favorite of Wen Wen’s, who’ll just drop them into a pan with vegetables on a weeknight for “dinner in 15 minutes.”
Other, less familiar meats, like severed alligator arms and black chickens, curiously nicknamed “Big Silky,” might elicit curiosity, while feet and innards from multiple animals (for sale by the pound) illustrate the Chinese’s propensity not to waste what can be eaten. If smell and sight tests matter, and they should, Deluxe passes both with flying colors and sheer volume of customers help keep quality control at a premium.
Perhaps best of all are the free-standing cooler cases down the middle with literal mounds of perfectly uniform chicken wontons, shrimp shumai, and other traditional dim sum, made locally and packaged to be prepared easily at home. Another example of quality and value intersecting at an astounding rate and something to keep stocked in my freezer as consistently as ice.
Food adventures in Chinatown are nothing new, but for visitors have been largely often relegated to the old dim sum parlors and dumpling houses of Travel Channel fame. Deluxe offers a similarly traditional, tasty, and eclectic food experience fit with a charming peak into the daily lives of the nearly 100,oo0 residents of one of New York’s staple neighborhoods. Overwhelming at first? Perhaps. But all you need here is a plan and a little patience. And an appetite, of course.
I’ve often wished I had my very own version of Deluxe in my grocery-starved Brooklyn neighborhood, to more easily stockpile frozen dim sum, marinated fish, and giant dumplings. I think of all the delicious 15-minute dinners I could make and honey-glazed walnuts I could snatch up at a moment’s notice, but upon further consideration, I think I’d end up missing those trips to Chinatown, and seeing my friends.
Header image courtesy of Craig Calefate.