Having gone to college in New York, I am a veteran of all the standard Canal Street haunts students rely on for cheap and filling meals: Moon House, Nice Green Bo, Excellent Dumpling House, etc. Inspired by a Serious Eats posting, I decided to venture out of my comfort zone into the unknown territory around the B/D Station on Grand and Chrystie to find a whole new adventurous Chinatown I had not yet encountered.
Grand & Bowery Street Cart: I wanted to give my Mandarin (and finger-pointing skills) a practice so I headed to the cart parked at the Northeast corner knowing I would not have the luxury of an English version menu. I nervously approached the vendress when she called out to me in Chinese but relaxed when after I stumbled through my rehearsed Mandarin she asked "Uh, what do you want?" In an adventurous mood, I ordered cheong fun rice crepes with beef tripe. She reached into a steaming pot to fetch loose streams of white noodles which she cascaded into a small container with a ladle-full of tripe. Sliding through an array of bottles, she dressed the noodles with various soy sauces, chili and sesame paste and handed me the heavily-laden package. While there was not much tripe in my container, the noodles and dressing were phenomenal. I would've liked a little more of the sesame and dark soy, as I thought the combination was ingenius with the tripe, but for $1.75 I'm not complaining.
Wah Fung No. 1 Fast Food, Inc.: The line outside reached two doors down by the time I emerged from this steamy storefront. And for good reason. My small roast pork over rice was a generous treasure chest of sweet, unctuous pork: the char siu that all roast aspires to, the ur-meat. The crunchy, caramelized bits were the best part, and I put them to the side for a final treat as I greedily lapped up the saucy portion of rice and cabbage left after I had inhaled my pork strips. The plump quarters of soy sauce chicken and whole sides of roast pork with crackling caught my eyes as I walked out the door already contemplating my next visit.
Yogee Noodle: This Cantonese restaurant was totally filled with Chinese patrons all ordering variations on noodle soup. Wilting in the humidity, I couldn't fathom soup and decided to try other offerings. A crunchy appetizer of deep-fried tripe was the perfect starter: like a Pringle made out of meat. On a subsequent visit, however, the tripe arrived as fried red-cooked intestines which tasted none too pleasant once they got cold. Ma Po Tofu was a decidedly Cantonese take on a Szechuan classic, but offered a pleasant flavor of its own. Slightly spicy and slightly sweet, it didn't rely on the salty flavor of doubanjiang, but rather the fresh taste of vegetables to bring the dish together. Lamb with bean thread casserole was a hearty and greasy dish of fatty chunks of lamb swimming in brown sauce with tofu skin. With a little more scallion and chili, I could live on this alone. The whole pan-fried flounder was a perfectly executed masterpiece. Crunchy and firm; briny and sweet, the fish was an interplay of contrasts. The simple dressing of soy, ginger and scallions was just enough of an accent to make the fish interesting without masking the wonderfully fresh taste of its flesh. In true Asian fashion, our table argued over who got to eat the collars and who got to eat the face.
Grand Bakery: In the mood for mooncakes we stopped in here for a few treats. Nothing was very exciting. The sesame balls were far too thick and chewy for my liking and offered a disappointing dearth of black bean filling. The mooncakes came packaged and mislabeled such that my lotus paste-filled mooncake turned out to be a dry winter melon-filled disappointment.
Mei Li Wah: An old favorite for buns. As long as I was in Chinatown, I couldn't leave without picking up a few siopao. This batch, however, was my first disappointment with Mei Li Wah, the filling a little drier and less prominent than I'm used to. My friends didn't notice and happily ate up their first tastes of siopao. I decided to also try the sesame balls sitting on the counter and was pleased to finally find sesame balls with that crunchy exterior that pleasantly contrasts with the soft and chewy middle. From the inside flowed a yellow paste that appeared to be lotus but tasted like yellow bean paste. Were they to use black bean paste, I would happily surrender myself to morbid obesity on these treats.