For me, Chinatown is New York's biggest treasure, an unending source of wonder and delight. Walk along Mott St south of Grand or East Broadway near Chatham Sq, and join the throngs of people strolling past outdoor vegetable stands and live fish markets, and you'll feel closer to Canton or Hong Kong than to SoHo and Greenwich Village. The people around you do.
Yes, New York has five Chinatowns, two in Queens and two in Brooklyn, and immigrants who work hard and earn enough move out to one of those. But they always feel a special attachment to the original Manhattan Chinatown and return there to shop, stroll and above all to eat. A meal in Chinatown is a very special thing; it's a chance to immerse yourself in China. I used to want to eat in every restaurant but there are just too many. Each time I eat in a new place I pass two or three places I hadn't seen before. Finding the best food at a restaurant can pose unusual (and interesting) challenges. For why, see my post. http://www.chowhound.com/topics/show/...
Chinatown wasn't always this way. Forty years ago it was much smaller, and a bit forlorn. For a bit of history, see my post: http://www.chowhound.com/topics/show/... Most of the immigrants came from Taishan, near Hong Kong. Today, you can find people -- and food -- from every region of China. Still, most of the restaurants in Manhattan's Chinatown serve food from the Hong Kong/Canton region. Here's a post describing one such restaurant and the food you will get there. http://www.chowhound.com/topics/show/... I love those casseroles! You can also get fresh whole fish, steamed to bring out the best flavor. Though most people think of Chinese food as stir-fried, much of the best, like the fish and the casseroles, never sees a wok. It's steamed or cooked in a clay pot. Most of the sauces are clear and simple and accentuate the flavor of the food. Not all, though; black bean sauce has a rich, complex flavor caused by fermenting soybeans, using as much care as with a good wine.
Some good restaurants for Cantonese food are
Cantoon Garden 22 Elizabeth St
New Big Wang 1 Elizabeth St
Chatham Sq Restaurant 9 Chatham Square
and the restaurants in this post: http://www.chowhound.com/topics/show/...
All of these restaurants are relatively simple. There are others, some of which specialize in big elaborate banquets for weddings but also serve the casual diner:
Chatham Sq Restaurant 6 Chatham Sq. (totally different from the other place of the same name)
Ping's (run by celebrity chef Chuen Ping Hui) 22 Mott St
Grand Harmony 98 Mott
Oriental Garden 14 Elizabeth
East Ocean 53 Bayard St
Oriental Food 103 Mott
Jing Fong 18 Elizabeth
Cantonese isn't the only food available. The newest immigrants to Chinatown are from the coastal province of Fujian. Traditionally the most outward-looking province, its immigrants went to Manila and Bangkok centuries ago.In New York, though, they are the most recent arrivals and the poorest in Chinatown. They use wine a lot in their cooking, and make a bright red sauce from the lees. Most of their restaurants are concentrated around East Broadway and nearby Eldridge St. For a description of a very unusual one, see this post. http://www.chowhound.com/topics/show/... Some of their shops on Eldridge St serve superb handmade noodles in soup. You can watch the chef kneading the dough and making the noodles. Here's a description: http://www.chowhound.com/topics/show/...
There are also several restaurants serving food from Shanghai and the rich region to the south. They are best known for their broth-filled dumplings, but I prefer the fish. They serve whole yellowfish (a relative of croaker fish) in one of seven ways: steamed, braised with a rich brown sauce, served with a savory spicy sauce, braised with a West Lake vinaigrette sauce, served in a casserole, made into breaded fillets, served fried with a sweet and sour sauce. I usually order the brown sauce (it's called red-cooked in Chinese). You can get this yummy sauce with other things as well: with pork shoulder for example, or with pork belly. This last dish is perhaps the oldest recipe in the world, first written down a thousand years ago by a famous Chinese poet. See http://www.chowhound.com/topics/show/...
Some Shanghainese restaurants are:
Joe's Shanghai 9 Pell St
Joe's Ginger (same owners) 25 Pell St
Yeah Shanghai 65 Bayard St
Shanghai Gourmet 57 Mott
Shanghai Cafe 100 Mott
Shanghai Cuisine 89 Bayard
There are so many restaurants in Chinatown! But it's hard to go wrong. The restaurant that is the worst on the block would, in most other cities, be by far the best in town. And half the fun is the exploration.