Early this morning I decided to write a post for "Not About Food" on the challenges I face when trying a new restaurant in Manhattan's Chinatown. The purpose would be to find out if these things are unique to Manhattan or if it's the same across the country. So I sat down to write and the post ended up longer than I intended. But the point is the same. Please, reader, tell me if things are the same where you are. I'm especially interested in Monterey Park and also the bay area.
" Do you ever get the feeling that there's something going on that we don't know about?"
-- Timothy Fenwick (Kevin Bacon) in "Diner" (1982)
I usually end up eating dinner in Manhattan's Chinatown. It's the high point of my day, always rewarding, and sometimes the reward is unexpected -- and not only the food. Last night in a nearly deserted restaurant on the gritty eastern fringe of East Broadway, a party of drinkers were engrossed in loud and blustery conversation. The waiters were eating what looked like a banquet at a nearby table while an obnoxious little boy -- one of the waitresses' sons -- ran all over, throwing a paper airplane someone had made for him. It was like a genial family gathering, and for a short while I felt part of it.
Always rewarding, rarely easy, never boring. Chinatown dining is like a Chinese box... boxes within boxes within boxes and if you look at it you won't even know it's a box at all. Here are some of the boxes, some of the secrets.
"Please, could I have the other menu?"
" I gave you the menu"
". No, the other menu. The one in Chinese"
" There is no other menu"
"There it is, those little books near the register."
"That's not a menu."
Of course those little books really are menus, written in Chinese only, with all the good stuff on them. To spare myself this dialogue, I usually grab onto a menu (it's usually near the cash register) and hold on for dear life. They might try to tug it away. Once they see me order and use the menu, everything changes. Everyone hovers around, excited, friendly, asking questions. Where did you learn Chinese? Have you been to China? What cities? At one restaurant, the Chinese menu was written on the wall and I ordered from it. The place was packed and everyone applauded.
If celebrity chef Mario Batali quit his restaurant and set up shop in a pizzeria in Brooklyn, it would be front-page news. Chinese celebrity chefs hop from place to place all the time, and outside the community no one knows. In fact, I don't even know who the superchefs ARE, except of course for movie-star-handsome Chen Ping Hui, owner of Ping's. But when a top chef leaves a banquet hall, the quality of the food plummets. And, since I don't know that the cast has changed, the understudy now the star, I have no idea why the food went south. The last thing the restaurant owners would do is tell people their star has left the building.
Of course if you walk in to one of those cavernous, bustling banquet halls and order a dish, the celebrity chef won't cook your food. The order probably will go to the least experienced guy in the kitchen. You may leave underwhelmed, wondering how the next table got such dazzling dishes.
"No, you can't come in here, you're not Chinese!" It was a tiny dive on Eldridge and the waiter was hustling me out. I replied in Chinese, saying how much I wanted to try Fujianese food. "Let him stay, he speaks Chinese!" shouted the people at the other tables. And they did, and showed me to the best table.
Usually, restaurants are more subtle. They hide. Often in plain view. About four years ago while strolling through Chinatown I blundered upon a restaurant that served the best Chinese food -- by far -- that I have ever encountered. Under the Manhattan Bridge, this cavernous banquet palace was totally hidden from the street and the only reason I found it is that the first week it was open, they had a huge banner on East Broadway. I have eaten there about twenty times and never saw a diner who was not Chinese.
They're not set up for casual diners. It is primarily a banquet hall. It is usually given over to wedding receptions -- boisterous, fun, lively, but about half the time I went, I couldn't get in. Sometimes there'd be a tiny part of the hall, screened off, for walk-in diners. Once or twice, after they got to know me, they'd sneak me in to a reception. And what a joy that was! There would be act after act of entertainers: Peking opera, costumed dancers, comedians, Taiwanese rock singers with dancing. Even when I was behind the screen, I could hear the action and wished I was part of it.
And the food. It was the only Chinese place I've encountered that was incredibly creative but worked within tradition. (Most Chinese places that try to be creative go overboard and feature shrimps with mayonnaise or ham and cheese with spaghetti.) One entree was perfectly cooked eel steaks of the plumpest juiciest eels I've seen served atop a bed of fried candied apples! It was a bit sweet, but the sweetness and the salty eels worked in harmony and given a bit of tweaking and this dish could be served to applause at Jean-Georges. Another was a version of a seafood casserole I've had in other places (one Chinese character has three tiny squares, another has a horizontal line, meaning number one) but infinitely better. A big clay pot with a little burner under it. In the pot, bubbling in a rich, thick brown sauce that varied in thickness so you'd in effect have several different sauces, were slices of good-quality abalone, beef tendons, chicken feet, tiny puff pastry balls filled with what tasted like pate, scallops, all perfectly cooked, reclining on a bed of fresh spinach leaves. Every time I left that place, I'd be planning the next visit. I haven't been there in two years but I can still taste that eel, see those swirling dancers.
[the account of the secret restaurant is adapted from a post I made to the Manhattan board last December]
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