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Sunset Park: exploring the Other, other Chinatown

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Sunset Park: exploring the Other, other Chinatown

Iron Frank | May 20, 2003 01:19 AM

I realize I'm a bit late in the game but it was really exciting to discover the more subtle charms of Sunset Park's Chinatown. Less hustle and bussle and more of a calming and livable place. While I've been been eating on the same tired, well worn paths in Manhattan's Chinatown Sunset Park has been developing as an emerging player in the Chow scene. Two distinguishing characteristics about the Sunset Park scene I noticed are it's large selection of Chinese bakeries (especially for such a relatively small neighborhood) and it's prevalent Vietnamese community.

Truc Mai is a bright, tidy, and welcoming spot on 7th Ave filled with pleasant surprises. The staff was extremely helpful in choosing what to order and we were able to avoid the usual linguistic comedies of error. A computer printed list of "special" appetizers on the wall appear to be a semi-permanent fixture but were indeed special to me nonetheless. An order of spring rolls appeared to be out of season sporting a translucent shell reminescent of it's cooler summertime cousin. The surprise was revealed on first bite as a minced pork filled, fried springroll was hiding in it's core, surrounded by crisp lettuce and wrapped in rice paper. Another appetizer came atop a banana leaf and resembled the most delicately prepared Cantonese dim sum. A clear, glutinous rectangle made of rice paste proudly displayed it's filling of baby shrimp,eggyolk, and some tiny chips of fried garlic. Rice paste was also used in a thicker, whiter form as a thin layer on a bananleaf filled with a shrimp paste and covered in chopped peanuts in the third appetizer we ordered.

After all of these appetizers we could only manage to devour one entree, saving room for some of the best banh mi in the city. An order of sauteed beef cubes with pickled vegetables covered the plate with tender beef and habit forming salty vegetables. You can change my initials to NaCL because it was really difficult to stop eating this... so I didn't. A lacquer bowl of perfectly done sticky rice provided the beef with a stable platform for repeated trips to my mouth.

It was hard to imagine trying to even consider sampling any baked goods at this point so I set off thinking I'd just peek in at a couple of shops that would just have the same goods as Manhattan and Flushing's C-Towns. Surprisingly there was a seemingly endless number of new bakeries along 8th Ave. and none of the same chains that I'm used to seeing so we had to try sample at least a couple of items. So off to Best Bakery where I found skewers of glazed glutinous rice balls filled with either coconut or mango that came in colors green and yellow. At the Savoy they had what they called "Japanese" bars made of jellied, chunky red bean or smoother green bean. That was enough sweets for one day though. Most carb sensitive folks would have fallen into a coma at this point but we munched on, back to the savory side of things for a Banh Mi binge.

A chicken Banh Mi at Ba Xuyen, 6011 7th Ave, was made on a torpedo length, appropriately crisp baguette. Although we insisted on extra spicy it ended up being just medium hot but all of the other flavor and texture components were in perfect synchronicity and scorchingly hot wasn't exactly what my stomach needed at this point anyway. They were really friendly here as well and obliged us by cutting a slice out of a beautifully golden round of yucca cake. It was super sweet, moist, nutty and totally irresistable. My beverage of choice for all of this gormandizing was a rich and creamy iced coffee that was poured into an ice-filled plastic cup to-go from a freshly dripped glass of coffee and sweetened condensed milk, one of many that lined the counter against the wall.

I've avoided going to Brooklyn's Chinatown up until now not only because of it's distance but also because I assumed it just was a smaller version of the other two, hiding only the usual boring suspects. But now my chow senses are tingling from this evolving hotbed of deliciousness full of hidden treasures. I'll be back soon to check out some of the new Vietnamese spots, dumping shops, and bakeries we saw in various stages of openess during our walk along 8th ave.

Enjoy!
Frank

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