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The Wong Wonton Mott Street Revolt

25 Jan

 

IMG_20160120_194318534_HDRThe winter of El Nino was finally becoming harsh and noodles and soup seemed like a good idea to both Zio and I. I had told him to meet me at a place called 102 Noodles Town, but before I got to the restaurant, I received a text from him. “I am at 102 Mott Street,” Zio wrote. “There is nothing about noodles or the town of noodles.”

Zio was waiting out front when I arrived. The restaurant at 102 Mott Street was now called Wong Kee, but in the window was a declaration from Zagat’s referring to “Big Wing Wong,” and describing the restaurant as “traditional” with “BBQ meats and soups.” Despite the confusion over the restaurant’s name, it had what we wanted and we wasted no more time out in the cold.

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We passed an open kitchen where soups were bubbling and where red-glazed ducks, roast pork and ribs hung. The menu was traditional, as Zagat proclaimed featuring congees, an assortment of soups, and barbecue meats over rice. We were about to order when a stranger who had just finished dining approached our table.

“How did you hear about this place?” the man asked us.

We looked at each other. We weren’t sure how to answer.  Zio mumbled something.

“It’s my job to know about these places,” I finally said.

“Did you know this used to be “Big Wing Wong,” he informed us.

“I saw that on the door.”

“We thought it was called ‘102 Noodles Town’,” Zio said.

“What?” The man was stumped.

“102 Noodles Town.” Zio repeated.

“I don’t know about that, but I do know that some of the people who work here worked at Big Wong before this place became Big Wing Wong,” he said

“Well we definitely know Big Wong,” I said, referring to another very good soup and noodle place also on Mott Street that both of us had frequented numerous times.

“Yeah, so a group of them left Big Wong,” the man said.  “There was a revolt,”

“A revolt?” Zio looked puzzled. “What kind of revolt?”

“I don’t know.” The man now had a sly smile. “They didn’t like working there. It was a communist revolt.”

Neither of us really knew how to respond to that.

“Yeah.” The man stood there. “I used to come here all the time, but not since they changed the name.”

“From 102 Noodles Town to Wong Kee?” I asked.

“You mean Big Wing Wong,” he said.

“Whatever.”

Big wong

Where the revolt took place

“So is the food still good?” Zio asked

The man shrugged. “I don’t know. The duck was a little tough. It didn’t fall off the bone like it used to.”

“Maybe it was just one tough duck,” I said trying to inject some humor into the bizarre interaction.

The man finally departed into the Mott Street chill and Zio and I were left to ponder the information we just received.

“I don’t care about the duck,” Zio said. “I want soup.”

“That’s why we are here,” I said.

“Ready now?” Our waitress asked as she approached our table, her pen and pad out.

“We thought this was 102 Noodles Town,” I said before we could order, hoping to clear up the confusion.

“New owner,” she blurted.

“What?” Either Zio’s hearing was going or he didn’t understand.

“New owner,” she barked again. “Ready now?”

I ordered the mixed shrimp, pork and vegetables dumplings with soup. Zio pointed to the beef tripe medley noodle soup on the menu.

“You want that?” Our waitress questioned Zio’s choice.

“Yes I want that,” he huffed indignantly .

She was ready to leave, but we called her back. We came all the way to Chinatown on a cold night. We couldn’t just have soup. I added a roast pork omelet over rice.

“You know you are ordering egg foo young, don’t you?” Zio told me.

“Yeah, but it says ‘no gravy’ here,” I said pointing to the menu. “Maybe I’ll get lucky and they’ll make a mistake.” The corn starch-thickened brown sludge usually poured over egg foo young was a guilty pleasure of mine.

Keeping our ordering very old school, Zio ordered the chop suey with pork, squid, and shrimp.

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Squid chop suey

Before deliberating further on Chinatown restaurant revolts, our soups came. The wontons in my flavorful chicken-based broth were fresh and stuffed with a combination of pork and pieces of shrimp. It was exactly what I wanted.

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Wonton soup

The roast pork omelet came before I could finish the soup; a large fried disc of egg and pork over rice, but, to my disappointment, with no gravy.

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No gravy

Zio was still gnawing through the tripe in his soup when the chop suey, an assortment of meats, fish and vegetables in an oyster sauce was placed in front of him.  Soon he gave up on the tripe and concentrated his efforts on the chop suey. Between the two of us there was nothing left.

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The beef tripe medley

Fortified now, we put on our winter gear; the soup and hearty hot dishes like another layer. Once outside I looked at the sign again.  “Do you think when they called it 102 Noodles Town they were borrowing from Great New York Noodletown?” I wondered referring to another excellent soup and noodles joint.

“Who knows?” Zio said with a shrug. “Maybe there was a revolt there too.”

Wong Kee

102 Mott St

Chinatown

 

Uni and Ovaltine

17 Mar

Cutting Board

I was in the rest room of the Cutting Board, on Bayard Street in Chinatown staring at the cheery murals in front of me when I heard Zio’s voice.  I got to the restaurant before Zio and he must have come in just behind me because now I could hear him speaking loudly from our table.

“I waved to him a few times: no response!” he said incredulously.

Was he referring to me?

I cleaned up and headed back to our table. He looked at me.

“What?” I wondered.

“You just ignore me on the street?” Zio asked.

“What are you talking about? I didn’t see you.”

“I waved to you a few times. Looked right at you. It was like I wasn’t even there.”

“Did you call out my name? Did you say hello?” I asked.

“No…but how could you not see me?”

It was another frigid night. Chinatown’s sidewalks were even narrower and difficult to navigate on this evening; dark overstuffed plastic garbage bags piled on top of, and next to gray mountains of ice that had not yet melted from the winter’s multiple storms crowded the sidewalks. I had my head down and was walking with a purpose. I was hungry. I just wanted to get out of the cold and to our destination.  Even if my head were up, I would not have noticed Zio. His rotund physique, stuffed into a dark down coat, rendered him camouflage amongst the garbage bags on the street.

But I didn’t tell him that. “Why would I be looking?” I said instead.

He just shook his head and stared down at the menu. Something we all decided to do.

Some of the happiness inside the Cutting Board rest room.

Some of the happiness inside the Cutting Board rest room

.The Cutting Board was my choice and picked because it was, according to my research, an odd amalgam of cuisines with a heavy Asian accent. Here you had your choice of Western starters like chicken wings, chicken tenders, and fried calamari, or the Asian standards; bbq spare ribs, edamame, and shrimp toast. And then there were the blending of cuisines like the Cajun fries with seaweed, the Caesar salad with pork katsu, or even the pasta with uni.

“What’s uni,” Eugene inquired.

For a man who had been dining with our group for 12 years, eating just about every type of ethnic food offered in the Tri State region, Eugene’s lack of food knowledge was disconcerting.

“Sea urchin,” Gerry told him.

“What’s sea urchin?”

“That spiny mollusk you don’t want to step on in the ocean,” I said.

“You eat that?”

“You scoop out the creamy stuff inside…” I tried to explain but wasn’t doing a good job of it.

“What’s it taste like?”

Eugene’s food curiosity was as impressive as his food ignorance. One canceled out the other in my opinion.

No one at our table could really define the taste of uni. It was more about its consistency.

Undaunted, Eugene put his menu down. “I’ll have the spaghetti with the sea urchin,” he told the waiter.

Spaghetti with sea urchin

Spaghetti with sea urchin

On the menu was something I had not seen before in a Chinese restaurant much less any other restaurant called “creamy rice.” Could it be a bastardization of Italian risotto? The idea was enough to convince me to give it a shot and I chose mine with “fatty beef.” Also intrigued by the concept, Mike from Yonkers tried the creamy rice with grilled chicken, which the waiter mentioned was one of the more popular items on the menu.

Gerry veered toward the “rice” section of the menu and zeroed in on the “classic beef in curry sauce.”

And then the waiter was hovering over Zio.

“Oh, um, I’ll have a fish sandwich,” Zio said and then added: “With Ovaltine.”

The waiter left and I stared at Zio. This time it was my turn to be incredulous. “You could have had the pork katsu spaghetti” I said. “You could have had the juicy bobo burger. You could have had the kimchee beef udon. But you chose a fish sandwich? Why?”

He just shook his head. “I…don’t know…” he muttered.

“All right, listen, if you’re good I’ll let you try my fatty beef,” I said. “And you don’t even have to give me a bite of your  fish sandwich. But I definitely want a sip of that Ovaltine.”

Cajun fries and clams

Cajun fries and clams

We started with a bowl of clams steamed in light red tomato, wine sauce that was good enough to soak up with a loaf of crusty bread.  Unfortunately all we were given was one thin slice of garlic bread. Along with the clams were the thinly sliced, tender barbecue ox tongues and a side of Cajun fries salted with dried seaweed.

Barbecued Ox Tongue

Barbecued Ox Tongue

Also arriving was Zio’s Ovaltine. The promised sip was offered to me. It had that same, bland taste with just a teasing hint of chocolate I remembered the last time I sipped an Ovaltine; probably 40 or more years ago. I chased the Ovaltine with a gulp of Sapporo beer and returned the paper cup to Zio.

Zio's beverage of choice

Zio’s beverage of choice

Our main dishes came soon after we devoured the starters with Eugene’s spaghetti with sea urchin the first to arrive. In the menu the sauce was described as a “pink creamy.” What appeared in front of Eugene had more of a yellowish hue to it. He shared with all. The spaghetti was,  as if I expected otherwise, overdone, the saltiness of the sauce the only indication that there was uni in it. Maybe it melded with a light tomato sauce to form the creamy, yellow consistency? Either way, Eugene was pleased and that was really all that mattered.

The creamy rice with the fatty beef that I was hoping would resemble Italian risotto was closer to Campbell’s tomato rice soup with thinly sliced chipped beef as a topping. But I didn’t hold that against it. The dish was hearty and comforting and Zio, who I shared some with, agreed.

Creamy rice with fatty beef

Creamy rice with fatty beef

The comfort level increased when Gerry’s classic beef curry arrived. More a diner/comfort food concoction than anything purely Asian, the beef was ground and the curry sauce strong flavored like the kind you might have found in a curry dish prepared in the UK decades ago. Topping the dish was an egg over easy and a side of potato salad.  And all of that for only six dollars. You really couldn’t get much more comforting.

Beef curry-Cutting Board style

Beef curry-Cutting Board style

Finally Zio’s fried fish sandwich arrived and was no different than any other fried fish sandwich you might find in a thousand restaurants and delis throughout the city. Zio made sure to apply tartar sauce.

Tartar sauce fish sandwich

Tartar sauce fish sandwich

Eugene had cleaned his plate of spaghetti and uni and nothing remained of either my creamy rice with fatty beef or Gerry’s classic beef curry. We all looked toward Mike from Yonkers.

“Some things never change,” Eugene said as he watched and  waited while Mike from Yonkers deliberately and methodically ate his creamy rice with chicken.

“I like to savor my food,” Mike from Yonkers said in response to he always being the last to finish.

“We do too,” I said. “We just savor it with much more urgency.”

With that, Mike from Yonkers shoveled down  the last kernels of creamy rice and the five of us left the warmth of the Cutting Board for the icy streets of Chinatown.

Cutting Board
53 Bayard Street
Chinatown

Cantonese Cappuccino

1 Jul

Cafe Hong Kong

Cafe Hong Kong

I was the first to arrive at Café Hong Kong in Chinatown on a steamy evening when the cramped sidewalks of Bayard Street were overflowing with black plastic garbage bags, their stench signifying the true arrival of summer.  Rick had again passed on his appointed pick for our group, this time giving us a week’s notice instead of a day. Because of the semi-abrupt announcement, I suggested we convene at Café Hong Kong and resume our scheduled picks with Rick again attempting to commit to our next dinner, followed by Mike from Yonkers.

Café Hong Kong was packed when I arrived, but a table was put together for the five of us. When I sat down alone, a harried waiter immediately inquired if “my friends were coming.” I told them that they were. He quickly returned with tea.

“They coming now,” he asked again anxiously not daring to experience the ownership’s wrath by holding a table when other paying customers were waiting.

“As far as I know, they are on their way,” I said and then sent out urgent texts to Zio and Gerry to find out their whereabouts.

“Where are you?” Zio inquired via text. “I didn’t read the emails.”

I cursed under my breath. Zio had informed us that he had a commitment on the Lower East Side on the same day we had chosen. The Chinatown location of Café Hong Kong was picked in an effort to accommodate him. And he didn’t read the emails. Thankfully, Gerry responded that he was close and would arrive very soon.

While I waited, I flipped through the menu noticing immediately, the curious section titled “baked rice/spaghetti.” Also offered were bizarre—at least for Chinese food—options Chinese such as ham and egg sandwich, bacon and egg sandwich, and borsch (sic) soup. This was a “café,” however so allowances were made and along with Hong Kong-style milk tea, cappuccino, lattes, and macchiatos were on the full espresso bar menu.

When Gerry and Eugene arrived, our table was proclaimed legitimate and I was no longer harassed by the equally beleaguered waiter. Mike from Yonkers informed Gerry that he would be coming from the train and might be late. We were hungry and instead of waiting, ordered a soup, fish with bean curd, an appetizer, sweet and sour fish filet, and pickled sour radish.

Just as the reddish orange, sweet and sour fried fish filet, complete with the familiar pineapple chunks, arrived, Mike from Yonkers made his sweaty entrance.  The hot soup came next, administered by a more patient waiter into four smaller bowls. The soup dampening Mike’s shirt even further and his perspiration creeping alarmingly close to my food. After a few sips of the soup, fragrant with ginger, the broth refreshingly light and with chunks of fish and tofu, I no longer cared about Mike from Yonker’s sweat.

Soup for a hot summer's day.

Soup for a hot summer’s day.

What to order from the vast menu was our next business. Gerry warned me about the “baked” dishes when I asked if I should dare try one. “I don’t know—baked pasta?” he said dubiously. But I couldn’t resist. Where else could I have pasta, baked no less, in a Hong Kong-style café unless I ventured to Hong Kong and that was not happening anytime soon? I couldn’t, however, even though I was sorely tempted, choose the baked pasta Bolognese. Instead I decided on the baked beef stew. Eugene also picked from the baked section going with the coconut chicken. Sticking to more familiar and traditional Cantonese dishes, Gerry went with the salt and pepper squid while Mike from Yonkers decided on the fish filet bean curd casserole. Sautéed Chinese broccoli with garlic completed our order.

While we waited for our dishes to arrive, I noticed that there was a missed call from Zio. The sautéed Chinese broccoli came first. I quickly snapped a picture of the dark green, perfectly steamed broccoli on my phone camera and sent it to Zio. And then the enormous bowl of baked beef stew, the tomato sauce congealed on top of the spaghetti from the baking process. The baked coconut chicken also had a semi-hard topping, a few burn marks speckling the white exterior.

Chinese broccoli

Chinese broccoli

Just as I sent Zio more of the pictures to remind him of what he was missing at Café Hong Kong, his rotund frame appeared in front of us, and to all of our surprise, with the Colonel in tow. There was no room at our table and Zio and the Colonel grabbed an adjacent table. I muttered a quick hello and then tasted the sweet and sour “tomato” sauce that was drowning the overcooked spaghetti. Complete with thick layers of gelatinous fat over morsels of beef along with chunks of bland tomatoes, even a few tablespoons of freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano, if offered, could not rescue this dish, Worse was Eugene’s coconut chicken featuring the same overcooked pasta with a white, sweet coconut cream Alfredo sauce, pieces of what seemed like canned carrots and peas, and chunks of chicken. The creation was like a Paula Deen nightmare. And you really can’t get much scarier than that.

Sweet and sour Chef Boy Ar Dee.

Sweet and sour Chef Boy Ar Dee.

Gerry’s salt and pepper squid was good, but not up to nearby Great New York Noodletown’s standards while the fish and bean curd casserole Mike from Yonkers ordered was a true winner. I realized that ordering the baked pasta at Café Hong Kong was like going to a burger joint and then ordering linguini with clam sauce. I should have known better and had no one to blame but myself.

The winner: fish and bean curd casserole.

The winner: fish and bean curd casserole.

As we were leaving, Zio and the Colonel were about to order the coconut chicken. Despite the unfortunate baked beef stew experience, I was in a benevolent mood and warned him off it, instead I gestured to the beef stew; making it his penance for not reading his emails. We said our goodbyes and went to cleanse our palates at the nearby Chinatown Ice Cream Factory.

“Why didn’t you warn me about that spaghetti slop,” Zio wrote in a text the next day. “It was worse than Chef Boy Ar Dee. Sickingly sweet with globs of fat and tired pale tomatoes. You’re killing me!”

Coconut Chicken

Coconut Chicken

“You should be grateful,” I wrote back. “I saved you from the coconut chicken.”

“Thanks for that,” he replied.

Cafe Hong Kong
51 Bayard St.
Chinatown

And the Answer is…

22 Apr

On Friday I presented a series of photos and hints to spur your New York food knowledge on in this month’s edition of Name That Place. It seems I stumped more of you than I thought based on the lack of correct answers.

Here now, in another series of photos, is the puzzle unraveled.

First I was brought tea.

IMG_3795Next came egg rolls unlike any others.

The "original" egg rolls

They call their egg rolls “Original.” 

egg roll

But even an original egg roll tastes better with duck sauce.

Bonus points if you can also identify what I'm about to stuff into my mouth.

Where else can you get such an “original” egg roll in New York but the…

Nom Wah Tea Parlor

Nom Wah Tea Parlor: est. 1920, the oldest Dim Sum establishment in Chinatown.

Nom Wah TeaAnd the answer to this month’s Name That Place.

Nom Wah

 

 

Reflections on the Chinese New Year

8 Feb

Good ChoiceAs the Year of the Snake  approaches, I realize I have spent much of the past Year of the Dragon in Chinese restaurants.

Good Choice

I’m afraid I didn’t always make good choices.

Egg foo young...with brown gravy

Egg foo young…with brown gravy

But, despite my occasional bad choice, I always tried to display…

Good Taste

And when I did, the result usually tasted good.

Ox tongue and tripe

Ox tongue and tripe

Can you ask much more than that from the choices you make?

 

The Happiest of All Hours: Winnie’s Bar & Restaurant

12 Dec

winnie's 018

I’m not one to partake in karaoke. In fact, I don’t recall ever being present during karaoke hours at a bar or club, though maybe I have been. I’ve probably actually gone out of my way to avoid karaoke and if a local pub I had been frequenting began to institute karaoke sessions, that pub would most likely be crossed off my list. Thankfully, it’s a long list.

My feeling is that I would rather put my dime (a figure of speech) in the juke box and hear the real deal than listen to amateurs obliterate the same tune.

I know it’s a cranky attitude to have. Why should I care if people have fun making fools of themselves? I don’t really. I truly believe there is place in this world for karaoke. There’s also a place for restaurants where you need to make a reservation a month in advance. It’s just that neither are my kind of place.

But though at times I’m intractable, I can make exceptions and recently I found myself sitting at the bar at Winnie’s, a Chinatown institution best known for its wild karaoke nights. Of course, I was at Winnie’s during the Happiest Hour, which, for me, is much earlier than the 8pm starting time for karaoke.

They are sensible about the dancing. But no cussing?

They are sensible about the dancing. But no cussing?

Instead of listening to inebriated folks doing their best to cover already bad pop hits, the place was practically empty and the only sound was from the “People’s Court” on television.

winnie's

While I sipped my very cold $6.50 Tsingtao, two hapless couples were haggling over an altercation that occurred because of a faulty refrigerator bought on Craig’s List. Though the beer tasted good, I began to think that maybe even an amateur with a microphone might be a better listening alternative than to the drek coming from Winnie’s only TV.

I finished the beer but didn’t order another. The dispute had not yet been resolved on the People’s Court, but I wasn’t sticking around for the verdict. Outside there was a drizzle and across the street people were huddled under cover within the atrium of Columbus Park. Winnie’s was surrounded by court houses and the next time I’m summoned for jury duty, I’ll know where to go to relieve the agony of fulfilling my civic responsibility.

Nothing wrong with a place that has a pay phone, karaoke notwithstanding.

Nothing wrong with a place that has a pay phone, karaoke notwithstanding.

For now, though my stay inside Winnie’s was brief, I figured I could extend the happiest of hours. In a way, I might actually discover “double happiness.” After all, I was in Chinatown. The possibilities were endless.

Double Happiness at Winnie's.

Double Happiness at Winnie’s.

Winnie’s Bar & Restaurant

104 Bayard St

Chinatown

Cantonese Favors on Allen Street

23 Oct

The man in the red nylon sweat suit smoking a cigarette saw me peering into Cheung Wong Kitchen as I waited for Zio to waddle over from a half block away. I could see a bubbling cauldron of congee through one window while in the other hung roast ducks and chickens.

Congee on the fire.

“This place is the best,” the man said to me as Zio joined me. “For five bucks, you’ll eat like a king.”

There were only a few tables inside the small, somewhat dingy restaurant and most were occupied. One big round table was empty except for a carton of green beans that were about to be trimmed for cooking. It was starting to rain. There were other places we could go that had more space and maybe better, more comfortable accommodations.

I looked at Zio. He was thinking the same thing I was. We were on Allen Street in Chinatown, a few blocks east of Canal; comfort and space just were not the point.

“Let’s go in,” he said resolutely.

Cheung Wong’s window display.

The lone waitress placed two settings on the round table where she was also trimming the green beans. We glanced at the menu. There were traditional Cantonese items on one side of the menu; chicken with black bean sauce, roast pork lo mein, sweet and sour shrimp, etc—most priced more than five dollars.

The other side of the menu, however, were the “discounted” items—the dishes for royalty, which in this case included Zio and I. There was congee, noodle soups, Hong Kong style lo mein, and a two page spread of “rice plates.”

I zeroed in quickly on the rice plates and was intrigued by something called “double favor” on rice. I’m very used to misspellings on menus and never hold that against a restaurant. I see no correlation between a few spelling mistakes and good food. I assumed here that “favor” was meant to mean “flavor.”  Still, when the waitress came over to take our order I had to ask.

“Double favor is chicken and duck, or pork and beef,” she said, in, frankly, very good English.

I understood her answer to mean that it was a choice of two meats on rice. So I had to make a decision. The soy sauce chicken that I saw hanging in the window looked tempting. I paired it with what is usually an old reliable at a Cantonese place: roast pork.

Zio bypassed the meat and decided on fish stew with curry sauce on the rice.

I suggested to Zio that we should try something else on the menu. The additional item would increase our budget to around $7 as opposed to $5, but I didn’t think Zio would care as long as it involved more food for him.

And as I suspected, he endorsed my suggestion of beef stew with wonton noodle soup. But there was a stipulation.

“Shouldn’t we just spring and get one each. It’s only $5.50.” he whined, thinking I was being even cheaper with my money than I normally am and worrying that maybe it wouldn’t be enough for our collective king-sized appetites.

I told him to look around at some of the bowls others in the restaurant were slurping from.

“Yeah, you’re right,” he said. “One should be enough.”

Beef stew noodle soup

And it was more than enough. The big bowl was brimming with fat encased beef in a rich meaty broth, thick with noodles and small tender pieces of winter melon.

While we ate the soup, the waitress took a few more minutes at our table to continue trimming the beans and then left, returning quickly, even before we could finish the soup, with our rice platters.

Double “favor” over rice: soy sauce chicken and roast pork.

The chicken and pork were chopped into slices and arranged neatly over the rice. Both were served at room temperature; the chicken incredibly moist and easily pulled from the bone and cartilage, while the pork tasted almost like jerky, but subtly sweet from the hoisin sauce.  This favor, or should I say flavor, was addictive.

I worked through the mound of food in front of me methodically, matched only by Zio’s devotion to the chunks of white fish, fried and smothered in a yellow curry sauce.

Curry fish over rice.

Eventually it was all gone with the exception of a few spoonfuls of broth from the beef stew soup. Our check came. We ate $7 worth of food each.  If $5 was enough for a king, what did the additional two dollars make the two of us if not kings?  The man in the red nylon sweat suit was no longer outside to ask.

Cheung Wong Kitchen Inc
38A Allen Street
Chinatown

The Chinatown Congee Wars: Part Two

24 Jul

Great N.Y. Noodletown vs. Congee Village

With my trusty congee taster, Luigi, away on a fresh air fund break, I needed an aide to help me finalize the war I started a couple of weeks ago. I knew no other worthy accomplice than Zio. And he was more than ready for the task.

Great N.Y. Noodletown
28 ½ Bowery

Noodletown

On an overcast morning, I found him loitering next to Great N.Y. Noodletown on the Bowery in Chinatown. One of the elderly women that Luigi had observed were so prevalent in Chinatown (The Chinatown Congee Wars: Part One) was sitting next to where Zio was standing, selling umbrellas, a handkerchief covering her mouth. Was she ahead of the whooping cough curve, or was the precaution a leftover from the bird flu epidemic? Zio didn’t seem to mind the close proximity and as soon as I arrived, we went into the restaurant.

Neither Zio nor I were strangers to Great N.Y. Noodletown though when I visited it was not usually for congee.  I do recall ordering the comforting porridge at least once, but my memory of it is dim. It must have made enough of an impression, however, for me to include it in this very serious challenge.

Using all our resolve, Zio and I tried not to peek at the salt baked shrimp, the roast pig on rice, the squid with flowering chives, the triple delight noodles and all the other Noodletown greatest hits found on the menu. Instead we focused on congee only.

Knowing how good the shrimp usually is at Noodletown, I ordered a bowl of shrimp congee. Zio, also sticking to seafood, went with the sliced fish.

Of course, I needed to also compare Noodletown’s “cruller” with Big Wong’s and Congee’s.

The Noodletown cruller

“What the…?” Zio gasped when the cruller appeared on our table.

“It goes with the congee,” I explained.

But he was skeptical. He broke off a piece and ate it. “It’s like a grease sponge,” he said, demonstrating by squeezing the cruller and showing me the oil slick on his finger.

“Yeah, that’s why it’s a perfect accompaniment to congee. The grease works as a foil to the starch of the congee,” was the justification I offered, though not with much conviction.

Our bowls arrived. The steam from them formed a cumulus-like cloud around Zio’s rotund face. “You can’t eat this for about ten minutes,” he said. “You’ll fry the inside of your mouth.”

“That’s what the cruller is for,” I said. “Dip it in, like a doughnut.”

Zio scoffed at the idea.

Less than ten minutes later we were sipping the brutally hot gruel. The thin, rice porridge was infused with the flavor of the shrimp. And the pieces of shrimp—I counted six in my bowl—were bigger than golf balls.

Golf ball-sized shrimp.

Zio soon had his head buried in his congee. Using his spoon like a skilled surgeon, he methodically brought the hot soup and pieces of sliced fish to his open mouth, taking it in masterfully.

I watched his performance for a moment and then said, “You might not want to finish it.”

He picked his head up. “Huh?”

“We’ve got another place to try after this,” I reminded him. “Save room. If you eat too much here, you won’t be able to give the other contestant a fair shake.”

He thought for a moment. “You’re right,” he said and put down his spoon.

Reluctantly, we had the bowls wrapped up; our waiter sliding on plastic gloves in front of us, and then pouring each bowl into a take out container.

Congee Village
207 Bowery

Though the congee at N.Y. Noodletown was light, I could feel the density of the two enormous shrimps I ate while walking up the Bowery to our next destination. I hoped the exercise would offer relief and lesson the load there. There was still more work to do.

For sticklers, Congee Village might not be considered a Chinatown restaurant. Located a few blocks north of Delancey Street, you could say the restaurant was technically in the Lower East Side. But Chinese-run restaurant supply and lighting stores populated the street northward, along with an abundance of signage in Chinese; enough to figure Congee Village within Chinatown’s expanding sprawl.

A full bar and a trickling waterfall greeted us as we entered the very ornate Congee Village. This was a complete departure from the grungy, yet refreshingly familiar confines just experienced at N.Y Noodletown.

Congee Village waterfall

A lovely waterfall greets you upon entrance to Congee Village.

We were given a table in the dark, burnished wood laden dining room complete with large, family-sized booths and a flat screen television tuned, at this hour, to NY1 news. There were tablecloths and wine glasses on the tables yet the napkins were of the thin, paper variety.

“What a tourist trap,” Zio muttered.

I looked around. The few tables that were occupied were with groups of Chinese couples and families, and unless they were out of town Chinese, I had to disagree.

“Looks like a local favorite to me,” I said.

The menu, tourist trap or not, was impressive. Despite the name of the restaurant, we had to flip through a number of colorful pages to find the congee. When we did, the prices, waterfall and full bar notwithstanding, were actually lower than N.Y. Noodletown’s.

Sticking to the seafood theme of the day, I ordered the “crab porridge,” while Zio this time choose squid. If there were crullers, I just didn’t have the courage to order them.

The bowls arrived and looked like what Luigi and I had at Congee; pots with long handles. Smaller bowls were given out making it easier to share.

Crab porridge

A whole, blue crab was in my bowl, chopped into a few pieces. Like the shrimp infused the congee at Noodletown, the crab definitely added flavor to the bowl here at Congee Village. The melding of the shellfish broth with the rice congee was a revelatory match. To eat the crab, however, I had to fish out the pieces and pick the shells apart with my fingers. It was messy work and the thin napkins weren’t helping. But the congee was so good, even Zio’s crude, distasteful remark about what my fingers looked like coated in crab shells and overcooked rice gruel didn’t deter from my enjoyment of it.

Zio fished a piece of squid out of his congee. It was scored with numerous criss cross patterns. He examined it. “Why do they get fancy with the squid,” he complained.

“Does it taste good?” I asked.

“Yeah, it’s fantastic,” Zio said.

“Then who cares.”

I sampled a piece and though it was tougher than I like, it too worked amazingly with the bland congee.

There would be no leftovers here. We could finish the congee and not worry about having to sample another. The crab remains were scattered across my small plate.

The remains of the crab.

“So what do you think?” I asked Zio.

“We really gotta pick a winner?” he whined.

I thought for a moment. I didn’t want to either. Each of the four congee joints had their merits. At Congee, I would stick with the pork and preserved egg while at Big Wong, how could I resist the roast pork congee? There was no denying that Noodletown’s shrimp congee was a one of a kind. And here, at Congee Village, I’ll forever swear by their crab porridge.

Yes, I know I’ve copped out. I couldn’t crown a champion. I’m just no good at these things—these numbered lists where you have to rank your favorites, whatever they may be. Congee preference is subjective. No matter how expert my opinion, I really can’t change someone else’s taste inclination. And in this case, one man’s congee just might be another man’s gruel.

The Chinatown Congee Wars: Part One

13 Jul

Congee vs. Big Wong

Some call it porridge. A more medieval term for it is gruel. In Chinatown it is known as congee; white rice boiled with water, lots of water, until it becomes a thick, hot cereal or soup, depending on what you do with it.

For many who live in Chinatown here in New York it is a breakfast staple. In the last few years, Congee’s popularity has burgeoned beyond Chinatown and now people like me travel to the congested, cramped, sometimes ripe streets of lower Manhattan to get their congee fix.

Congee lovers are often blindly loyal to their favorite places. Me, I keep an open mind. I have, however, narrowed down the crowded Chinatown field to four serious contenders to the congee crown and here, in two parts, using my vast background and experience in the art of overcooked rice, I will ultimately reveal the best congee in Chinatown.

This will not be like the murky college football system known as the BCS where the true champion is settled more by sports writers than by the deserving teams battling it out on the field. The results of the Chinatown Congee Wars will be unequivocal. There will be no talk radio controversy. No happy hour debates. That is unless you happen to disagree with my choice. In which case, you are entitled to your opinion, no matter how misguided it might be. And please, don’t hesitate to express yourself here. I welcome it.

For this first round, I was accompanied by one of my offspring;  the 12-year-old, Luigi. Though he is a mere novice when it comes to the glories of congee, despite his youth, Luigi is a very accomplished eater. What he lacks in experience, he more than makes up for in exuberance. I had complete confidence that he would remain unbiased and not be swayed by perks such as complimentary hot tea or a plastic-wrapped fortune cookie. I was sure he would take his task seriously.

Congee

98 Bowery
Chinatown

Our first destination was the appropriately-named Congee.

Located on the Bowery, Congee, I knew was worthy of its name. When we arrived, just before the lunch time bustle, there was only a Chinese family with very young children at one of the other tables. The baby was making a racket in the otherwise quiet restaurant and I noticed, doing its best to decorate its pink, fat cheeks with spoonfuls of gruel.

I told Luigi we had to have the congee. If he wanted something else to offset it, he could, but to be careful and pace himself; we had another congee place to judge.

There were a number of interesting congee offerings including snail and pig’s liver, abalone and frog, and dried scallop and gingko nut, but I wanted to keep it relatively simple. I needed to judge the congee on its own merits without too many exotic ingredients, so I went with the sliced pork and preserved egg variation.

Luigi scoffed at my suggestion of the “healthy vegetarian” congee, instead choosing the beef. Along with it, we had an order of “fried dough,” the usual, bland but deep fried, accompaniment to the porridge.

The congee came out steaming in pots with wooden handles. We stirred, trying to cool it down not wanting to scald our tongues and the roofs of our mouths thus immediately nullifying either of us as legitimate judges.

The inside of my mouth, however, after years of impatiently ingesting hot pizza, soup, and other blistering foods, has developed a tough, asbestos-like coating. That hard shell made it easier for me to begin the congee tasting sooner than Luigi. What I tasted I liked. The congee was not overly heavy; the balance of liquid to rice tipping slightly to the liquid. But the pork with preserved egg added a nice hearty supplement.

Sliced pork and preserved egg congee.

Luigi struggled at first with the big pieces of beef; trying to cut through them with spoon and chopstick but to no avail. Using his sharpened incisors, he was able to gnaw the beef apart and enjoy, so he said, the rest of his congee, dipping the somewhat stale pieces of fried dough into the porridge and scooping it into his mouth.

The beef congee at Congee.

I wouldn’t have had any difficulty finishing off the bowl of congee, but we had another place to visit. Using about all the self control I could muster, I signaled for the waiter to bag up our leftovers, and we made our way to our next destination.

Big Wong King

67 Mott Street
Chinatown

 

I admit to being partial to Big Wong. It’s been one of my “go to” spots in Chinatown for a very long time. And whenever I go, it’s hard to resist the congee.

I noticed immediately that Big Wong, located in the heart of the tourist mecca of Chinatown on Mott Street, had higher prices for their congee. At Congee, the standard bowls we ordered were $3.95. At Big Wong, most were a dollar, maybe two higher. I knew I couldn’t let price influence my evaluation. The congee had to stand alone regardless of what it cost.

I ordered the roast pork while Luigi went with the chopped beef. Like at Congee, we also ordered the “fried dough.”

Big Wong’s fried dough or “crullers” ready to be dipped into congee.

“I’m worried that Chinatown will change soon,” Luigi professed to me.

“Why is that?” I asked him.

“There are a lot of old people here,” he said.

I nodded. There were. In fact, we were sharing a round table with three seniors.

“But there are young people too,” I said, gesturing to many who were also dining at Big Wong.

“I hope it doesn’t die,” he said. “I like Chinatown.”

Our bowls arrived. The steam was flowing from them. These were even hotter than what we got at Congee. My asbestos mouth would be no match for the boiling cauldron in front of me.

Hot congee at Big Wong.

The fried dough, a long, fresh cruller, kept us busy until the congee cooled down somewhat. When I could brave it, I took a spoonful. Mine was rich with roast, barbecued pork, the barbecue tinting the white of the soup turning it  a bronze-like color. Luigi’s had crumbled ground beef. Both were sprinkled with cilantro adding a pleasant garnish to them.

I liked the congee at Big Wong better than what I experienced at Congee. It was heartier; more rice to water and stuffed with meat. Luigi disagreed. “Congee is better,” he said definitively.

“I don’t know, I like Big Wong’s even though it is a few more dollars.”

We were at a standstill. He favored one, while I the other. How would we resolve this?

“Well, the fried dough is better here, isn’t it?” I said.

He agreed, but we weren’t on this mission to judge fried dough.

Congees and a cruller

They say a tie is like kissing your sister? I never had a sister, so I wouldn’t know. Maybe Part Two of the Chinatown Congee Wars will help clear up the muddled picture I’ve created.

Until then, feel free to chime in with your own opinions though I will not be swayed in mine.

A C for a Chili Place in Chinatown

6 Mar

Old Sichuan
65 Bayard St
Chinatown

The C grade was prominently displayed on Old Sichuan’s window. There were no apologies and no disclaimers that the C was only “temporary.” When Zio, who chose the restaurant for our group, noticed the grade, he shook his head. “Uh oh, they’re gonna have roaches,” he said with a resigned shrug.

But he really knew better. The C was, for our group, in some ways a badge of honor, rather than a scarlet letter. And the hostess, a very pleasant woman who’s gap-toothed smiled never wavered, showed no remorse, urging Zio and I inside despite our telling her we would wait a few moments for the others to arrive. She stuck with us—proudly pointing out the pictures of some of the dishes on the side of the window, totally oblivious that there was C grade next to them.

Some of Old Sichuan’s choices in pictures…and a C grade.

Zio’s eyes went directly to the picture of the ox tongue and tripe.

“You like spicy?” Our hostess inquired.

“That’s why we are here,” I replied.

“That a cold dish,” she said, referring to the ox tongue and tripe Zio was salivating over. “But spicy. Come in. We have table.”

There was no point in hanging around outside especially since the bags of garbage on the sidewalks of Bayard Street were piled high and more than a little ripe. We went in and were given a round table in the back room.

Before Zio could order his obligatory diet Coke (with lemon), the waiter brought us a plate of seaweed along with tea and ice water. Gerry and Rick arrived soon after. Gerry announced that Eugene would be a no-show due to a rare work commitment and that he just got a text from Mike from Yonkers that he would be a half hour late.

Seaweed, compliments of the chef.

While we waited, we put in two orders of Dan Dan Noodles and one of the picturesque, ox tongue and tripe.

The noodles came out first and if Dan Dan Noodles were a barometer for the quality of the food at a Szechuan restaurant, Old Sichuan was clearly a serious contender for top honors. The noodles were fresh; the chili and minced pork perfectly balanced along with the addition of sautéed greens. The dish was sublime.

Dan Dan noodles

We approached the ox tongue and tripe hesitatingly. Rick was even more apprehensive thinking there might be chopped nuts; cashews, almonds, or walnuts, in the dish. We didn’t want to have to insert Zio’s soda straw as a breathing tube if Rick’s throat constricted due to an allergic reaction to the nuts. Peanuts were apparently okay, and that’s what we believed was in the dish along with chilies and tender slices of ox tongue and tripe. So Rick threw caution to the wind and speared a few slices with his chopstick.

Ox tongue and tripe

Needless to say, he survived which was a good and bad thing. We were happy we didn’t have to resort to a tableside tracheotomy, but that also meant there would be less of the delicious ox tongue and tripe for the rest of us, especially since we thought it would be the right thing to save some for Mike from Yonkers if and when he ever showed up.

Some of Old Sichuan’s specials that day.

And he did, just as we were about to order double cooked pork for him. He had no issue with our choice for him, but I was a little concerned about the baby lamb with green pepper I was considering.

“Is it cruel to eat baby lamb?” I asked our table of self proclaimed food geniuses. No one had an answer either way, so I went ahead and ordered it.

Fish in a little “hot pot.”

Zio wanted fish; he just wasn’t sure which one; the options were plentiful. He finally decided on fish and sour cabbage in a “little hot pot.” Rick splurged and ordered the tea smoked duck, while Gerry deliberated between mushroom with “grandma’s” sauce which would have been worth it for the name alone and our waiter’s recommendation; something called “sautéed sponge gourd.”

“What is that?” Rick asked when the platter of pale green vegetables arrived.

“Sponge Gourd, Square Pants,” Gerry replied, straight faced.

And, I must confess, they were the best sponge gourd square pants I’ve ever had….and I’ve had them all over town.

Sponge gourd, square pants.

We made quick work of our food; there were no losers among any of our entrees proving that Old Sichuan might be an oldie, but it was certainly a goodie. The only misstep was when we asked for our check.

The final tally was not unexpectedly, considered we all had two beers and that tea smoked duck and Zio’s little hot pot were extravagances for our group, over budget. But what was more disconcerting was when our gap-toothed hostess took our bill before Gerry had contributed his share. He had to make a run to an ATM: cash only at Old Sichuan.

I wondered where she was taking our money and followed her to a table up front where she gave it to a man who had been eating at a table near us. “He pay for you,” she said.

I watched as she gave him our money.

Bewildered now, I stared at the stranger. “You’re paying for us?”

“No,” he said. “Not for you.”

Apparently he wanted to pay for one of his companions before said companion was given the check and insisted on paying. The hostess realized her mistake and laughed.

“But we haven’t got all the money there yet,” I tried to tell her. She just continued to laugh and smile and took our money into the kitchen.

I peered into the kitchen and saw that she, along with our waiter, were counting our money.

I shrugged and went back to our table.

A few moments later, she returned and began counting out our money for us, indicating that there was not enough there.

“Yes, we know,” we said.

Still not sure if she understood, she left the unfulfilled check on the table, smiled, laughed a little, and walked away.

Gerry returned and we finally totaled out the check. We were about to leave when our waiter said not to go just yet. He had something for us. A pancake filled with melted chocolate. They were tiny squares with toothpicks speared in them. I picked one up. The hot chocolate oozed out and blistered my finger. I put it back on its tray. I didn’t really want it. I was saving what room for dessert next door at the Chinatown Ice Cream Factory.

Black sesame ice cream for dessert next door.

Old Sichuan was very good, but its location right next to the Chinatown Ice Cream Factory made it a standout and Gerry, Mike from Yonkers and I took our cones and happily ate them on the sidewalk amongst the piles of garbage bags and the putrid stench wafting from them.

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