Join Family Travel Forum on a tour of New York City's historic Chinatown, then stay awhile to dine at some of our favorite Asian restaurants. Join Family Travel Forum on a tour of New York City's historic Chinatown, then stay awhile to dine at some of our favorite Asian restaurants.
Just as the name dim sum, the small dumplings and pastries of Chinese breakfast fare, translates to "taste of the heart," the diverse Asian eateries in Chinatown have been taken to heart by New York's foodies.
To learn more about this fascinating neighborhood, we joined a half-day "Historical Chinatown" tour and visited the slum made notorious by Martin Scorsese's blistering portrayal of 1800's Manhattan, "Gangs of New York." What we native New Yorkers didn't know was that Five Points had developed on top of Manhattan's largest fishing hole. By the late 1700s, almost depleted and filled trash and waste, it had become known as Collect Pond.
Standing in the shadow of the former Tombs prison with our wonderful guide, Jameson Gong of ChinatownNYC.com ( 212/571-2016; www.ChinatownNYC.com for schedule information), we learned that the canal dug to drain Collect Pond was later paved to become Canal Street. It was on this unstable land, at the polluted five-point intersection of Mosco, Baxter, Worth and Mulberry Streets with Columbus Park, that decrepit slums were built – housing thousands in poverty – then later torn down to make way for a wave of immigration from China.
Nearby, about a block south of the Confucious statue, is the First Shearith Israel Cemetery dating to 1683, New York's oldest Jewish cemetery and oldest standing artifact. From here, we paused at the Chatham Restaurant at 9 Chatham Square to try what Guide Gong claimed was the finest cha siu chan bao (steamed pork bun) in the Northeast.
We continued on to study a fascinating collection of period photographs at the Chinese Benevolent Association building at 62 Mott (free entry; 2nd floor office.) The Museum of the Chinese in the Americas is a more formal exhibiton space at 70 Mulberry Street.
Of course, the 21st-century Chinatown is a thriving, bustling neighborhood of new immigrants from every country in Asia. Today, Columbus Park is filled with young basketball players dreaming of Yao Ming, old women under bright umbrellas telling fortunes, and men of all ages lounging around the park's chess tables playing Chinese checkers. Some of the favorite shops we encountered were May May Bakery at 35 Pell ( 212-267-0733), the place to buy superb frozen dim sum to take home and steam yourself; Ting's Gift Shop at 18 Mott for cheezy souvenirs; Golden Fung Wong Bakery at 41 Mott ( 212-267-4037) for fortune cookies at $1.50/bag; Pearl River department store at 477 Broadway at Canal for ceramic tea mugs with lids; and the acupuncture studio of Dr. James L. K. Gong at 14 Mott ( 212-406-4077) our guide's father and a noted specialist in the field.
Then it was time to eat. Although descendants of the early Italian and Irish street gamgs long ago moved to other boroughs, a few gelateria, cafes and pubs can still be found in the one-way streets north of Canal. But deciding where to stop — and for what kind of Asian cuisine — is a better challenge.
Following is a sampling of the various cuisines that can be found in lower Manhattan, including some casual and inexpensive restaurants serving that particular cuisine.
Cantonese: Cantonese cuisine, the one familiar to most Westerners, is known for its fresh and simple approach to a diverse array of food, including seafood, chicken, beef and vegetable dishes. Steaming and boiling are used more often than frying to prepare food, with vegetables cooked in the shortest time in order to retain the natural crispness and flavor. Examples of Cantonese dishes include wonton noodle soups, roasted suckling pig,lo mein noodles and dim sum, an a la carte-style lunch featuring specialties like dumplings, pork-filled rolls, turnip cakes and sticky rice.
Golden Unicorn: 18 East Broadway, 212-941-0911. One of the most popular spots for dim sum and very crowded weekends.
Chanoodle: 79 Mulberry Street, 212-349-1495
Big Eat: 97 Bowery, 212-219-9955
Big Wong: 67 Mott (Bayard & Canal), 212-964-0540
Ping's Seafood – 22 Mott (Worth & Mosco), 212-602-9988
A&B Lobster King House – 1 Mott Street, 212-566-0930
Fujianese: Fuzhou's sweet and sour dishes are common in the eastern, central and northern parts of Fujian Province; South Fujian dishes served in Xiamen, Quanzhou, Zhangzhou and the golden triangle of South Fujian are spicy with a tangy taste, and hot sauces, custard, and orange juice are used as flavorings; West Fujian dishes are more savory, prevailing in the Hakka region with strong local flavor. Fujianese cooks are experts when it comes to preparing seafood, a point which is not surprising considering the 167 varieties of fish and 90 kinds of turtles and shellfish found in the Fujin province. The cuisine also produces delicacies such as bird's nest, cuttlefish, and sturgeon.
Many Fujianese restaurants are located along East Broadway in Chinatown between Grand and Canal Streets. One notable Fujianese establishment is the Ming Dynasty Restaurant on 75 East Broadway, ( 212-732-8889) which also serves Cantonese dishes and an excellent dim sum daily for lunch.
Shanghainese: Shanghai has blended and refined the cuisine of its surrounding provinces. Its flavors are heavier and oilier than Cantonese cuisine, featuring preserved vegetables, pickles and salted meats. Lime-and-ginger-flavored "1,000-year-old" eggs are perhaps Shanghai's best-known culinary creation. Steamed soup dumplings are the most popular staple at Sweet n' Tart at 20 Mott. Another favorite dish is beggar's chicken, which is wrapped in lotus leaves, covered in clay and oven-fired to steamy, tasty perfection; in olden times, it was baked in the ground. Other popular dishes include hairy crab, "eight treasure" duck, "drunken" chicken, braised eel and yellow fish. Dumplings, breads and noodles are served more often than rice.
Evergreen Shanghai: 63 Mott (Bayard & Canal), 212-571-3339
Joe's Shanghai: 9 Pell (Bowery and Mott), 212-233-8888, a more upscale and almost gourmet experience.
New Green Bo: 66 Bayard (Elizabeth & Mott), 212-625-2359
Szechuan: Originating in the Sichuan province of western China, Szechuan or Sichuan cuisine has an international reputation for being spicy and flavorful. Beef is more common than it is in other Chinese cuisines, due to the widespread use of oxen in its native region. Stir-fried beef is often cooked until chewy, while steamed beef is sometimes coated with rice flour to produce a rich gravy.Some well-known Szechuan dishes include "kung pao chicken" and "twice cooked pork." Although many Szechuan dishes live up to their spicy reputation, often ignored are the large percentage of recipes that use little or no spice at all, including recipes such as "tea smoked duck."
The aptly named Grand Sichuan on 125 Canal (at Bowery) is a good place to sample some Szechuan dishes ( 212-625-9212).
Chiuchow: Chiuchow (also spelled Chaozhou or Teochew) cuisine originates from Chiuchow, a city of China in the Guangdong Province. The style of cooking is similar to Cantonese cuisine in many aspects. There are, however, several unique Chiuchow dishes such as steamed goose, shrimp balls, and Fun Goh, a steamed dumpling filled with dried radish, peanuts and ground meat. Chiuchow is also known for serving rice soup in addition to steamed rice with meals, which is quite different from Cantonese porridge or congee. The Chiuchow rice soup is very watery with the rice sitting loosely at the bottom of the bowl.
Kam Bo Bakery & Restaurant: 237 Grand 212-925-6687
243 Grand Restaurant: 243 Grand Street, 212-334-3886
Bo Ky Restaurant: 80 Bayard Street, 212-406-2292
Taiwanese food tends to be simple and light, with most of the flavors of the ingredients preserved. Regional snacks like Chiayi mushrooms and shark-fin stew abound. Pork and poultry are widely used in Taiwanese cuisine; beef and lamb are becoming popular too. Not surprisingly given Taiwan's island locale, fresh-water fish and other forms of seafood are also abundant in Taiwanese cooking. A popular side dish is raw clams soaked in a mixture of soy sauce, rice wine, vinegar, and hot pepper. Oysters have multiple uses in dishes from oyster soup to O-a-chian, an omelet made of oysters, eggs, and corn starch mixed, fried, and served with sweet and sour sauce.
Sogo Restaurant: 11 Mott Street, 212-566-9888
Jobee's Orient: 3 Howard Street, 212-941-0400 / 212-941-8285
Vietnamese: Vietnamese chefs like to refer to their cooking as "the nouvelle cuisine of Asia." And indeed, with the heavy reliance on rice, wheat and legumes, abundance of fresh herbs and vegetables, minimal use of oil, and treatment of meat as a condiment rather than a main course, Vietnamese food is healthy and diverse. Northern cuisine uses beef the most, vegetables are more prevalent in central Vietnamese cuisine, and are often served as smaller, multiple dishes to accompany a meal. Southern Vietnamese cuisine uses hot chilis for spice and often infuses fruit into meat and vegetable dishes.
New Pasteur: 85 Baxter (Bayard & Canal), 212-608-3656
Pho Viet Huong: 73 Mulberry (Bayard & Canal), 212-233-8988
Nha Trang: 87 Baxter or 148 Center 212-233-5948 or 212-941-9292
Thai Son Restaurant: 89 Baxter, 212-732-2822
There is a small strip of Vietnamese restaurants located along Baxter Street between Canal and Bayard Streets, as well as several restaurants along Doyers Street in Chinatown.
Malaysian: Malaysian cuisine reflects the mix of cultures of Malaysia itself with influences from Malay, Indonesian, Chinese and Indian ethnic groups. Rice, noodles, bread, curry, fruit, coconut, seafood and chicken tend to dominate the dishes of this Southeast Asian nation. Peanuts are also readily utilized, often in the form of spicy, flavorful paste sauces. The Malaysian dish best known to most Westerners is satay — meat kebabs in spicy peanut sauce. Another popular Malaysian dish is nasi lemak, which literally means rice cooked in coconut milk. This is generally served as a platter with curry chicken, cucumber, small dried anchovies, hard-boiled egg and hot spicy sauce, among others.
Jaya Malaysian Restaurant: 90 Baxter 212-219-3331
New Malaysia Restaurant: 48 Bowery, 212-964-0284
Nyonya: 194 Grand Street, 212-334-3669
Soho Eastanah – 212 Lafayette Street, 212-625-9633
Taste Good II Malaysian Cuisine: 53 Bayard, 212-513-0818
Indonesian: As would be expected from a country that consists of some 13,000 islands, Indonesian cuisine is quite diverse. Indonesian cooking is rich with coconut milk, or santen, which is used to prepare beverages, sauces, soups, and even rice. Traditional spicing builds on a base of coriander, pepper, and garlic, and added to these are turmeric, bay leaf, lemon grass and cassia, a local tree bark whose flavor closely resembles cinnamon. Scallion, shallots, and peanuts also find their way into many Indonesian recipes, as do dried anchovies and prawns. Highly spiced curries, often diluted with coconut milk, are a mainstay of Indonesian cuisine, and are served with vegetables and bite-size pieces of meat or fish. Rice is the primary staple dish and is served with most meals.
A great place to sample some of these delights is the Penang Restaurant at 41 Elizabeth Street, ( 212-431-8722), which serves Indonesian and Malaysian fusion dishes
Singaporean: Singaporean cuisine can be broken down into two main subdivisions. The first, Singaporean-Malaysian/Indonesian, tends to be dominated by spices, herbs and chilies. Basil, lemongrass and ginger are commonly used, as are various curry spices. Mee rebus, a dish of egg noodles served with potatoes and egg in a thick sweet sauce falls under this category. Rojak, a salad of vegetables, pineapple, bean sprouts and cucumber in a sweet sauce, is another example of this type of cuisine. The second cuisine, a Singaporean-Chinese fusion, tends to be extremely rich, with spices and peanuts often flavoring the dishes. Chicken rice is a common dish, with roasted or poached chicken served in a broth with rice.
The Singapore Café on 69 Mott, ( 212-964-0003) offers authentic Singaporean and Malaysian dishes to savor.
Thai: Thai cuisine is known for its blend of fundamental flavors in each dish — hot (spicy), sour, sweet, salty and bitter. Rice or noodle dishes are accompanied by highly aromatic curries, stir-fries and other dishes, incorporating large quantities of chilies, lime juice and lemon grass. An important ingredient in Thai Cuisine is nam pla, a very aromatic and strong tasting fish sauce made from dried anchovies that have been fermented in brine. Another is fresh kaffir lime leaves; its characteristic flavor appears in nearly every Thai soup, such as hot and sour tom yam, stir-fry and curry.By far, the most popular Thai dish among Westerners is Pad Thai – pan-fried rice noodles with various ingredients. Other dishes include various satay and sweet green curries.
Pongsri Thai: 106 Bayard (at Baxter St), 212-349-3132 is our favorite.
Thailand Restaurant: 106 Bayard Street, 212-349-3132
Kobma Thai: 23 Pell Street, 212-406-4259
Japanese: Traditional Japanese cuisine is dominated by white rice, and few meals would be complete without it. Anything else served during a meal — fish, meat, vegetables, pickles — is considered a side dish. The most common Japanese meal is called Ichiju-Sansai: soup, rice, and three side dishes, each employing a different cooking technique. The three side dishes are usually raw fish (sashimi), a grilled dish, and a simmered dish, although steamed, deep fried, and vinegared dishes are also prevalent. As Japan is an island nation, fish, shellfish, octopus/squid, crabs/lobsters/shrimp and seaweed predominate. By not cooking the seafood, its natural flavor is preserved, as are all of its natural nutrients.
Mikata Japanese Cuisine: 150 Center, 2nd floor, 212-925-9984
Ajisen Noodle: 14 Mott Street, 212-267-9680
Win 49 Japanese Restaurant: 205 Allen, 212-353-9494
Vegetarian: Asian cuisine is particularly popular with vegetarians and especially adroit in utilizing special ingredients and plants as "meat substitutes" – the most popular examples being tofu and eggplant. Spices and curries are used to give vegetarian cuisine a heartiness that it otherwise may lack.
Vegetarian Paradise III: 33 Mott (off Canal), 212-406-6988
House of Vegetarian: 68 Mott (Bayard & Canal), 212-226-6572
Vegetarian Dim Sum House: 24 Pell, 212-577-7176
18 Arhans: 227 Center, 212-941-8986
Pan Asian Cuisine: Many restaurants in Chinatown offer a combination of cuisines, for instance: XO Café & Grill: 48 Hester Street, 212-965-8645 features both Cantonese and Hunan dishes. The Bingo Seafood Restaurant: 104 Mott Street, 212-941-7228 serves Cantonese as well as Taiwanese dishes. Sweet 'n' Tart Restaurant and Café on 20 Mott Street and café on 76 Mott Street, 212-964-0380 / 212-334-8088 offer both Hakka and Cantonese cuisines.
If it's all too much too complicated, your bags get heavy, or the MSG occasionally used by some of these coffeeshops goes to your head, call one of our recommended local hotels: the long-standing Holiday Inn Downtown ( 800/HOLIDAY, 212-966-8898) at 138 Lafayette Street or the hipper and pricier Tribeca Grand ( 212-519-6600) at 1 Ave of the Americas or sister Soho Grand (212-965-3000) at 310 W. Broadway in Soho. ExploreChinatown.com has other lodging and sightseeing recommendations, too.
This story was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question, and stay up to date with current events to ensure a safe and successful trip.