NEW YORK — The streets of Chinatown in lower Manhattan can be crowded and confusing. You have to wonder what it would be like to come here with a guide. Grace Young to the rescue. The three-time Chinese cookbook author and Soho resident, like all of the city’s Chinese and Chinese-Americans, has favorite places. Hers are many of the older, and now vulnerable, spots that might be squeezed out by the onslaught of modern Chinese supermarkets and restaurants. ”The last of a dying breed of stores,” says Young wistfully.
She has mapped out a manageable six-block area, which allows us to sample dumplings, roast suckling pig, and lychee ice cream, shop for Chinese cooking supplies, and enjoy a revitalizing foot massage.
Our first stop is Fong Inn Too on Mott Street for tofu pudding, a kind of silky-slippery flan, somewhat bland, and best sweetened with a drizzle of sugar syrup. For a little more substance, we walk around the corner to Mei Lai Wah for the popular baked roast pork buns, an inexpensive hand-held snack. This 45-year-old bakery doesn’t add red food coloring to the pork, as most places do. The reason for its use, says Young, is that, “Red in Chinese is a lucky color.”
For dim sum, we start at the white tablecloth restaurant Oriental Garden on Elizabeth Street, which is packed for Saturday lunch. Dim sum (pronounced deem-sum in Cantonese, its region of origin) translates to “little things to touch your heart,” says Young, of the various dumplings, spring rolls, and other small plates. “Cantonese food is known for minimal seasonings so the natural flavors and freshness comes through.”
Weekend dim sum lunch was a custom Young enjoyed growing up in San Francisco. “I remember my father would say ‘Let’s sit closer to the kitchen door’,” she says, explaining that the foods were freshest and hot just out of the kitchen and the family had a better chance of nabbing their favorites as the dim sum carts rolled by.
At Oriental Garden, we share two seafood specialties: lightly fried soft shell crab and large diver scallops served in their shells with natural juices and a touch of soy sauce and scallion. She insists we try the deep-fried, crispy chicken, which is excellent.
The oldest dim sum restaurant in Chinatown, dating to 1920, is Nom Wah Tea Parlor on Doyers Street. In the modest, diner-like room, we sip chrysanthemum tea and nibble steamed shrimp and snow pea leaf dumplings, the shrimp lightly crisp and the dough tender. When Young bites into an egg roll, she admits she’s never eaten one before. “It’s not an authentic Chinese dish,” she says. “It’s a Chinese-American invention.” This version is truer to its name than most though, as the chicken and vegetables are rolled in an eggy crepe and then battered and fried.
Two cookware shops are stacked with wares floor-to-ceiling. One is Hung Chong on Bowery Street, the other is K.K. Discount Store, whose long-time owner Ken Li shows us a variety of woks, including a flat-bottomed carbon-steel model and a light-weight cast-iron pan. He doesn’t sell nonstick woks. In Young’s most recent book, James Beard award winner “Stir-Frying to the Sky’s Edge,” she explains that with use, the wok surface naturally becomes nonstick. The stir-fry expert is dismayed by the prevalence of nonstick woks in Chinese home kitchens. “Food doesn’t sear well in it and you don’t get that wok fragrance,” she says.
A quick stop at Great N.Y. Noodletown satisfies our craving for crisp-skinned roast suckling pig, which we pick at along with a filling bowl of roast duck wonton noodle soup. Young explains that when you see Chinese diners holding the bowl of rice up to their faces and using chopsticks to push the grains into their mouths, they’re getting the aroma too. “Part of the experience is to enjoy the fragrance of the rice,” she says.
Hankering for something sweet and cold, we head to Chinatown Ice Cream Factory, a family-run shop opened in 1978. “I love the fact that it’s homemade and they have traditional Chinese flavors,” says Young. Those include lychee, black sesame, mango, and red bean.
Now, about that foot massage. In the basement of a nondescript office building in Chatham Square, Ahlek Ng, an acupuncturist and reflexologist, knows exactly what areas need extra pressure or a subtle touch. He assures us that we’ll sleep well that night.
After all the walking and eating, we do.
Ahlek Ng, Acupuncture/Reflexology
, 7 Chatham Square,
Chinatown Ice Cream Factory , 65 Bayard St., 212-608-4170, www.chinatownicecreamfactory.com
Fong Inn Too
, 46 Mott St.,
Great N.Y. Noodletown , 28 Bowery, 212-349-0923, www.greatnynoodletown.com
, 14 Bowery,
K.K. Discount Store
, 78 Mulberry St., 212-513-7043,
Mei Lai Wah , 64 Bayard St., 212-966-7866, www.meiliwah.com
Nom Wah Tea Parlor , 13 Doyers St., 212-962-6047, www.nomwah.com
, 14 Elizabeth St., 212-619-0085,
Lisa Zwirn can be reached at email@example.com.