Despite being away from New York for nine years, I still know the city like the back of my hand, even if it’s sometimes behind my back. I always know where I’m going – until I don’t.
Anyway, I’ve got to admit that I’ve never had a strong handle on Chinatown, which has expanded most of the years of my birth and scoffed up all but a sliver of Little Italy. Even now, as its growth seems to have stalled, it’s morphing again at the edges, thanks to a minor insurgency of Lower East Side hipsters. Any way you chop it, my native New Yorker pedigree doesn’t stop me from feeling like a happy-snapping tourist in Chinatown.
So I decided to put a dent in my Sino-Manhattan naivety by signing up for one of Jeff Chin’s ever-present walking food tours of New York. I first found Jeff via one of his Meetup groups, Best Walking Food Tours, and later learned that he runs even more groups and a dizzying number of food events every week. His dumpling tour was exactly the kind of speed-tasting blitz that I needed to cover a wide swatch of Chinatown sidewalk.
The tour started at Jeff’s apartment on Water Street, not far from South Street Seaport. As I approached the non-descript building, I met a fellow walking tour attendee, unsure about where to go, and we walked up the single flight of stairs to Jeff’s apartment together. There we found a couple more food walkers waiting outside the door. I rang the bell and no one answered, so I turned the knob, and the door opened easily. I called out, but there was no answer. Not wanting to break-and-enter, we decided to wait outside. Minutes later, Jeff walked up the stairs and let us in, nonplussed that he had forgotten to lock his door.
And that was the first thing I found interesting about Jeff Chin’s tours. He readily welcomes strangers into his home, which is a strange sight in a city whose residents are often afraid to let the UPS man into their home out of fear of revealing a blueprint to burglary. But Jeff, a mad-keen foodie, cook and under-employed IT consultant, was more than content to entertain in his home. As 10 of us gathered, Jeff quickly whipped up and served small octagonal crackers topped with wasabi and cured salmon, then proceeded to (unexpectedly) dole our party favors in the form of boxes of jasmine tea and bottled tea drinks.
Moments later, we were off on foot, making the short commute to Chinatown. We were busy getting to know each other, so the stroll went by quickly and I couldn’t tell you how we got there. What I can tell you is that I discovered that Jeff is a bit of a Yelp food celebrity, having contributed 1,125 restaurant reviews, and growing by the day. This boy can eat, and you’ll be hard-pressed to find a more knowledgeable resource on New York dining, maybe save Frank Bruni.
Our first dumpling fix was at Sweet Spring Restaurant on 25 Catherine Street, a barebones corner shop pumping out a half-dozen dumplings for a measly $1.25. With some eight dumpling outposts on the walking tour, a few of us agreed to share orders and pace ourselves. We split one order of fried pork dumplings and another plate of steamed ones, and both were delicious, even if neither lacked the crispiness that would identify one as the fried variety. Seats were scarce, so we shared a table with a Chinese gentleman who was eating an oversized bun stuffed with bean sprouts and unknown vegetables. We hand-signed through the language barrier as he showed us the contents of his lunch.
Next was an even smaller shop, simply entitled Fried Dumplings, on 99 Allen Street, near the corner of Delancy. Their half-dozen were even cheaper, at $1 a plate, and a New York Times review at the window seemed to suggest it had a reputation as a go-to dumpling joint. But upon closer inspection of my photos post-walk, I realised the review was before the new millennium and it may have explained why these ghastly overcooked crescents and their accompanying dense-as-a-doorstop pork buns might no longer meet the Times‘ lofty standards. It also came with a watery soybean drink that could have been confused with drippings from a leaky roof. Fried Dumplings may have been good once, but that’s ancient history now.
The Beijing-style dumplings at Tasty Dumplings, 54 Mulberry Street, got us back on track. We split servings of two types: shrimp and chive, and pork and cabbage. Both were tasty and with nicely crisped skins, and with a dumpling sauce that was flavourful but light enough in balance – not too much soy, not too much vinegar.
We were all getting a little dumpling’d out, so Jeff made a suggestion for an ice cream diversion, and we all resoundingly agreed. So it was off to the Chinatown Ice Cream Factory. Jeff kept raving about the pandan ice cream, but the shop had run out by the time we got there. Instead, we negotiated and agreed to share three flavours: black sesame, lychee and almond cookie. All were terrific. The lychee had small pieces of fresh fruit scattered throughout, the sesame a pleasing crunch and distinct sweet-savoury flavour, and the almond tasted like a vanilla scoop with a nutty edginess.
We were all getting full, so some of the walkers began drifting off, and we made a pact with Jeff that we’d only hit the best two dumpling houses that remained on our list of eight. So we ventured to the New Wonton Garden, 56 Mott Street, a Chinese restaurant with an extensive menu. We were here only for the dumplings, and only sharing two plates, which the restaurant’s proprietor couldn’t seem to understand, given the large group. He negotiated with us to order a larger dish of dumplings, which we happily accommodated, and we added a bowl of dumpling soup for a little variety. The fried pork dumplings were the best of the day, perfectly crisp and with a heavier wonton wrapper (and at $6.95 a plate, by far the most expensive), whereas the soup came with silky money-bag dumplings.
A longer walk was welcome to Vanessa’s Dumpling House, 118 Eldridge Street, at a site that’s really more Lower East Side than Chinatown. Vanessa was unique in that it had a monthly special, and this month’s was a combination of shrimp, pork and bok choy, and it was a nice change of flavour complexity. We also shared a slice of sesame pancake, taking turns at its crunchy exterior.
Just as we thought we couldn’t eat any more, and some of us couldn’t, Jeff led us to our final destination, Lam Zou – famed for its handmade noodles and dumplings – at 144 East Broadway. For once, we stuck with the noodles and watched as our dish began as a single wad of dough before being slammed down onto a table, repetitively stretched and pummeled thinner and thinner until it reached the desired circumference. The final product arrived in a bowl topped with minced pork and baby bok choy. It was a good example of northern Chinese noodles, even if I have to admit that I’m more partial to the thicker fresh noodles and less-densely sauced mince of my old regular haunts in Sydney: Chinatown Noodle Restaurant and the Chinese Dumpling & Noodle House in Kensington. Still, fresh noodles are always a delight, no matter how thick or thin you bang ‘em.
We sampled with interest but grudgingly, given the continual onslaught of food. In the end, I probably consumed about two dozen dumplings, plus ice-cream, plus fresh noodles. It will mandate a few trips to the gym, but it was worth it for the foundation for digging further into the ADD-inducing array of Chinatown nosheries. Next time, I need to explore further: maybe dim sim (New York speak for yum cha), more noodles or regional Chinese. Whatever – for $20 for a tour guide and another $15 for food, I can afford to splurge in this neighborhood more often.