Chinatown Hustle

The East Coast is great, if only because of how close everything is. This past weekend Jen and I went Chinatown. Chinatown, NYC, that is.

The astute or annoying among you will then ask: "WHICH Chinatown?" Yes, that's because, according to the Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA – more on that later), there are at least three Chinatowns in NYC: the "OG" original Chinatown in lower Manhattan, the one in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, and the up-and-comer in Flushing, Queens.

Which one did we go to? Come on, you have to ask? The OG!

Screenshot: Google Maps

Heading down to NYC is a bit of a trip. We had a 2+ hour train ride, followed by another metro ride. Door-to-door, the trip was almost 3 hours one way. Not driving or finding parking in NYC is amazing, but you pay a bit of a price for it.

However, we had an ace up our sleeve: our local guide, Jen's friend Theresa, who grew up on the narrow streets of Chinatown and still visits to this day. In other words, this started as "exploring" and "let's just see where we end up" kind of day, and of course ended up becoming an insider's food tour.

Our first stop: up the main drag of Canal Street, then around to Joe's Shanghai, home of the crabmeat xiaolong bao (小笼包). It was just ok, so there's no picture.  

Then: Xi'an Famous Foods, where the motto is "not spicy = not as good," for their cold-skin noodles (凉皮) which are hand-pulled. Despite the motto, we didn't dare get anything hotter than "mild"

The scale goes: non-spicy, mild, "normal," and hot

Then: to Pinklady bakery for Japanese cheese tarts in original, ube, and matcha flavors. No they're not dan tat.

Which one would you choose?!?

By now it's about 1 PM and we've eaten two meals plus dessert, but we can't stop.

Then: to a tea shop off of Doyers street, a little curved alley which apparently was the site of multiple bloody gang battles back in the days but has now been properly reclaimed into a thriving yuppie food paradise, for some exotic drinks.

Finally, we wrapped it up: Kopitiam on East Broadway, a no frills, fast-service Malay joint with killer sesame noodles and Nasi Lemak--the latter, apparently, is the national dish of Malaysia and flipping delicious. The anchovies really work with the dish.

It's wasn't just completely a food tour, though. The best part was the way that we got to see Chinatown through the eyes of Theresa, our local expert. She explained to us how Chinatown has slowly merged into and taken over Little Italy, why Mulberry Street is called Dead Person Lane (all the funeral homes are on it, all in a row), the strength of the youth after-school organizations in the neighborhood, and where all the great $1-for-5 dumpling spots were as a kid. She told us what it was like to live just a few blocks away from the Twin Towers on 9/11.

Theresa showing us what's what in Chinatown

As part of our cultural edification, we visited the Museum of Chinese in America, a fantastic little museum in nearby SoHo. Reading about the past wasn't always pleasant, but still an important way to connect with some of those who came before us. The best part was reading the profiles of some of the notable Chinese Americans over the years, including artists, authors, scientists, and even a couple of Civil War soldiers (turns out it would have been historically accurate for me to be a Civil War reenactor...)

Finally, we made a chance connection with another local: Gary, the owner of Wing on Wo, a multi-generational Chinese American-owned store in Chinatown. Thanks to Theresa's conversational skills, he talked to us about the inevitability of change, raising a family in Chinatown, cultural connection and responsibility, and passing the torch to a younger generation. As Gary said, he's watched Chinatown through the window of his store for decades. No matter how much it might want to, it can't stay completely the same forever: it has to change, along with the times.

Weekly Random:

IMHO, the hottest soundtrack out of NYC Chinatown, is Notorious MSG's oldie but a goodie: "Chinatown Hustler." Yes, it's a joke, but just try to keep this earworm out of your brain (warning: lyrics aren't exactly "polite")

Dexter Louie

Dexter Louie

The co-pilot on this journey, I am the peanut butter to Jen's jam. I nerd out on history books, love a good boba, and consistently struggle to get myself to practice mindfulness ("")