For New Yorkers, summer in the city means a few things: perpetually wet clothing and skin, overworked air conditioners that birth sickening electric bills, far too many free events, and, of course, restaurants that magically shed their walls and open themselves up to the elements (weather permitting). Unfortunately, Chinatown doesn’t have many spots that cater to this way of living/eating. The storefronts are simply too old, and perhaps too traditional, to succumb to the yearnings of yuppies with surprising amounts of time and money to waste. Thankfully, however, Baxter Street’s Jaya has claimed its spot early.
Jaya boasts Thai, Malay, Indian and Chinese dishes on its menu, a laborious read reminiscent of George R.R. Martin’s enormous opus, A Song of Ice and Fire. In the time it takes you to read through it, you’ll be asked if you want “anything to drink, maybe a beer?” no fewer than six times. Tempting, Jaya, but it was Sunday afternoon, and the weekend wasn’t kind to me. Though I’m typically a fan of large menus, they’re rarely filled to the brim with good options. Research beforehand is so important in ensuring a delicious meal.
As is standard for a social media professional, I took to Foursquare for my recommendations. We started with the Roti Chanai ($3.49), an Indian-influenced flatbread, crispy and warm, served with a spicy potato curry sauce infused with coconut milk. The appetizer was cooked to perfection, flaky on the outside and soft on the inside. Roti is an essential starter to any meal whose flavors are sourced from Malaysia, so don’t miss it.
Next, we ordered Laksa Noodle Soup ($6.95), a fiery concoction of dark meat chicken and thick, heavy noodles served in a peppery chili broth mixed (once again) with coconut milk. The bowl was more than enough for two to share, and was as flavorful (if not more so) than the amazing soups we sampled at Super Taste last week. If you still have some roti left over, try dipping it in the soup broth, one of the better ideas I’ve ever had (feel free to claim it as your own if it’ll help you score that second date).
As for main dishes, Jaya excels in three highly general departments – beef, chicken and shrimp. We decided to stick with the first two for our dinner, as our plans for future Sunday in Chinatown trips include plenty of seafood restaurants who likely do it better than Jaya. Try the Beef Rendang with Rice ($6.95), once named the most delicious dish in the world by folks at CNN International. Tender cuts of beef are cooked in a spicy, caramelized curry sauce championed by its inclusion of cinnamon and cloves. Jaya does the dish plenty of justice.
Perhaps the biggest surprise of the night was the Sweet Basil Chicken with Rice ($6.95). Huge chunks of chicken are sautÃ©ed with green peppers, onions, and asian basil in a peppery thai chili sauce. The output is phenomenal – one of those dishes that changes the course of conversation at the table from disconnected musings on life in New York to how much we wished everything tasted this way. If you’re sharing your meal (Sunday in Chinatown veteran Kiki Stevenson and I shared every dish), order at least one of these per duo. Even then, you’ll likely be fighting over it.
I’m rarely hesitant to give a restaurant without perfect reviews a fair shot for Sunday in Chinatown, and our experience at Jaya proved why. With a bit of research and a whole lot of trust in the culinary competency of Foursquare’s most active users, we were 4 for 4 this Sunday. The best part? Jaya caters to all manner of earthly creatures – even feral squirrels get a chance to sample the restaurant’s more peanut-inspired offerings.