As Untapped Cities columnist, Luke Kingma, who boldly took us to the depths of Chinatown and to the wildest of NYC parties, moves on to the West Coast, he reminisces on his life in New York City in the best way he knows how–through its food.
It is no simple task to summarize 3.5 years spent in a city that has at once asked so much of me and given so much to me. I arrived in December 2010 with a paltry pile of personal items stacked in the corner of an old friend’s Upper East Side apartment. I’ll depart tonight with a similar haul, bound for Los Angeles and the inevitability of a car payment. (Do they still run on gas? Did we figure that out yet?)
As my mind criss-crosses the boroughs in search of a compelling narrative, I can’t help but distill my experience down to the food I’ve eaten during my stay here. From the $.20 pork & chive dumplings on Eldridge Street to the finest cuts of Pat LeFrieda beef in Tribeca, there has been meaning and memory in every morsel. So I began revisiting the restaurants where my own story was written, hoping to find remnants of myself if not one last warm meal.
Every week, we highlight one of our 300+ Untapped Cities contributors worldwide. This week, we’re featuring Luke Kingma, our Sunday in Chinatown columnist based in New York. Luke’s latest project for Untapped Cities is his Google Glass project, My NYC, which offers readers a chance to explore the city and tell a story using the new technology.
What’s your “day job”?
I’m a copywriter at VaynerMedia, a digital ad agency based in Flatiron.
What’s your favorite Untapped spot in your city?
The Golden Mall in Flushing – pure, blissful dining in a cramped, underground basement packed with incredible food stalls.
Favorite piece you’ve written for Untapped?
Since December 2011, Untapped writer Luke Kingma has spent countless weekends in Chinatown, reviewing the food establishments he’s explored there in his Sunday in Chinatown column. He’s tried everything from traditional Chinese dishes to seafood, exotic ice cream, spongecake, bubble tea, and questionably, one McDonald’s meal there. It’s all compiled for you in a convenient, geo-tracking Sunday in Chinatown Foursquare list. Here, we present you with a sampling of the list, in no particular order: (more…)
For me, the ‘regular’ New Year has always been supremely disappointing. Due in part to globally inflated expectation, the night has never lived up to the description my co-workers provide in the annual ‘New Year’s Eve in East Williamsburg!’ email chain. If you’re new to the city, this means you’ll probably end up in some ‘charming’ warehouse off the Graham Avenue stop with 60 people you’ll never see again.
You’ll begin to take stock of the evening at 11pm, 30 minutes after half your friends go down (hard) for the count. Following a midnight ‘champagne toast’ that was supposed to be included in the $150 ticket fee, you’ll wander home, shocked that you fell for it. And then you’ll do it all again next year.
Chinese New Year, however, is different. Strip away the expensive parties and sharp wardrobes, add a few dozen homemade Chinese lion costumes and 400 million confetti launchers, and you’ll be getting close. Though I’ve had the opportunity to enjoy several Chinese New Year celebrations in New York City, I knew I had to go all out this year. And we’re just getting started.
Up until recently, I was wrong about some things. As far as Asian food was concerned, I always believed my world ended in Flushing. You could certainly travel east of there, but you’d find nothing but oceans – first, a traditionally liquid one; then, an ocean comprised entirely of European food. To my knowledge (or lack thereof), you’d have to travel as far as Kashgar before you found the next great Asian restaurant. But then we discovered Mapo BBQ.
You could take the 7 train as far as it goes without ever reaching Queens’ Murray Hill. Far beyond Flushing, past dozens of nondescript apartment complexes and a handful of residential dentists, lies this tiny neighborhood where our real journey begins. Looking more like a suburb of Pittsburgh than a borough town, Murray Hill is strikingly quiet and empty, even on a Sunday afternoon.
We took the rare LIRR ride to try what many call a legendary BBQ experience. Mapo, like most restaurants we love, is nothing special in terms of location, decor, or atmosphere. The beauty, of course, is found in what can be eaten. We huddled through a small doorway and were met by a single family enjoying lunch together. There were almost a dozen of them, and ten times as many plates spread across their tables. This was the place.
My favorite culinary experiences are exactly that – experiences. While most restaurants offer a standard, rushed itinerary, spots like Mapo treat you like family on Thanksgiving. It’s intimate and exhausting, and can easily turn into an all day affair if you’re not looking. Shortly after being seated, one server explained the menu while another prepared the charcoal. We knew we were here for ribs, and ribs we ordered: 2 orders of Kalbi Beef and 2 orders of BBQ Pork ended up being more than enough for five of us.
While we waited for the meat to arrive and the charcoal to warm, our servers brought out the “Banchan,” an endless array of carefully prepared vegetables, sauces, and sides. From kimchi and barbecued onions to grilled corn and spicy tofu soup, the selections were as eclectic as you’ll find in New York. I’m not exaggerating when I recall that we may have had three to four hundred thousand plates on our table. It was heroically overwhelming.
After grilling our meat for us right in the center of the table, it was time to begin our long awaited experimentations. Using massive pieces of lettuce as our canvas, we got to work. At Mapo and other Korean BBQ places like it, there are endless combinations to try. On one piece, you might pile up Kalbi beef, kimchi, tofu, and the spicy house sauce; on another, you might try BBQ pork, cucumbers, jalapeÃ±os, onions, and crab. One thing’s for certain, though – whatever you try will be impossibly delicious.
The complexity of the flavor combinations found here is currently unmatched, at least in my own personal history. Everything is seasoned to perfection, and there is truly something for everyone. Two hours later, after having tried dozens of things for the first time, our journey was coming to an end. Leaving the restaurant felt very much like coming back from a spirit-awakening adventure halfway across the world. There was suddenly so much to say; so much energy; so many realizations about the world that you didn’t see clearly before. And all of it just 30 minutes from Penn Station.
It’s safe to say that this is the most inspired I have been to share in a long time. Though it’s certainly out of the way, and though it may take a whole lot of convincing to get a group out to Murray Hill, I implore you to try Mapo BBQ. It offers one of the few culinary experiences in the city that can take you far, far away from New York. You will likely spend $30-$35 a person here, but trust me – this is a meal you can’t get in Manhattan for two to three times the price. Go. Go now.
Afterword: Thanks to Connor for the recommendation!
With a hurricane behind us and the prospect of a frozen New York winter looking mighty good, I have finally decided to return to my beloved Chinatown. The confusing smells of summer on Canal street are long past, and one of Chinatown’s best cold weather dishes has been lodged in my mind for weeks. I’m talking, of course, about wonton soup.
Wonton soup is the stuff of legend. It works much like the best winter jacket you can think of, except on the inside of you. In short, you’ve waited far too long to try it out (or in, I suppose). When you’re ready, head to New H.K. Wonton Garden.
New H.K. Wonton Garden can be found on Mulberry Street, just a stone’s throw from the impassable crowds of Mott and Canal Streets. The restaurant, like most here, is extremely small, meaning you’ll almost certainly be waiting on a Saturday or Sunday. This is fine. It’s New York, and if you haven’t learned patience by now, you’re probably not living here anymore.
If it’s midday Saturday or Sunday, or anytime for that matter, start by exploring the restaurant’s Dim Sum menu. Wonton Garden is known for having the best vegetarian dumplings in town, and though I don’t typically associate with our green friends from the ground, I couldn’t miss the opportunity. And they were absolutely delicious. Stuffed with an array of finely diced vegetables that I couldn’t begin to identify, the dumplings (6 for $5.00) manage to hold everything in with an impossibly thin dumpling wrapper.
Do yourself another favor and order a plate of boiled pork and chive dumplings (6 for $5.00) along with a pair of fresh, steamed pork buns (2 for $2.50) They were the first I’ve had in Chinatown to recall the flavors found in the underground food stalls in Flushing, my absolute favorite place in New York, and in fact the earth so far.
Once you’ve had your fill of dim sum, it’s time to turn your eyes (and the remaining space in your stomach) toward Wonton Garden’s namesake dish. Wonton soup is deceptively simple – boiled wontons, microscopically thin noodles and your protein of choice bathe together in a hearty soup broth. However, each bowl you’ll find at Wonton Garden offers a completely different experience.
The standard, and probably the most highly recommended option based on the research we did prior to Sunday is the beef stew and wonton noodles ($6.25). Massive, tender chunks of beef will greet you in a dark, savory broth hiding a bed of noodles beneath. It was everything we expected it to be.
If you’re looking for grossly disproportionate amounts of flavor, order the sweet and sour sliced pork wonton soup ($6.25). Stringy bits of pork are doused in a thick, highly flavorful sweet and sour sauce. With a few added drops of hot chili oil, it’s one of the most complex soups you’ll find in Chinatown.
Finally, if you’re looking to try what many non-regulars would consider “weird,” ask for the beef tripe and wonton soup ($6.25). As is standard with stomach, the honeycomb tripe was almost alarmingly fatty. However, for those who have never tried the stuff (cow stomach, as it were), you’re in for a fantastic experience. Dense, chewy and subtly flavored, tripe is the perfect addition to Wonton Garden’s hot, soupy broth.
As is typical with our favorite dishes in Chinatown, there are few words to describe H.K. Wonton Garden’s soups. They are instead something that needs to be experienced. Lucky for you, Wonton Garden offers the perfect venue to hide away for an hour or two with friends, order as much as you can, and share what can only be shared in Chinatown. Be wary of gruff and reticent waiters with uniforms of oddly enough, hawaiian shirts. Not unkind however, they will speak when necessary, such as to check that the non-Chinese visitor is aware what tripe is. Good luck!