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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.
Tried to be discrete. Was not discrete.
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.
The charcoal is prepared.
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.
The “Banchan.” This was just the beginning.
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.
Getting intimate with our server.
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.
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.
Vegetarian Dumplings ($5.00)
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.
Boiled Pork Dumplings ($5.00)
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.
Beef Stew and Wonton Soup ($6.25)
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.
Sweet and Sour Sliced Pork and Wonton Soup ($6.25)
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.
Beef Tripe and Wonton Noodles ($6.25)
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!
Friends of Chinatown! It’s been two long weeks, I know, but I had good reason for staying away from Canal Street last Sunday. Delirious from a cocktail of Vicodin, Amoxicillin and non fat Greek yogurt, I was hardly in a position to eat anything that couldn’t be spoon fed to me in between bouts of unstoppable drooling. My wisdom teeth (or lack thereof) situation has improved, however, so I eagerly made the trip this week.
Afraid to dive into the fried bits of Chinatown’s food scene too soon, we settled on something much safer – hand pulled noodles. Our destination was Sheng Wang – a tiny underground noodle shop I’d heard whispers about before. Once again, we would braving the world east of Bowery. And once again, it was totally worth it.
You’ll find Sheng Wang hidden away on Eldridge street just south of Canal Street. It’s sandwiched between plenty of other competing hand pulled noodle shops, but trust us… this is the place you want to be. Head downstairs, grab a table, and take your time with the menu. You’ll realize quickly that a ten dollar bill will take you farther than you probably imagine.
Since this is Chinatown, and I’d never forgive you if you didn’t, start with an order of steamed dumplings, just $3 for 10. They’re served with a house made dumpling sauce concoction, but you’ll want to wait until you get your noodles. They’re best dipped in both before they disappear forever.
Next up came the fish balls. You’ll get 8 for another $3, so don’t hesitate to order them as soon as you sit down. Stuffed with just the right amount of seasoned pork and outfitted with exquisitely subtle hints fish, you’ll have a difficult time restraining yourself with these babies. If you have the self control, try to save a few for the hand pulled noodles. More on that later.
The first dish of the night was the Roasted Duck Hand Pulled Noodles ($5.50). Below a veritable glacier field of succulent duck (still on bone), you’ll find some of the chewiest, bounciest hand pulled noodles in town. For the best results, pour plenty sriracha sauce and chili oil into the mix. A bit of seasoned vinegar won’t hurt either. The result is some of the most flavorfully filling cuisine we’ve had east of Bowery.
If you still have dumplings and fish balls left (I told you to save some), let them join the party. Dip the dumplings in and fill the fish balls with the broth, and you’re guaranteed an out of body experience.
If you’re looking for a darker meat and a lighter broth, order the Mutton Hand Pulled Noodles (also just $5.50). There’s a lot more bone in the dish, so you’ll have to work for your protein, but trust us – it’s worth your time. The bone adds tons of flavor to the broth, which is neither too salty nor too bland. It’s literally just right. For those who frequent noodle shops often, you know how difficult this is.
The first thing you’ll notice when you walk into Sheng Wang is that much of the food is prepared right in front of you – literally. Its chefs are constantly at work hand crafting food you’re not likely to forget anytime soon. Our meal was just $20 total, and our best estimates suggest we had between 6 and 8 pounds of food each (it certainly felt like it). So take the jaywalk of faith across Bowery and give Sheng Wang a shot.
Sheng Wang [Map]
27 Eldridge Street
New York, NY 10002