The swelter of the New York summer bears down like an invisible deluge of bath water. The oppressive stillness is broken only by the occasional blast of vaporous wind that could have only been emitted from of a gargantuan tea kettle that I imagine lies somewhere beyond the western horizon. It is inescapable.
We have descended upon Chinatown, an enclave seemingly suited to this weather. As our group walks down its narrow and winding streets, we sweat uncontrollably. The trees sweat. The signs sweat. I imagine that I have left Manhattan. I am in Hong Kong.
A stench rises from the aging sewers of the metropolis that fills the air with an aroma that can be sliced through with a knife. It is added to by the putrid smells that waft from the alleys behind restaurants and the curious odors that come from the plethora of holes in the wall offering herbs, tea leaves, and the dried parts of exotic animals that claim to cure men of all ailments.
It was amongst the throngs of locals and tourists that we were making way through the delirious landscape, constantly being stimulated in all ways visual and olfactory. It was this last sense that perhaps steered us the strongest. Despite the unpleasant odors that the heat had made even more acute, there was always a pleasant smell of food waiting somewhere around the corner. There is no mistaking the scent of fried goodness.
We are on a Dumpling hunt. We have a few hours on our hands, and very, very empty stomachs.
The first place that we enter is on 13 Doyers Street, a crooked narrow thoroughfare once known for being the street with the highest numbers of murders in America. There, the old Chinese tongs would battle each other on the angle with hatchets leaving rivers of blood streaming down toward Pell St. The establishment, Nom Wah Tea Parlor, was opened back in 1927, perhaps a little late for the massive battles that once took place on the street. Nonetheless, its tensely quiet interior with pressed tin ceilings and ancient electric fans likens it to a more dangerous era of New York, and makes one imagine what its walls could say if they could speak. It is also reportedly the oldest tea house in New York.
It was here that we set out the rules of the adventure. We would rate each place by their dumplings, scallion pancakes, and one recommended dish, no matter what it was. And what did Nom-Wah offer us? The stuffed eggplant. A seemingly benign dish until presented to us. Filled with shrimp and covered in peanuts, it spelled sure death for the other two members of our group, one with allergies, the other a vegetarian. This was not going to be an easy journey.
(A note on the score system. Everything is rated on a 5 point system, 1 being near death, and 5 signifying that we would bring our Chinese grandmothers here — assuming that we had one. Also, Michelle. has allergies, Albert eats anything and everything, and Aldo is a vegetarian who is also weary of foods that imitate meat. That being said, ratings could be harsh, but if you see a rating above 55%, it’s most likely a place that you should try out)
Our appetites merely whetted, we depart, strolling around the bend towards yet another famous place for dim sum. At 9 Pell Street we find Joe’s Shanghai Restaurant, a more popular destination in the neighborhood that reflects the evolving demographic. With its pink and green neon lights that bordered the interior walls, and large family tables with lazy-susans, it has an atmosphere that rivals the previous establishment, if not for architectonic character than most certainly in clientele. A clamor fills the dining room in the midday. It is filled with locals and tourists alike, spinning the plates in the center and devouring enormous servings of food. The volume of patrons befits the quality of food. There, we are served some excellent soup dumplings, that would soon find the high mark on our lists for the remainder of our journey. Before leaving, I grab a card to remind myself to come back. Others have done the same, and Joe’s has two other restaurants in the city to satiate the palates of loyal customers.
Briefly exhausted from having gorged ourselves, we continue for a brief walk south on Mott Street, stopping for a red bean ice at Silk Road Place. It was perhaps the mistake that sealed our fate, since the extra liquid in our systems would eventually make it even more difficult to continue with our marathon. We soon leave, and head east, this time for an establishment that would offer a change of pace.
Passing the massive Beaux-Arts entrance to the Manhattan bridge, we continue further east until reaching the more “rough and tumble” residential areas of Chinatown, less visited by tourists, and more occupied by local residents, new immigrants, and young post-grads looking for cheap rent. It was here that we found Prosperity Dumplings on 46 Eldridge Street. Barely containing enough room for a kitchen, this place offered three stools, a marble patterned formica counter, stainless steel walls, and an electric fan, which was no substitute for the air conditioned interiors that we had previously dined in. Combined with the heat of the kitchen, and the throngs of people that happened to arrive just after we sat down, it could be likened to a post-modern entrance to Hell. Ah”¦but there is salvation at the end of that tunnel. The woman at the counter gives us boxes filled with some of the best vegetarian dumplings that the whole of New York’s Chinatown had to offer. We stuff ourselves until we can no longer.
By the time we departed, we were already in serious pain. We had eaten more than enough, and yet we still have at least one more place to visit before considering this trip a success. The three of us waddle down Eldridge, huffing and puffing past men doing business in the street and children playing on the sidewalks. We enter our final stop, Vanessa’s Dumpling House, on 118A Eldridge. Its prices are comparable to Prosperity’s and it is air-conditioned, a necessity for us by this time. It is mainly filled with tourists and hipsters though, and in general lacks the more authentic atmospheres of the previous places. This is perhaps owing more to the clientele than the actual space, which does have the pleasant benefit of opening out over the counter towards the kitchen. The graffiti-clad bathroom is worth a peek though. When the food arrives, however, none of that matters, because it is generally good fare, and the recommended dish of Spicy Wonton manages to offer an exemplary coup de grÃ¢ce.
Unfortunately, I am probably the only person left in the group who can still manage enjoying what is on their plate. Our leader on the adventure is already out of commission, and our fellow comrade was restricted to vegetarian dishes, an impediment that perhaps hurt him on this trip, but which nonetheless led us to the fantastic vegetarian dumplings at the previous place. Despite the casualties, the mission is deemed a success. In just over three hours we managed to have a variety of dumplings at four different places in Chinatown, each with a distinct character and history, and have survived to tell the story.
Next up: A quest for the perfect gnocchi. What would you like to see on another food quest?