It takes a man or woman of extraordinary self control to make it a block or two down Chinatown’s Mott street without succumbing to the sights and smells that the ‘frontline’ showcases. With massive, steamy windows boasting browned duck, squid, and pork on huge metal hooks, they make it nearly impossible to turn your attention to a more unexplored region of Chinatown – the underground.
Though most of Chinatown’s underground entrepreneurs offer men’s haircuts at prices you haven’t seen since you were a six-year old, a handful of restaurants have also found their niche in the basements of brownstones. They’re easy to miss if you’re not looking for them, but as Hop Kee Restaurant proved, you’ll want to make an effort.
Nestled at the corner of Mosco and Mott, Hop Kee can be found down a set of steep stairs at the intersection’s southwest corner. Once you’ve cleared the stairs, you’ll find yourself just outside the door of a rather nondescript restaurant. But don’t let Hop Kee’s ordinariness fool you. These guys know their craft better than just about anyone in Chinatown.
You’ll likely be one of just a few guests in the restaurant, and often the only table that will speak english at any point during the meal. The restaurant’s servers don thick blue butcher’s coats, solid evidence in the case for Hop Kee’s obsession with the quality of their menu. Start with a plate of half duck ($11.50) for a group of 2-4.
As you sip on Kee’s complimentary tea and battle with your friends and loved ones for the best cuts of duck, take time to pour over the entire menu, one of the most eclectic in Chinatown. If you can read Mandarin, take notice of the ‘secret menu’ filled with offerings for the elite. English only? You’re out of luck.
Perhaps the most flavorful dish of the night was the roast pork with black bean sauce ($12.95). Served with a healthy boat of rice and a sea of sauce, you’ll need to apologize to your friends in advance for checking out of conversation indefinitely. The pork was tender and juicy, the sauce fresh and delicious – in short, flawless.
If you’re looking to go under the sea while you’re underground, try the mussels with hot peppers ($11.75) or the salted squid ($16.75). Both do their respective aquatic animals sweet, savory justice. The mussels feature a veritable community of clams in an ocean of bean sauce and spicy peppers. The salted squid, as its name suggests, highlights the wonder of sodium in a generous, deliciously fried portion.
While the word ‘underground’ might not carry the best connotations, especially for New Yorkers who spend so much of their lives pining endlessly for a quiet morning on the subway, I urge you to give Hop Kee a shot. Though you’ll likely pay more than $2.50, your experience will exist in a dimension far, far removed from that of New York’s subway system… in the best way possible, naturally.