Tea is as prevalent, if not more so, than anything else in Chinatown. In fact, you’ll find a steaming pot waiting for you at the vast majority of restaurants in the neighborhood. You’ll discover more Bubble Tea shops below Canal Street than there are trash bags full of knock-off Oakley’s near the 6 train. Great tea, however, is hard to find…. unless, of course, you know where to look.
I had been to Cha Chan Tang on Canal street a few times before tonight. As far as tea shops go, it’s one of the larger and more elegant in the area. The crowd is a mix of Chinatown’s youth, curious uptowners and people looking for a quiet place to read A Song of Ice and Fire. Its Hong Kong-inspired menu is larger than you would ever imagine it to be, a good mix of curries, soups, appetizers, and teas.
If you’re looking for an experience completely unique to Chinatown, order a red bean bubble tea while you browse the menu. Cha Chan Tang is one of a relative few tea shops in the area that use real red beans (as opposed to red bean paste) in the drink. Subtly sweet with a slightly bitter kick, it’s one of the more interesting drinks on the menu, and my personal favorite.
As it’s nearly impossible to end a sentence about Chinatown without the word ‘dumplings,’ you’d be a fool not to order a plate of steamed dumplings, just $3.25 for a half dozen. Soft, chewy and fresh, they’re a far cry from the $1 fried dumplings around the corner on Mosco, and a refreshing change of pace.
There are a few appetizers that are synonymous with bubble tea shops in Chinatown. The first of them is the chicken wing. Cha Chan Tang serves them salty and crispy, dry rubbed with garlic and black pepper seasoning. Though your sodium intake for the day will likely be satisfied after the third wing, we recommend an order or two, anyway. After all, that chunk of pineapple cancels out all of the bad in the dish (that’s how it works, right?).
The second item on the list of bubble tea regulars is the fish ball. Now, I’ve purposely squandered opportunity after opportunity to give these little mystery nuggets a shot, but I knew I couldn’t keep away forever. Lightly fried and plesantly squeezable (there are few other ways to describe it), Cha Chan Tang’s fish balls bare a consistency I’ve never experienced before. Before I move on, it’s important to note at this point that while I’m 24 years old, I’m not averse to sometimes not acting that way.
That said, these spongy fish balls are as bouncy as they are delicious… shockingly so, in fact. If you can avoid the annoyed stares from those dining around you, see if you can bounce one of these babies off the plate and into your mouth. It took me less than ten tries, a feat you will not hear the end of for some time. If you’re looking for a more flavorful experience, order them with curry.
If every restaurant in Chinatown has one section of its menu it takes great pride in, Cha Chan Tang’s is curry. They offer some of the spiciest in town with a huge variety of add-ons. The beef brisket curry is one of our favorite dishes so far. Chunks of potato, carrot and onion are married with succulent, slow-cooked brisket (melt-in-your-mouth fat still attached) in the greatest wedding the neighborhood has ever seen. And that’s saying a lot – Chinatown is known for their extravagantly over the top wedding receptions. Keep a glass of water handy for the curry sauce.
Though Cha Chan Tang’s Chinatown location is much different than its comparatively bland brother and sister chains in Hong Kong, it truly is a window into another world (literally – the restaurant frames streaming video of Hong Kong on its walls). While most Chinatown restaurants lured us in with food, and kept us around with tea, Cha Chan Tang does the opposite. So, come for the red bean tea, and stay for the appetizers and curry dishes. Whether you leave one hour later or several, you’ll come out a better, more well-traveled human being. Or just full. Either’s more than okay for us.