Getting Gooey

Secret specialty of a banquet hall in Brooklyn's Chinatown

Sunset Park, Brooklyn, is poised to become the city's foremost Chinatown. Whereas five years ago it was confined to Eighth Avenue between 50th and 65th streets, the neighborhood now extends north beyond 40th and tumbles west down the slope to Fifth Avenue, a region of small row houses on tree-lined streets, much cheerier than the tenements of Manhattan's Chinatown or the high-rises of Flushing. Ducks dangle seductively in the windows; pea shoots, garlic chives, and fresh lychees spill from greengroceries onto the sidewalks; and cybercafés flaunt Hong Kong sophistication with pastel bubble teas and a startling mix of Asian and Western snacks.

Standing amid sweatshops whose doors are flung open to the evening breezes, in which you can see fabric stacked nearly to the ceiling and hear the persistent buzz of oscillating fans, Sun Ming Gee is one of the party barns that form the social center of Chinese Brooklyn. Downstairs, you'll find a carryout counter and barn-like dim sum room, while upstairs lies a warren of smaller dining rooms. Weekend evenings you can enjoy a leisurely meal upstairs—and I do mean leisurely, since the service can be excruciatingly slow. But come prepared to enjoy some of the best Cantonese food in town.

When it arrived at our big, round table, dropped unceremoniously on the glass lazy Susan, E-Fu noodles with crab ($13.95) didn't look like much, a heap of uneven strands enmeshing crab chunklets and wobbly button mushrooms. But the minute the first diner knocked back a forkful and her face lit up, we pitched in like farmers in a hay-baling contest. There were other dishes that disappeared just as fast that evening, including a chicken Hong Kong–style ($10.95 half, $20 whole) with skin as crisp as a potato chip, and a whole flounder ($15.95), magnificent in size and coated with a crunchy rice flour batter, marred only by a few undercooked areas.

The next weekend found us scurrying back to check out the dim sum. Seated in the L-shaped downstairs, we relished the fresh bean curd spooned from a wooden tub, a shrimp har gow in which each diaphanous pocket enfolded a huge crustacean, and soft pincushions of sweet-potato starch stuffed with pork and water chestnuts. This farinaceous foray was preliminary to launching a final assault a few days later, bringing with us a local Hunter College student whose parents are regulars. After a cell call to his mom, he turned and inquired, "Do you like raw seafood?" After our enthusiastic assent, he motioned the waiter over, and ordered a $29.50 off-menu specialty after an animated conversation in Chinese. Soon, a platter of ruffled sashimi swatches on crushed ice appeared, accompanied by a smaller serving of fried tidbits. One bite and we knew it was geoduck (pronounced "gooey duck"), a gargantuan shellfish that looks like a clam but droops an alarming hairy protuberance like an elephant's trunk, eight feet long in the largest specimens. The raw flesh was sweet and chewy; the cooked meat something like fried squid.

As we exited the restaurant and walked up Sixth Avenue, we were refreshed by evening breezes blowing in from the harbor. From a third-floor balcony, a crowd of girls waved at us enthusiastically. "Hey, it looks like there's a party up there," one of our number exclaimed. "No, it's a brothel," was the student's reply.

 
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