By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
"If you're looking for an area in New York City that can provide insight into the Chinese culture without all of the glamour and glitz, then Brooklyn Chinatown is definitely the Chinatown you're looking for."
I must be so used to glitz and glamour that I never noticed Manhattan's Chinatown was overflowing with it. A maiden voyage to Sunset Park's main Chinese drag (Eighth Avenue roughly between 61st and 49th streets) finds fewer banks, jewelry stores, McDonald's, video arcades, traffic cops, and touristsall those luxury items that can get in the way of my central motivation for visiting any Chinatownthe food.
I took the R train to Eighth Avenue with my mind set on gathering the inspiration (and ingredients) for a delicious dinner that night. But as soon as I stepped out of the train station, I remembered that well-worn advice: Never shop on an empty stomach. Especially when there's pork all around you.
The moment I hit the street, something smelled good. Behind a small cart, an even smaller woman was pushing rice noodles and chopped onions back and forth on a hot griddle (her makeshift wok) with great force. Bean sprouts were incorporated, and the whole mess ($1) was heaped into a styro-foam container and topped with sriracha, (Thai hot sauce).
To work off this minor shopping interruption, I perused several fish markets. Mostly, these sights were familiar, but the frogs treading water in a gigantic plastic bin ($3.59/pound) were by far the plumpest I've seen. I briefly considered "adopting" one as a pet for my nephew, but kept moving, past razor clams, conchs in their swirling shells, and even seven-pound lobsters (just $6.99/pound). At the biggest of these stores, Sea Town Fish & Meat Market, Inc., a large and sassy fish slipped free from the hands that were trying to weigh him, and slapped against the floor, bouncing and twisting cartoonishly for a moment before being re-captured, this time in a plastic bag.
What happened next, I'm not proud of. As I made my way down the strip, some Vietnamese writing caught my eye. Before I knew what exactly was happening, I was waiting for a Bahn Mi sandwich ($2.75) at Thanh Da Inc II. The bread was hot and appropriately crusty, piled with ham, sweet barbecued pork, balogna-esque pork "roll", a smear of pate, pickled radish and carrots, and cilantro. You can't just pass by a perfectly balanced sandwich.
Finally, in a butcher shop, I made my first purchase, but only because I couldn't eat it right then and there: A tray of 20 wontons for $2. I witnessed the stuffing of each one with pork paste, at the hands of an alarmingly quick older woman who was perched in middle of the shop on a stool.
Still feeling full, I was seduced by pig once again. As with the bahn mi, I am incapable of walking past a northern-style Chinese dumpling house without sampling the goods. At North Mai Xiang Cun, they were firm and salty on the flat side, chewy on the folded side, and juicy and fatty inside.
Then something drew me to a filthy storefront with no sign whatsoever. It turned out to be a noodle factory, where noodlers could be glimpsed in the recesses of the space fluffing and snipping all widths of lo mein. A pound of medium-thick ones (80 cents) was my next purchase.
The vegetables for sale everywhere looked slightly less crisp and green than those on Mott Street, so to go with the pork wontons and noodles, I got a great idea on my way back to the train: what about some pork? There were two tables, about ten feet from one another, selling various roast meats, already packed in take-out containers. I went with a sampler, including sliced barbecued pork and pig ear ($3).
The last stop was a little cart with the words "Mini Cakes" spelled out with stick-on red letters. It smelled like an entire bakery had somehow been stuffed inside, but the cakes weren't baked at all. An almond extract-infused batter was poured into a mold with round divots and heated until it browned like a waffle. Twenty of the warm, round little "cakes", which tasted like fortune cookies, were collected in a paper bag for $1. As the vendor put it: "Smells good, tastes good."