Though 118 Lucky is the most formidable of the Fuzhou cafés that have spread across the Lower East Side over the last five yearscreating a new Chinatown centered at the corner of Allen and Grand streetsthe premises are distinctly utilitarian. An austere seating area surveys a streetside scene that, during the daytime, features a forklift loading sacks of rice as pedestrians emerge from a live poultry market next door, gripping flapping chickens by the legs. Just down the street, the front room of a benevolent association brims with Fujian immigrants playing mah-jongg around green baize tables.
A counter runs the length of 118 Lucky, displaying 25 or so receptacles filled with humble, freshly prepared dishes. If you order from this collection, an attendant will first heap a plate with more rice than most of us have ever eaten at one sitting, and ask if you want more. Then it's your turn to point at three dishes to go over the rice. There's no better synopsis of Fuzhou food than these tubs. After several daytime visits, the most memorable included a crisp sauté of green beans and lily shoots snowed with chopped garlic, small soft-shell crabs battered and fried, crescents of cucumber bobbing with shiitake mushrooms in a light broth, butterfish painted with a tart glaze, stuffed bean curd with parti-colored chile confetti, and pork chunks wallowing in a lurid red paste of rice wine leesthe signature sauce of Fujian, a coastal province midway between Shanghai and Hong Kong whose residents have close ties to Taiwan.
The steam table selections vary by time of day and week, with seafood, tea-boiled eggs, and organ meats predominating on weekends and in the evenings. Every visit brings surprises. One evening there were infant squid mottled a lovely purpledelicious, though each tiny mouthful required the extraction of a chitin spine. The countergal sometimes throws in a dish you haven't selected, if she thinks it will go well with the others. That's how we got to taste the world's most perfect eggs, scrambled with little bits of vegetable and lubricated with sesame oil. Amazingly, the price for a plateful of food: $3.
118 Eldridge Street, 212-965-1560. Open daily 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., although hours vary unpredictably. Cash only. Bathroom wheelchair accessible.
118 Lucky would be commendable if only for this cheap meal, but it offers several additional menus, some printed, others discovered by spying on surrounding tables. From the first category comes chow new year cake ($3.75)no dessert at all, but a fleet of gummy starch flying saucers stir-fried with pork, chives, and plenty of Chinese celery, a thinner, firmer cousin of the Western product that causes mobs to form at Mott Street vegetable markets when its season first arrives. Perhaps showing Japanese influence is Foo Chow-style dumpling soup ($2.50). Like bottom-dwelling ocean creatures, these limpid rice orbs lurk in the depths, each enfolding a single sliver of beef in wine-lees gravy (sometimes there's a tiny meatball instead). The technology of these beauties one-ups the Shanghai juicy buns that caused a sensation a few years ago, though if you take a sip of the soup, you'll discover only hot water, its sole purpose to keep the dumplings at maximum gooeyness.
One day we saw some tough dudes in leather jackets downing platter after platter of fresh seafood, which wasn't on the menu as far as we could tell. We pointed at their shrimp, and received a glass platter of 60 ($12, market price), heads attached and shells intact. They were steamed with scallions and big shards of ginger, and lightly glossed with oil, and though eating them took a great effort and resulted in scalded fingers, they were the firmest, sweetest shrimp we'd ever tasted.
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