Hung Up On Hong Zao


Chinatown’s new frontier embraces the blocks around Grand Street east of Roosevelt Park, a region still dotted with discount lingerie merchants and purveyors of Judaica. This area is home to seven Chinese restaurants; the smallest and most obscure are lunch counters hawking the fare of Fuzhou, the industrial capital of Fujian. Halfway between Shanghai and Canton, this coastal province (formerly known as Fukien or Hokkien) produces the country’s most prized soy sauce, and has been disgorging immigrants to the Philippines and Malaysia for almost three centuries.

The lunch counters favor slow braising over stir-frying, deploying soy sauce, sugar, vinegar, and hong zao— a red paste of rice-wine lees— to create dishes of unexpected lightness and subtlety. Spring Boy Fuzhou Food is a microscopic establishment with a menu featuring memorable dishes like tortoise sautéed with vegetables ($5), rabbit cooked in hong zao ($8), the poetic “boneless duck hand with conch” ($8), and a supernally good platter of three butterfish braised in sweet soy sauce ($6). But most patrons order instead from the 14 metal trays that gleam in the window. No joint in the city can beat the price— $2.50 for three generous portions dumped over a swollen bolster of rice.

A scramble of eggs, crab, and cauliflower straddled the herd of receptacles one recent afternoon, the shards of crab imparting a wonderful aroma, establishing the principle that the best (or at least most requested) dish goes on top. Almost as good was bony duck in a gritty and musky hong zao sauce— a flavor sensation that turned the rice lurid red. My third choice was a slew of bitter and well-oiled mustard greens, rounding out a magnificent combo.

Each subsequent visit offered new surprises. One day pride of place went to a large baking pan filled with a wiggly egg custard rich with chicken stock and strewn with chopped scallions, recalling Taiwanese and Japanese cooking. The next time it was taai goo choy, a rarely seen cousin of bok choy that looks like an artichoke that’s been run over by a truck, pickled in vinegar, and laced with hot pepper. A dish described by the countergal as duck liver comprised chewy twists of uncertain provenance in a thin, sweet sauce chunked with carrots, celery, and pyramids of fried potato.

Obscurely located around the corner on Eldridge Street near a shop that specializes in rat poison, Fu Chow has a larger dining room than Spring Boy, decorated with a smiling-babies bas-relief. As I sat looking out at the tumbledown tenements across the street, restaurant employees kept sneaking up behind me and screaming in Chinese at the top of their lungs. At first I thought they were being playful, until I realized that a PVC pipe sticking out of the floor was their intercom to the basement kitchen.

The standard combo is vastly more expensive— $3— but also includes a bowl of pearly broth bobbing with mussels, in addition to three steam-table selections, which, as an added refinement, are served on a separate plate from the rice. My choices included a sumptuous fried kingfish steak moistened with a sweet and vinegary chile solution; surprisingly good green peanuts braised with tiny chunks of pork; and a generous heap of a vegetable textured like chewy lotus root. I couldn’t identify this mystery tuber— but a Westerner on the frontier must be prepared for such uncertainties.