Of all the recent attempts to reinvent the American diner, none has more appeal than Mooncake Foods. Obscurely located near the Holland Tunnel on Watts Street, the snug space is outfitted with a reasonable facsimile of diner furniture. Stools swivel along a counter, stick chairs flank rudimentary tables, and a pew stands in for the usual Naugahyde banquette. More important, the food’s plainness evokes the kind of Greek-owned diner that has become a dwindling feature of the city’s landscape.
In line with contemporary tastes, however, the menu is light and vegetable-driven instead of greasy and starch-heavy. Instead of looking to European meat and potatoes for inspiration, Mooncake’s menu is grounded in Asian cuisines. Standing in for chef’s salad is a collection of meal-size Thai yums ($7-$8). The immense bowls brim with an idiosyncratic collection of greens and miniature plum tomatoes topped with a choice of grilled beef (good), seared tuna one step away from sashimi (better), hefty lemongrass shrimp (too sweet), grilled chicken breast (yawn), or broiled salmon (see below). Dry, these assemblages would be less than thrilling. But the piquant dressings, different for each salad, put the combinations across. Writhing and gyrating behind the counter, the cooks at Mooncake demonstrate no fear of fish sauce, chile paste, and other serious Asian flourishes eschewed by the nominally Thai places materializing in Brooklyn and Manhattan.
Just as a Greek diner might use the same slice of American cheese to grace a hamburger, omelet, or toasted cheese sandwich, Mooncake deploys a limited catalog of ingredients in various guises. The steak found in the Thai salad reappears with roasted red peppers in a sandwich served on a crusty baguette ($6). Despite its smear of dill mayo, it tastes like a Vietnamese ban mi via a combination of sweet and sour flavors. Another sandwich adds the same thin-sliced glazed pork chops offered in other dishes to broken rice and salad as Mooncake’s equivalent of the blue plate special. The best of these dinners—half the patrons were seen demolishing it on a recent evening—is the one featuring a good-sized plank of miso-glazed salmon. Astoundingly, Mooncake holds the price at $8.
While a Greek diner might surprise you with a reasonably authentic version of spanakopita or a jiggly square of moussaka, Mooncake offers the Chinese peasant’s favorite lunch: sticky rice seasoned with anisey sausage and bits of dried shrimp. Though it doesn’t sashay in on a banana leaf, its flavor is strikingly similar to the product available from vendors beneath the Manhattan Bridge. So, too, could the Shanghai wonton soup ($6) have been carried out from one of Bayard Street’s better joints, a plethora of dumplings stuffed with pork and chives bobbing in a savory broth. In line with its innovative imperative, Mooncake also invents a couple of wontons, one crammed with crawfish and shiitakes, the other with snow peas and roasted garlic. Neither matches the Shanghai dumplings in excitement level.
An odd collection of short dishes fills out the menu, including simple green beans often undercooked, chicken wings that give Buffalo a kick in the ass, and bargain beverages, including a dollar cup of coffee that’s no better than it has to be. One omission is hard to figure out: in spite of its name, there ain’t no mooncakes at Mooncake. These moon-shaped pastry shells—stuffed with lotus paste in southern China and red bean paste in the north—symbolize good luck, something Mooncake will need lots of in its off-the-beaten-path location.