December 25 dawns and you’re totally burned-out. You’ve endured zillions of grating TV commercials, looked away in disgust from innumerable billboards, and spied enough Santas and elves to make you reach for your buggy whip. What you crave is an oasis from the Death Valley of Christmas, a place to silence the carols ringing in your ears and rub balm on your injured psyche. Read on, because salvation is at hand . . .
I’m not sure who first had the bright idea. Maybe it was the city’s earliest Jews—Brazilian refugees who, upon arriving at our doorstep in 1654 and encountering an unbroken line of bell-ringing Salvation Army Santas, decided to chuck it all and go out for chop suey. Or maybe it was some Victorian traveling salesman from Des Moines trapped in town for the holidays, who found himself, after disconsolately wandering for hours, at the corner of Canal and Mott. But following the contemporary example of Calvin Trillin, I’ve been dragging friends down to Chinatown for nearly a decade in search of an Xmas-free island of sanity.
For a Chinatown Christmas with an antiquarian twist check out Wo Hop (17 Mott Street, 212-267-2536), a place that’s been tantalizing and satisfying a crowd of what looks like Long Islanders since 1938, making it the oldest Chinese restaurant in town. The menu of this tiny walk-down spot is rear-guard Cantonese, from the days when the cuisine had to be skewed toward Western diners who favored hearty dishes dressed with plain brown gravy. Yet there’s something undeniably festive about the egg foo young as it’s ceremoniously borne across the room by the black-vested waiter. You can’t beat the clams with black-bean sauce either, or the sautéed Chinese broccoli, gleaming a green so bright it almost hurts your eyes.
If a more formal setting is what you seek, head across the street to Peking Duck House (28 Mott Street, 212-227-1810), where the namesake bird is delivered piping hot to a sideboard near your table, and a chef with a tall toque approaches, brandishing a carving knife. The effect is positively Dickensian, and you’ll feel like Tiny Tim as White Hat carves the giant amphibious bird and platters the crisp bronze skin and dark flavorful meat. Eating it involves wrapping a gossamer flatbread around duck slices garnished with scallions, cucumbers, and hoisin sauce, making an Asian burrito. At $34, it’s a holiday miracle, easily feeding four if you add another dish or two in a noodle or vegetable vein.
Flushing’s Chinatown offers several possibilities for going upscale with your Xmas feast. There are at least three Cantonese pleasure palaces that allow you to select seafood from jumbo tanks and dine in elegance. Sporting hardbound menus many pages long, they also provide typical noodle, pork, and chicken dishes at reasonable prices, and dim sum until late in the afternoon. Across the street from Flushing Mall is the newly refurbished and renamed Ocean Jewels (133-30 39th Avenue, Queens, 718-359-8600). Ascend through a triumphal gilded entranceway to discover aquariums containing sea bass, jumbo shrimp, slithery monster eels, thrashing mean-looking crabs, and lobsters as heavy as seven pounds. Though the menu originates in Cantonese cooking, it incorporates plenty of Hong Kong flourishes, and the odd Malaysian, Sichuan, and Thai dish too, so it didn’t surprise me when I asked the waiter the best way to enjoy the lobster and he replied: “I’d have it raw, cut up, and served with plenty of wasabi, Japanese style.”
If you want to have a red Christmas sans Santa, and at bargain prices, fly to Spicy and Tasty (39-07 Prince Street, Queens, 718-359-1601). This superb Sichuan restaurant lakes its dishes in red chile oil and, as if that weren’t enough, adds chile flakes, green chiles, and Sichuan peppercorns to the infernal concoctions. There are options for the tender-tongued too, including lamb stew, poached vegetables rubbed with sesame oil, and tea-smoked duck. S & T is also an excellent place to explore Chinese organ meats, including transcendent sautéed kidney with peanuts.
Sunset Park’s Chinatown wants to be your favorite destination for Chinese food. My favorite restaurant is Top One (5805 Eighth Avenue, Brooklyn, 718-435-9692), where the sautéed and soy-sauced butter fish is one of the tastiest seafoods in town. The charcuterie—including ducks, chickens, and various pork cuts—is among the most distinguished in the city, but note that the supply often runs out around 6 p.m. Another good bet is Ming Gee (618 62nd Street, Brooklyn, 718-492-4301), an off-the-beaten-path, family-style place. Do your guests a favor and order the crab e-fu noodles: The noodles symbolize long life, while the limpid crab sauce is just plain delicious. High-rollers opt for the geoduck (“gooey duck”) sashimi, while the less well-heeled will be just as happy with the chicken Hong Kong-style.
Maximum distance can be put between you and Christmas by visiting Homecrest, Brooklyn, the city’s most laid-back Chinatown. Stretching from Ocean Avenue to Ocean Parkway, centered on both sides of the Q stop on Avenue U, the neighborhood features fishmongers and vegetable stands, but only a handful of restaurants. There’s a cluster of fancier places near the Ocean Avenue side, like the brand-new K & R Seafood (1915 Avenue U, 718-934-8889), but I prefer the venerable Wing Shing (1217-1221 Avenue U, 718-998-0360), where Chinese shoppers dine cheek-by-jowl with Russian families, and the typical Cantonese coffee-shop menu is supplemented with reasonably priced seafood—including flounder, sea bass, snails, lobsters, and crabs. The noodles are particularly impressive, including the kids’ favorite, pan-fried noodles, which come topped with beef, chicken, veggies, or shrimp with egg sauce. The suckling pig (choose “roast pig” from the menu rather than “roast pork”) is particularly succulent and crispy, and the $6.50 appetizing plate is enough for several diners.
Elmhurst’s Chinatown might be better called Asiatown, since Chinese restaurants vie with Malaysian, Thai, and Korean restaurants for your affection. The tree-shaded park right above the Elmhurst stop on the R and V trains is a particular hotbed. Facing it is tiny-but-formidable Malaysian Taste Good (82-18 45th Avenue, Queens, 718-898-8001), which remains stalwart even though its Manhattan branch recently closed. Fish of choice is stingray; the satays, always popular with kids, are delicate and toothsome; and bean curd comes in many guises in the dish “young tofu.” Just across the park find newcomer King 5 Noodle (82-39 Broadway, Queens, 718-205-7888), one branch of a chain serving northern Chinese food with Taiwanese flourishes. Thrill to fried dumplings and noodles and a nifty list of 61 main courses that cost only $6.50 each and come with a free bowl of beef soup.
You may have noticed as you re-enter the subway that the park is called Moore Homestead. What you might not know is that around 1850 it was the country home of Clement Clarke Moore. Name sound familiar? He wrote “The Night Before Christmas.” Proving that, wherever you go in the city, you can never completely escape the holiday.