There was a rustling at the end of the room, where, eyes flashing angrily, a golden phoenix squared off against a golden dragon. Suddenly, a door swung open and a waiter appeared, bearing an orange pumpkin on a silver tray. Weaving between families massed around large tables, he approached. Like the phantom horseman of Sleepy Hollow doffing his pumpkin head, the waiter set the dish down with a dramatic flourish. Then, kung fu-style, he slashed it with a few deft downstrokes. As the slices fell, beef short ribs cascaded out on a brown wave of gravy.
Pumpkin stuffed with short ribs ($35) elicited oohs and aahs from my table of lifelong Chinatown devotees, who have seen regional styles come and go in this venerable immigrant neighborhood. Over the last decade, they’ve successively feasted on Sichuan, Hunan, Chiu Chou, Shanghai, Fujianese, Taiwanese, Vietnamese, Hong Kong, and Malaysian fare, and now it was time to come home to the clean-tasting pleasures of Cantonese. Chinatown’s oldest cooking style offers soups so thin and flavorful, you’re tempted to gang several up in a single meal; ducks with skin as crisp as the crack of a whip; noodles and fried rice in dozens of permutations; bright-green vegetables smirched with salty oyster sauce; and seafood choices that range from local clams and flounder to such expensive imported exotica as shark’s fin, abalone, and conpoy (dried scallops).
Located in the oldest part of Chinatown at Mott and Pell, the storefront we sat in had a long Cantonese pedigree. In the ’60s, it was On Luck, a restaurant whose specialty was bow fan, rice steamed in a clay pot with bits of meat or sausage on top. Subsequently, the space was Lucky Garden, a restaurant of which little record remains. Danny Ng was a cook there three years ago, when he bought the business and renamed it after himself. Now on Sunday afternoons, the room is filled with Chinese families, many returning to the neighborhood from the suburbs for a nostalgic taste of southern Chinese cooking.
In addition to the stuffed pumpkin, another brilliant off-menu selection is bean curd skin with sea cucumber ($28). Rolls of yellowish curd skin, wrinkled like a nonagenarian’s skin, are stuffed with mush-rooms and black hair moss, mounted on baby bok choy, drenched in light gravy, then pelted with sea cucumbers. These innocent-sounding translucent lozenges—known less appetizingly as sea slugs or sea rats—are not cucumbers at all, but marine gastropods, valued for their aphrodisiac properties and ability to absorb any sauce and retain their wiggliness. “I won’t eat those,” my pal Lillian shuddered. And she’s the one who recommended Danny Ng.
Even if you don’t know any of the extra-menu specials, you’ll still get a fine meal at Ng (pronounced “eng”) by picking Cantonese standards. Beef chow fun ($6.50) comes with or without gravy, silky rice noodles borne aloft by bean sprouts and dotted with tender strips of beef. Pick the gravy version. The roast duck is as good as any in Chinatown, and so is the roast chicken with preserved vegetables (half- bird, $10), which comes deliciously strewn with house-cured pickles. Don’t miss the vegetables with oyster sauce either, scintillatingly fresh from nearby markets. Whether you prefer mustard greens, bok choy, or yu choy, it’s a chance to get down with your bad Cantonese self.