I’d zoomed past the gleaming new restaurant a couple of times on my bike, but it wasn’t till the third occasion that I noticed the name: Rong Hang. “What a hook to hang a review on,” I blurted out. So the next week, I dragged a crowd of avid Sino-diners to the location, a couple of blocks north of Canal on Eldridge Street, in the heart of Chinatown’s Fujianese neighborhood. But when we tried to get in, the manager waved us away, asserting in shaky English that all the tables were reserved — even though the place was more than half-empty.
To make a shaggy-dog story short, I went twice more with groups of friends at various odd hours — in one case, dragging along a fluent speaker of Cantonese (“I can only understand every sixth word,” she lamented of the Fujianese dialect). But each time, the story remained the same: No room at the inn. Luckily, on the first occasion, there’d been a helpful local lurking outside; he pointed at a restaurant on the next block and said, “Owned by the same man.” Best Fuzhou did indeed have a similar sign and a nearly identical menu, though it was minus some of the more arcane seafood we’d admired in the tanks at Rong Hang.
Thus it was that I ended up visiting Best Fuzhou three times. Fortunately for me, the food was spectacular. The Fujianese adore soups, and our hands-down favorite was “water melon with fish stomach” ($9.50). The “water melon” proved to be, not the sweet red fruit prized here, but a pale, non-sweet cucurbit, while “fish stomach” was, anatomically speaking, a flotation bladder — white featherweight masses that bobbed like cotton balls in the limpid broth. Miniature red jujube dates furnished brilliant spots of color. A Fujianese meal often features several soups, and in quick succession, we also enjoyed hot-and-sour pigskin soup and Fuzhou wonton soup, which came freighted with ragged unstuffed dumplings in a broth that can best be described as dull.
But that wasn’t the end of the soups. We quickly learned that many dishes listed under “Noodles” were also soups, including “noodle with duck & taro” ($5.50), featuring big, bony pieces of duck and purplish wedges of creamy taro. Additionally, an untranslated section of the menu included many soups, which we sampled at random by pointing at the Chinese ideograms. The second item in the section involved a much tastier broth teeming with wads of beef, dried mushrooms, and pungent Chinese celery, undermining the popular supposition that the dishes that remain untranslated are the ones that might seem weird to Westerners.
Among the soup-less noodles, we were especially intrigued by something called “chow mein Fuzhou style” ($3.75), which turned out to be a massive meatless heap of egg fettuccine, tossed with shredded cabbage, scallions, and celery. It reminded us that Marco Polo passed through the Fujianese capital of Fuzhou in 1285, describing it as “an important center of commerce in pearls and other precious stones.” Could this be the port where he scored the noodles brought back to Italy?
Like the Cantonese, the Fujianese are fans of whole fish, especially eels, which cavort in tanks at the end of the room, as if fond of their lot in life. But a plethora of other sea creatures overshadows the simple whole-fish presentations at Best Fuzhou. One example is “clam with fresh garlic” ($12.95) — a warm salad of chopped bivalves mixed with cilantro, green onions, and raw garlic. The quantity is so great that the dish is served in three giant clam shells. We also sucked down an agreeable plate of thin-sliced conch tossed with goose feet — making it easy for us, the flesh had been peeled away from the feet, so the rubbery appendages didn’t have to be gnawed.
Amphibians are another Fujianese preoccupation, and the menu at Best Fuzhou is hopping with frogs. Though one is always tempted to proclaim, “It tastes like chicken,” frog flesh is really more like fish, and best experienced in “frog wrapped w. leaf,” wherein lotus leaves provide a musky flavor to the stringy, pellucid flesh. Among the classic roster of Fujianese dishes you’ll find the cryptic “pork with lychee” ($8.95). As we rummaged around in that colorful assemblage of cauliflower, snow peas, tomato wedges, and deeply red nuggets of fried pig, a fellow diner complained, “Hey, where’s the lychee?” I’d been boning up on Fujianese cuisine, and was able to reply with some certainty: “The name refers to the pork nuggets. They’re supposed to look like unpeeled lychee nuts.” “They look more like my nuts,” he muttered, unconvinced.