Now that summer’s heat is abating, and the subway platforms are cooling, it’s time to get out and do some urban exploring. Our Fall Guide this year will be devoted to the city’s five Chinatowns. Maybe you only know about two or three of them, but, yes, there are five, each with its own particular character. All are easily accessible by subway. So, put on some comfy shoes and let’s get started.
Founded in the mid-19th century, the mother of all Chinatowns lies in Manhattan. It’s a dense and gritty urban area, and, despite hipster incursions, remains a haven for working-class Chinese immigrants. For the past 10 years, the majority have come from the coastal Fujian Province. Take the F train to the East Broadway stop and start walking down East Broadway toward the Manhattan Bridge, which looms up ahead.
Immediately on your right is Sun Light Bakery (180 East Broadway, 212-608-8899), where the specialty is delicious steamed rice rolls with a choice of fillings. As you proceed down East Broadway, you’ll find a few holdout Jewish institutions as the Chinese businesses become more numerous, smaller, and more tightly packed with merchandise, including cheap imported goods, produce stands displaying dragon fruits and longans, dumpling stalls, dried fish purveyors, and Fujianese lunch counters with the dishes stacked in the windows.
For a meal of noodles in soup or charcuterie over rice, visit East Corner Wonton (70 East Broadway, 212-343-9896); for dim sum any day before the hour of 2 p.m., take the escalator upstairs at 88 Palace (88 East Broadway, 212-941-8886). Across the street at 75 East Broadway is one of Chinatown’s densest markets, a fun-to-explore warren of stalls and shops. Snack items and notions are sold in front right on the sidewalk, housewares on two levels inside, vegetables and fruits in the back courtyard, and, behind that, a secret supermarket with a stunning assortment of live seafood.
Return to East Broadway and complete your walk down to Confucius Plaza. Just before you reach it, 88 Food Sing (2 East Broadway, 212-219-8223) is one of the most distinguished purveyors of hand-pulled noodles in soups or stir-fries.
Flushing has been transforming the past few years from a Taiwanese enclave to a northern Chinese neighborhood. To explore that aspect, begin at the corner of Main and Roosevelt—the eastern terminus of the 7 train—and walk due south on Main. Stop to fortify yourself the minute you hit 40th Road, where a window in Corner 28 (40-28 Main Street, 718-886-6628) sells bao sandwiches of Peking Duck with scallions and hoisin sauce. A block farther on your right, under the LIRR tracks, a series of windows vend the best and biggest scallion pancakes you’ve ever tasted.
Proceeding southward, you pass the Queens Public Library, which makes a good pit stop if you need it. One of the premier destinations in Flushing’s Chinatown is Golden Mall (41-28 Main Street, 212-786-2068), a ramshackle place where a stairway right at the corner leads down to an amazing food court, with stalls from Sichuan, Xi’an, and Tianjin, among other regions.
Walk one more block south and find yourself in a thicket of northern Chinese restaurants, where buns are served instead of rice, and cumin-scented lamb is the most popular meat. Slinging halal Muslim cuisine, Yi Lan (42-79A Main Street, 718-886-3622) offers seafood but no pork, while Lu Xiang Yuan (42-87 Main Street, 718-359-2108) pursues the micro-cuisine of Qingdao, the port city in which Tsingtao beer is brewed, where the food has European elements. Propel farther down Main Street through an Afghan neighborhood and finally land at the Queens Botanical Garden (43-50 Main Street, 718-886-3800), where you can admire the foliage.
Brooklyn’s foremost Chinatown starts around 40th Street and runs southwards down Eighth Avenue to 65th Street, with considerable spillage onto Seventh and Sixth avenues. But you should begin your tour slightly further north in the hilltop park called Sunset Park, where sweeping views of the Upper Bay will stimulate your appetite.
Walking down Eighth Avenue, you’ll be amazed at how the laid-back ambiance compares with the frenzy of other Chinatowns. Highlights of the tree-lined thoroughfare include Vietnamese sandwich shop Ba Xuyen (4222 Eighth Avenue, 718-633-6601); Yun Nan Flavor Snack (774 49th Street, 718-633-3090), offering noodles from Yunnan Province in southwestern China; and Thanh Da (6008 Seventh Avenue, 718-492-3253), a great Vietnamese café with color pictures of the selections on the walls.
But if it’s morning or early afternoon, go straight to East Harbor (726 65th Street, 718-765-0098), where some of Gotham’s most exciting dim sum is created. Finish up in verdant Leif Ericson Park, the dividing line between Bay Ridge and Sunset Park.
This former village in Queens is the most unconventional of Chinatowns. It’s nearly impossible to tell where it begins and ends, and many of the restaurants are Malaysian, Indonesian, or Thai, though the owners are often Chinese. Begin at the Roosevelt Avenue/Jackson Heights station and proceed southward on Broadway past Korean businesses and Elmhurst Hospital.
Just after Clement Clarke Moore Park (he’s the dude who wrote “Twas the night before Christmas . . .”), turn right and find yourself at Taste Good (8218 45th Avenue, 718-898-8001), a cozy Malaysian restaurant, or continue a bit further and turn left on Whitney Avenue to discover Thai, Javanese, Pakistani, and dumpling shops, too numerous to individually describe.
You’ll see many further promising restaurants as you go under the LIRR tracks and continue down Broadway, including a noodle café from Henan in central China called Uncle Zhou (83-29 Broadway, 718-393-0888) and a Sichuan restaurant with the cloying name of Sweet Yummy House (83-13 Broadway, 718-878-6603). Stop when you get to Queens Boulevard.
This is Brooklyn’s newest Chinatown, but it barely qualifies as one because it lacks the commercial density we usually associate with such neighborhoods. Businesses—mainly produce stands, supermarkets, duck shops, and cafés—are attenuated along a mile-long stretch of Avenue U that runs from Coney Island Avenue to Bedford Avenue, centering on the Avenue U stop on the Q train.
The virtue of this Chinatown—apart from how it seamlessly co-exists with Russian, Jewish, and Italian businesses—lies in its old-fashioned Cantonese establishments of the sort disappearing from the other Chinatowns. Triple Z (1410 Avenue U, 718-382-4328) is a duck shop/restaurant, where over-rice dishes predominate, while Pho Vietnam (1243 Avenue U, 718-998-2858) whips up a mean bowl of the eponymous soup. Century Mart (2309 Avenue U, 718-368-3666) is a sprawling Chinese supermarket with super-cheap prices. For some old-time Brooklyn flavor, end your tour at Jay & Lloyd’s Kosher Deli (2718 Avenue U, 718-891-5298). Hey, Jewish delis serve egg rolls, too.