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When was the last time you did a double take while looking at a menu? My most recent jolt occurred in an alleyway that runs between Elizabeth Street and the Bowery, rather grandly known as the Chinatown Arcade. As I was passing through its darkened precincts, among the cheap clothing merchandisers, watch-repair stalls, and boarded-up storefronts, I dawdled at the menu of a haplessly located spot called Coluck, which has no street frontage. As I could see through the windows, the establishment was laid out like a diner—its tables and booths clad in Formica—with decoration limited to a clock emblazoned with knives, forks, and spoons. The waitresses dress in black, except for short-sleeve pink blouses, which they pull over long-sleeve black tunics. They look like beatniks.
The thing that caught my eye was “kimchi Italian-sausage ramen” ($6). What a jarring juxtaposition, I thought. Had the cook been watching Top Chef? It was similarly strange that a Chinese café referred to its lo mein as ramen, which is a Japanese term. The Korean kimchi at least was understandable, because—as I’d learned at Vanessa’s Dumplings in the early days—Mandarin speakers are great fans of the fermented-cabbage condiment. No, what really got me was the Italian sausage. Did a box fall off a truck one day or a delivery boy bring some by accident? It sets you to thinking: How does this kind of wild fusion happen?
Coluck is one of perhaps a dozen low-profile Hong Kong cafés tucked away here and there in Chinatown, rarely noticed by outsiders. If a tourist from, say, Topeka stumbled into one of these places—which are jazzily decorated and often aimed at young Chipsters (Chinese hipsters)—what would she think? Although standard southern Chinese dishes are in evidence (things like fried rice, chow fun, congee, bubble tea, and modest stir-fries), many of the choices incorporate what seem like random Western ingredients. Cast your eye over Coluck’s menu and find such startling items as hot dogs, Spam, spaghetti, corned beef, mashed potatoes, Cajun curly fries, and some American-looking breakfasts.
So how was the kimchi Italian-sausage ramen? The serving was abundant at least, and the crumbled fennel sausage rubbed up against the kimchi’s fermented fish flavors in an interesting sort of way. Strangest of all, the dish seemed to be made with packaged ramen—you know, the kind you once heated up on a college dorm hot plate. In succeeding days, I visited Coluck four more times and tried to pick out the wackiest dishes I could find. One morning, I enjoyed a breakfast of two eggs over easy with white toast. It came (shazam!) with a naked frankfurter. Another day, I had a standard Cantonese breakfast of congee with minced beef and a cruller. Except for use of the Brit term “minced,” the comforting rice porridge was identical in every way to that at a regular Cantonese spot. (If you want a real treat, have the cruller slit open and stuffed with scallions and shredded fish.)
Among non-breakfast items, the buffalo wings ($4.25) went a little off-track: They’d been deep-fried after marination in hot sauce but were tasty and cheap nonetheless. One day, I stumbled on a spectacular menu section (one of 17) called Chinese Pan Cakes ($2.95 to $4.75). It turned out to contain delightful little sandwiches made with sesame-seeded bao, not unlike David Chang’s ssäm. In one iteration, the pancake came stuffed with Peking duck decorated with scallions and hoisin; in another with Spam and egg, like something out of Dr. Seuss. The place also offers plain sandwiches on store-bought white, thin and penurious, including a peanut butter sandwich further smeared with sweetened condensed milk. Wash it down with a milk tea ($2.25) and see how British you feel!
The dish that gets the weirdness award? “Creamy ham, chicken, and corn spaghetti” ($5.75) arrives awash in canned cream corn, an ingredient that appears often on Coluck’s menu. Runner-up is a huge heap of sculpted instant mashed potatoes surmounted by crumbled bacon and sided with a gluey bowl of mushroom gravy. Damn, it was good! So you’re saying, “Give me a reason to go to this place.” Well, they’ll feed you cheaply and copiously with foods that seem like a merging of neighborhood Chinese and the cooking of a culinarily challenged English mom who, strapped for time, pulls a box of prefab something or other out of the pantry.
And if that’s not reason enough, wait till you taste the kimchi omelet over rice. Now that’s a great breakfast.