For a dozen years, the lower three blocks of Eldridge Street have been the city’s foremost cradle of cheap eats. That stretch boasts two of the stalls—Vanessa’s and Prosperity—that ushered in the dollar-dumpling phenomenon, where a Washington got you five (now four) bulbous pork pot stickers. Additionally, it’s the city’s original home of Lanzhou hand-pulled noodles, at Super Taste, then at Sheng Wang—where peel noodles were also introduced. Surrounding these pasta and dumpling specialists are scads of bargain Fujianese restaurants, not to mention places that concentrate on manufacturing fish balls and serving them in soups. Hungry? You can stuff yourself silly on Eldridge for less than $5.
But this quintessential Lower East Side thoroughfare—where an 1887 synagogue and the ragtag appearance of the narrow storefronts on the southernmost block still suggest what the neighborhood looked like more than a century ago—never lets grass grow under its feet. Recently, three wildly inexpensive restaurants have opened up, each with its own unique attributes. Competing with the delightfully named Young City Fish Balls on the same block, Yi Zhang Fishball Inc. (9 Eldridge Street, 212-961-6151) is another fabricator of the bouncy orbs that constitute a Fujianese passion. Served in a thin broth minimally flavored with chopped scallions, the balls are not quite spherical, and you get 10 for $3. The real surprise comes when you cut into them and out tumbles a stealth pork filling.
Other notable bargain-priced dishes at Yi Zhang include a splendid $2 plate of German-style egg noodles inundated with a soy-peanut sauce. Wonder how the topping is made? A crate of giant Skippy jars stands in the corner at the ready. Eight for $2 and shaped like jellyfish, the steamed pork-and-chive dumplings are also worth ordering. Strangest of all is “fish noodle soup with lamb,” the most expensive thing on the menu at $6. The fettuccine incorporates slivers of seafood, making for a bumpy-road texture, and the lamb turns out to be all organs. Check it out if only for the novelty of the noodles.
On the same block, find Food World (19 Eldridge Street, 212-219-0006), a walk-down property with no English signage and a more ambitious menu than the premises would suggest. Luckily, the bill of fare translates 80 percent of the items into English. All sorts of high-end seafood is available from pristine tanks, but it’s the humble Fujianese dishes that stick with you. Lichee pork ($3.95) is one of those, nuggets of red-tinted pig tossed with pea pods and lotus roots, served over rice. There are no actual lichees in the recipe—the meat’s bright hue recalls the lichee’s husk, hence the name. Similarly red—as a result of braising in scarlet rice-wine lees, a favorite Fujianese technique—is stir-fried intestines. The guts develop a surprisingly crisp texture, like wrinkly potato chips. You can get rabbit and duck cooked the same way.
When you first spot Panda Dumpling House (107 Hester Street, at the corner of Eldridge, 212-625-1115), it looks like the usual fried-dumpling stall the street has become famous for—except that it occupies a windowed corner storefront that could be called luxurious by Eldridge standards. Don’t worry—you can still get pork pot stickers there, retro-priced at five for a dollar. But the steamed dumplings (eight for $2) are better, mixing pork with either bok choy or scallions, especially when dipped in the dark soy vinegar available from plastic squirt bottles. There are several noodle soups, too—including one that features beef braised in star anise—and a peanut-sauce noodle nearly identical to Yi Zhang’s. At Panda, you can match a plate of them with a bowl of clear, light peanut soup ($1.50)—but only if you’re really, really into goobers.
Unlike its dumpling brethren, Panda seems intent on expanding its menu. Consult the ordering counter for experimental dishes that might or might not end up on the bill of fare. Over the past couple of months, these have included the cold skin noodles that were a hit at Xi’an Famous Foods; tea-boiled eggs bobbing in a rice cooker; beef tripe dusted with Sichuan peppercorns (“very good with beer,” the dumpling clerk told me); the vermicelli, vegetable, and scrambled-egg buns called “chive box” in Los Angeles; and an elongated helix of fried dough labeled “twisted flower.”
Indeed, the place might be aiming to create the Fujianese-Northern Chinese-Sichuanese equivalent of the old-fashioned Cantonese carryout, replacing the usual stir-fries and egg rolls with dumplings, meal-size soups, small spicy dishes, and plates of noodles. Expect to see these sorts of expanded dumpling stalls popping up all over town. You might never find yourself eating chicken with broccoli again.