On a particularly cold and wet late-December afternoon, chef Anita Lo is looking for sea bass. Potato leaves, too, to finish off a mackerel dish. Her purveyor shorted her on the sea bass and the potato leaves weren’t quite the quality she requires so, as she often does, Lo biked down from her West Village restaurant, Annisa (13 Barrow Street; 212-741-6699) to Grand Street in Chinatown, to hunt for them.
Lo’s mother is from Malaysia. Her father, who passed away when she was a child, is from Shanghai. Her stepfather is American, from Denver. And she grew up in Michigan. None of this plays too much into Lo’s food. French-trained with over three decades in the New York City food scene, she puts touches of Asian flavors and ingredients on her menu, but doesn’t consider herself an Asian cook by any means. Annisa means “women” in Arabic, and her Malaysian is minimal: “I was really young and really rebellious,” she says. “Going to school to learn Malaysian was taking up my Saturday mornings when I should have been watching cartoons like other Midwestern kids.”
But Lo loves wandering Chinatown, and over the years has found gems she comes to rely on for tofu noodles and dumplings, and enough options for fresh fish on any given day. No shop is a sure-fire thing, though: “To get good fish down here, you have to shop around,” she claims, “because the quality is different per day at different stores. I usually go to at least three.”
So she sets off in search of her sea bass and potato stems, stopping into other shops on the way to point out their particular value or to reminisce about things she’s bought there in the past.
Her first stop is the Tan Tin-Hung Supermarket at 121 Bowery, which is densely stocked with a variety of mostly Thai and Vietnamese groceries. Quail eggs sit next to papayas, Thai basil and Vietnamese pork sausage. The shelves are lined with so many roots and herbs that don’t translate into English that Lo can’t identify most of them — which excites her.
“We used to serve raw taro stem on the menu as a garnish,” she says, holding up a massive green stalk. “It grows out of the root. You peel it and cut away to get at the white flesh to get these beautiful little porous bites. You don’t get a lot of flavor, but it’s lightly sweet and has a really crunchy texture.”
Lo doesn’t buy anything, but recommends the market for staples and general browsing.
We head south, on the hunt for more of her favorite haunts, and as she passes Fong Inn Too at 46 Mott Street, we stop inside quickly to look at the fresh, hot tofu noodles coming out of the back kitchen.
We meander down Mott, marveling at the gently curving road and the architecture that hasn’t changed much during Lo’s tenure here, until we make it to Bangkok Center Grocery at 104 Mosco Street. Just inside the door, she finds what she brought us here to see: large raku pestles in red clay that are used for making papaya salads on the street in Thailand. “They take a whole green papaya, peel it, and shred it by hitting it with a knife over and over before sliding the papaya off.” She bought a pestle for making papaya salad at the Palm Beach Food and Wine festival a while back, though she admits to using the “hit and shred” technique only for a few minutes before returning to mandolining the flesh away.
Inside, she points out the fresh tamarind, galangal, kefir lime leaves, Thai eggplant and turmeric that are hard to find in such good quality elsewhere. Cans of lychees, longans and rambutans sit in syrup. In the freezer section, she lands on panda (screwpine) leaf. “It’s delicious,” she says. “It’s a little bit like rice and vanilla together. We’re making ice cream out of it, steeping it into the custard base.”
Wandering back up Mulberry, we pass store windows where cardboard replicas of clothes, cars, houses and daily necessities are displayed prominently, looking like “paper doll” versions of every worldly possession you might hope to acquire. Which is, evidently, the point.
“These are Chinese,” Lo laughs. “When Chinese people die, they’ll burn all of this stuff by the grave to send to heaven with them so that they’ll have them there. So they’ll do things like mansions, cell phones, cars… dentures!”
Still headed north, en route to find that fish, we make a quick stop at the Mulberry Meat Market at 89 Mulberry Street so that she can point our her favorite frozen local dumplings. “I get the pork and leek dumplings and the pork and shrimp wontons,” she says. “They’re so cheap, and you can just keep them in the freezer and cook them whenever you want. I used to buy the juicy pork buns but they’re not that juicy. They’re good, but I like the pork and leek the best. I pan fry the pork and leek, and I make wonton soup out of the pork and shrimp wontons. I just cook them in water with some soy sauce, vinegar and Vietnamese chili sauce. Easy.”
We scoop around to 143 Mott Street so she can point out her favorite buns at the Golden Steamer, then pass a few seafood markets that only get a quick glance before she moves on, finally arriving at Dahing Seafood Market at 127 Mott. There’s plenty of fresh seafood on display, like chunky salmon filets and shrimp in various sizes, and she’s impressed with the overall quality today. But no sea bass.
At the Won Chong Trading Corp at 139 Mott, she finds the potato leaves, picking through bags and holding them to the light before selecting the two that will come back to Annisa with her. She points out yama emo — a yam she dubs the “slime vegetable” for its tendency to turn viscous when cooked down. There are beautiful garlic chive buds that are a little overgrown but, in December, miraculous in their existence. And there are scores of other, more common fruits and vegetables, like kohlrabi, cucumbers, various greens and citrus fruits.
Finally, she wanders across the street to the New York Mart at 128 Mott in one final attempt to find fish. And fish they have — there are live shrimp and crabs, a bin that we deduce are jellyfish without the tentacles, and even alligator claws, ferocious and dragon-like, welcoming patrons toward the front of the store. Lo sometimes stops in here for prepared foods, and the quality of the fish is spectacular: “I’ve never seen a lot of the things in there,” she says.
Leaving empty-handed, she’s back on the street and pondering the special she’ll run to make up for the lack of sea bass. But since Annisa only has 48 seats, she’ll most likely dream up something manageable by the time she makes it back to her bike. Probably something a bit more traditional than jellyfish or alligator claws. But in Chinatown, you never know.