Going to Chinatown—any Chinatown—has always been a feasting event. The main purpose of the drive in was often visiting with family or running errands, but the many restaurants, curbside fruit markets, and groceries were never far from our minds.
During this staying-at-home period, we’re watching TWOL readers cook up an absolute storm. With every sheet pan of glistening hot dog buns and every slice of juicy Chinese BBQ Pork, I can see the longing and nostalgia for Chinatowns everywhere, and just how much people miss going to their favorite shops, bakeries, and restaurants.
Our new extended family past-time is showing off glorious spreads of buns, dim sum, cheung fun rolls, and roast meats from Chinatown pilgrimages, just like in the old days.
Note: We realize it’s been a while since we posted new content. Obviously, there is a lot going on right now—head to our Instagram @thewoksoflife for our ongoing thoughts on not just how we can support Chinese voices and businesses but, more importantly, Black voices and contributors, and how we’re moving forward from here.
Support Your Local Chinatown
Chinatown businesses, like so many other other small mom-and-pops across the country, have been struggling to stay afloat in the current environment. In our home Chinatown in New York City, long-standing businesses felt the pinch even before lockdowns officially began. Some have valiantly stayed in business for takeout and delivery, while others have had to temporarily shut their doors. Slowly but surely, however, businesses are opening back up.
Live in NYC? Scroll down to the end of the post for some of our favorite Chinatown spots that are open for business and NEED your support!
Not in New York? Go support your local Chinatown, and local restaurants and small businesses near you!
In this post, we wanted to collectively reflect on a typical family visit to Chinatown, and share some of our favorite Chinatown treats. These places are where we grew up, where birthdays and new babies were celebrated, and where we pause from the hustle and bustle of life to do what we do best as a family—EAT.
You may be lucky enough to live near a Chinatown and get your hands on some of this stuff ASAP, and we would encourage you to do so (even if you did FINALLY master your pineapple bun and char siu flex). If not, you can always bring a bit of Chinatown into your own kitchen with a recipe or two!
A Typical Visit to Chinatown
Our entire family has powerful memories in Chinatown, where we would make regular trips to stock up on provisions or celebrate holidays.
We sat down to family feasts for Lunar New Year and banquets for great grandma’s 97th, 98th, 99th…and 100th birthdays. We’d pick up mooncakes around the Mid-Autumn Festival (Zhong Qiu Jie), or zongzi from the old man slinging the best ever zongzi assembled in a bathtub and sold for $1 apiece during the Dragon Boat Festival (Duan Wu Jie).
In the old days, my dad, his parents, and two older sisters (our aunts) piled into the station wagon to make the pilgrimage down to Manhattan from upstate New York to stock up on much needed ingredients.
There was fresh whole chicken for clear broths, Chinese vegetables, and cuts of meat like pork belly that they couldn’t get in the local Victory or Giant grocery store. There were big bulk bags of rice, whole live fish, and things that you could only find in Chinatown, like fu yu fermented bean curd and bean pastes.
For Kaitlin and me, Chinatown was a big part of our version of “the old days” too. We’d inevitably get stuck in traffic at the Holland Tunnel, and as we inched across the river and trundled through the blur of Tribeca shops and restaurants, our anticipation (and appetites) grew.
By the time we did the dance of repeatedly circling several blocks to find street parking, and perhaps admitted defeat by parking in a pay lot (I was always fascinated by the stacked parking racks filled with the others who suffered the misfortune of not finding a metered spot), we were ravenous.
1. The Dim Sum Stop
When my dad was a kid, and years later when we were growing up, trips to Chinatown all had one defining feature: you left in the morning so that by the time you got into Chinatown, it was prime dim sum time.
Hungry for lunch and clamoring for food, dim sum was the perfect cure. The entire family would sit and instantly grab their favorites from the roving carts filled with hot bamboo steamers, and you could immediately commence stuffing your face. Instant gratification at its best!
Plus, many of these dishes were trickier to pull off at home, making them well worth the indulgence of eating out.
Within five minutes, we’d have all of these things on our table:
Every kid’s favorite. If we were at dim sum with our cousins, we’d order at least three of these!
The sauce makes it. The only challenge is getting the slippery noodles between those glossy chinatown chopsticks.
A personal favorite of Kaitlin’s and mine—we’d get up out of our seats to go find the one cart that was carrying this treat.
A favorite amongst the adults, that us kids also grew to love as we got older. There’s always a small standoff over who gets the last piece of daikon radish, which soaked up every drop of flavor from the tripe and mellowed it to spiced perfection.
As you unbundled it, you asked your neighbor if they wanted to split it with you, with one lucky person getting the lump of lop cheung stuffed into every one.
The best mix of flavors and textures, with silky shrimp filling at the center.
We watched our parents to figure out how to best chew the meat off the bones without accidentally letting the ribs slide out of our chopsticks and off of our plates.
Slathering these with chili sauce was a must for some!
As if we hadn’t eaten enough, we’d always round out the meal with an order of crispy noodles or chow fun. If we were feeling really crazy, maybe a plate of fried rice. These were our all-time favorites:
So simple and delicious, and always my personal vote.
If we had a pan-fried noodle, we also had to have a rice noodle dish to go with it to appease every member of the family. There was always the crispy noodle contingency and the chow fun fans!
Kaitlin’s vote, always. Some may say it’s stinky, but the second you mix in some chili oil, it’s pure umami goodness.
If you didn’t see one of your favorites here, we have many more Chinese dim sum recipes!
ANYWAY, at this point, we could barely move. But post-dim-sum, it was time to gulp down the last cup of red tea to carry us through the day, roll off our chairs, and shop for vegetables, fruits, meats, dried goods and condiments. Which brings us to…
2. The Bakery Stop
While dim sum was always enjoyable, the gift that kept on giving in the days after any trip to Chinatown were the Chinese buns.
In my parents’ day, they always made sure to order a box of treats. In those days, you would give your order, and the ladies behind the counter would expertly package it all up, tossing the wax paper wrapped buns—gently but with an impressive speed—into boxes and tie it off. A few buns might get snacked on in the station wagon home, but they’d last in the days that followed too.
For me and Kaitlin, buying from Chinese bakeries was our time to shine—and take the lead on selecting which ones to bring home. On the way to the markets, we were bound to pass a Chinese bakery or two, with that sweet, buttery smell wafting out of the constantly swinging doors. We’d turn to each other and have the same conversation we always had:
“Should we go in?”
“We’re already here, so we might as well!”
“Yeah let’s go in!”
We’d squeeze ourselves in at the counter and scan the display cases filled with buns, reaching for trays and tongs to choose our winners. Luckily, coming full and happy from dim sum, we didn’t have as big a risk of over-buying! Even so, by the time we were done, we’d have a sizable pile of buns in wax paper bags. Plus a pan of plain and delicious buttery milk bread buns gleaming from underneath a cellophane wrapper.
The lady behind the counter would rapid-fire ring up our order. She stuffed all the buns into a shopping bag and shouted the total so quickly, there was never time for my mom’s buyer’s remorse!
Here’s what we were bringing home:
My all-time favorite, still today. The sweet crumbly topping is just the best.
These were the favorites amongst us and our cousins, especially when we were young. Like a plate of bacon on a Saturday morning, our parents would watch a whole tray disappear in minutes.
Always a crowd pleasing classic, and my mom’s favorite. She’s an old-fashioned-doughnut kinda gal.
They taste even better heated up!
A necessity for my sister. We would always stand in front of the counter while she hemmed and hawed over whether to get strawberry, taro, or a classic black tea.
Because when you’ve already gone this hard on “breakfast,” why not also pick up dessert for later?
The Market Stop
From there, we’d go on to our shopping. At street stalls, my mom always carefully selected each piece of produce before handing them off to the sellers to be weighed. Our grandmother would usually be with us after lunch or for a pre-dinner meet-up, and she supplied the requisite side commentary to make sure we picked out the best fish and meat.
Both would stuff bags of fruits and vegetables into my arms, and my sister and I would trudge along dutifully behind them. My dad would usually disappear into the crowd and resurface from nowhere with some unexpected items—a bag of rambutan fruit or lychees he wanted to experiment with, some cherries he thought looked good, or perhaps something from the meat market.
After we were done at the street stalls, we’d go to the big market for packaged goods. We’d grab a cart and roll it through the narrow aisles, with everyone branching off in different directions while Kaitlin manned the cart and tried not to panic when heads would get lost in the crowd.
Inevitably, my dad would pick up a jar of some paste or sauce, and my mom would squawk that we already had two of those at home! At checkout, my sister and I would get distracted by shelves of Pocky Sticks and Lotte Koala Cookies.
Can you see us now? Everyone weighed down with bags, pushing through throngs of others doing their weekend shopping. We’re trying to walk fast back to the car (because dang, these bags are heavy), but can’t go twenty feet without pausing to wait on the sidewalk as someone in the group ran into yet another store to grab more “essentials.”
Sometimes we brought backpacks to help distribute the weight, but at this point, I was looking longingly at all the Chinese grannies pushing their groceries around in excellent folding carts.
The Dinner Stop
We look at the clock, and somehow it’s already 4:30. Time to think about dinner.
When my dad was young, they would try to squeeze in dim sum for lunch and dinner at a restaurant too—not only were trips to Chinatown a rare treat, but there was a long drive back to Liberty.
For me and Kaitlin, in our days, we rarely had lunch and dinner at a sit-down restaurant on the same day—it just seemed too extravagant. Our choice was always takeout. My mom was always heartily in support of that suggestion, because it meant she wouldn’t have to cook when we got home.
So, we’d call up a local joint to place our orders—an assortment of rice plates and Cantonese roast meats! Here are some of our favorites to this day:
Everyone’s favorite, but mine especially! Before I could open my mouth to say what I wanted, my mom already knew.
None of us can resist the delicate ginger scallion flavor mixed with the savory beef, and that delicious sauce soaking into the fresh rice!
Something my dad always ordered on the side in a little plastic tub.
Another saucy comfort food dish born to go with lots of rice!
Kaitlin’s order was always a mix of roast meats, usually a “three meats” trifecta of this char siu…
…Plus these crispy-skinned pieces of roast pork…
…And this flavorful soy sauce chicken (with lots and lots of ginger scallion oil).
My mom would always order a Cantonese Roast Duck to go (my dad is working on a recipe, so stay tuned. In the meantime, check out our Easy Peking Duck). We would take it home and put it in the freezer for quick and tasty noodle soups.
We’d run into the restaurant to pick up our order, triumphantly emerging with two heavy bags stacked to the top knot with ready-to-eat delights. Once settled in the car, we’d look for another place to temporarily park, so we could open up those takeout containers and dig in. We had to eat it while it was hot!
A few blissful mouthfuls and greasy napkins later, we would ease the car back out onto the Chinatown streets, braced for the tunnel traffic back home. The drive was always considerably more pleasant, however, because we were full, and completely content.
Here are some of our favorite Chinatown spots open for business for takeout/delivery (as of today, June 7, 2020). Please support these restaurants if you can!
We also included some of our favorites that may be temporarily closed, but that we’re watching closely for re-opening dates!
For banquet-style dishes, roast meats, seafood, etc.
- Big Wong AKA Da Wong (duck and cheung fun) – OPEN
- Dong Hu (East Lake Seafood Restaurant) AKA Imperial Palace (Flushing) – OPEN
- Good Fortune Restaurant AKA East (Flushing – Kissena Blvd) – OPEN
- The Great NY Noodletown – OPEN
- Jing Fong – UWS OPEN / CHINATOWN OPEN
- Mei Wah Fast Food – OPEN
- Wah Fung Fast Food – OPEN
- Wu’s Wonton King – OPEN for takeout and curbside outdoor dining
- New World Mall Food Court (Flushing) – OPEN
- Szechuan Mountain House (Flushing) – OPEN
For Dim Sum, noodles, and dumplings
- Deluxe Green Bo – OPEN
- Nom Wah – OPEN
- Spicy Village – OPEN
- Shanghai You Garden AKA Yu Yuan (Flushing) – OPEN
- Nan Xiang Xiao Long Bao (Flushing) – OPEN
- 88 Lam Zhou Handmade Noodles – PERMANENTLY CLOSED
For bakery buns
- Fay Da – OPEN
- Mei Li Wah – OPEN
- Taipan Bakery – OPEN
For old-school American-Chinese
- Hop Kee – OPEN
- Golden Forest – OPEN
We’ve been following Wilson Tang @dimsumnyc (owner of Nom Wah Tea Parlor) for updates on which NYC Chinatown businesses are re-opening. We’ll also be keeping a close watch and adding to this list. :)
Also, while we’re most familiar with our Chinatowns in Manhattan and Flushing, we want to hear more about the Chinatowns in your neck of the woods––wherever you are. What are your favorite spots? Comment below!