Today, we’re talking about a topic near and dear to our hearts: Chinatown. For generations of our family, the Chinatowns of New York City were a refuge—a place where cherished ingredients could be found, where family has gathered for weddings, birthdays, and babies’ first month celebrations, and where each visit is always intertwined with tradition.
But Chinatowns across America are struggling. While many businesses suffered during the pandemic, some of the hardest hit were the restaurants and local businesses in Chinatowns across the country. Over 150 storefronts and restaurants—many of them small, family-run businesses—have closed over the last two and a half years in Manhattan’s Chinatown alone.
We recently met Grace Young, cookbook author, stir-fry guru, Chinatown advocate and activist, and food historian, at a cookbook event. She told us about the #SupportChinatowns campaign, which is launching today in partnership with the James Beard Foundation and NYC & Co., to urge us all to visit our local Chinatowns to eat, shop, and enjoy them—so that they’ll still be here for us in the future, as they have been for decades.
We all have so many cherished memories that took place in Manhattan’s Chinatown. Bill grew up visiting with his family once every month to see relatives and stock up on groceries. For Judy, Chinatown was a haven of familiarity in a country that was totally new to her. And for Sarah and Kaitlin, it was a place for family gatherings, where one could feel connected to the past.
So today, we’re publishing a guide to Manhattan Chinatown, so that if you’re in the NYC area, you can check out some of our favorite spots!
If you’re not in NYC, look for a Chinatown near you, and see what you can discover at a restaurant, bakery, fruit stand, mom & pop shop, or grocery store.
Click here to skip down to the guide and here to skip down to our Downloadable Google Map, or if you’re in the mood for a little story time, keep reading to hear more about Bill’s childhood memories of Manhattan Chinatown.
The Chinatown I Remember – Bill
Growing up in the Catskills (Liberty, NY to be exact), getting to the heart of the Chinese community on the East Coast required a two-hour car ride—to Manhattan’s Chinatown on the Lower East Side. We went to Chinatown once every month or so, packing into the family station wagon like we were going on a big family vacation. It was one day, and one day only, to buy provisions for the next month and spend time with relatives.
We piled into the car bright and early. Not long after we pulled out of the driveway, the leaded gas fumes would fill the car, mixing with my father’s cigarette smoke—a smell as familiar as the trees whizzing past the windows. Over the next two hours, my older sisters and I would either sleep through the ride, or think about all the things we wanted to eat that day.
Before I knew it, we were rolling through Canal Street—passing Chinatown’s narrow blocks, which were always packed with people on Saturdays and Sundays. Cantonese was the only dialect I heard spoken then (quite a difference from the diverse Chinatowns of today). When we clambered out of the car, surrounded by folks speaking Cantonese, the city felt less scary, and my parents felt right at home.
One of our most important stops was my grandparents’ small apartment. Aunts, uncles, and cousins converged in their tiny walkup on the weekends. We would always stop to buy fruits or a mixed box of Chinese bakery buns to share. If it was a holiday, my mother would bring food from home that she had specially prepared for the trip, like lo bak go, neen go (nian gao), or joong (zongzi).
If my grandparents didn’t want to come out for a sit-down weekend yum cha (dim sum), an afternoon mahjong game was on the agenda, or we were just short on time, we would go to a local diner-style Chinese tea and coffee house that specialized in takeout.
I loved tagging along with my father. He would stand at the counter, in between old men sitting at their stools drinking their coffee and having breakfast. He shouted our dim sum orders over the noisy banter of the crowd, and the men behind the counter slid shrimp dumplings, steamed ribs, rice noodle rolls, and steamed buns into red and white paper trays or small wax paper bags, placing them all neatly into a cardboard box for us to carry out.
Everything was taken from windowed steam cabinets behind the counter, right next to the coffee and tea pots. The steam pouring out of the cabinets was especially welcome during the winter months, and the air always smelled so good! We often shared our bounty with my grandparents, and I couldn’t wait to get back to their apartment to dig in ahead of an afternoon with my cousins.
After the adults had had a few hours of catching up and maybe one too many lost games of mahjong, food shopping took precedence. There were many stops at various fresh fish and meat markets, multiple produce stands to root out every kind of vegetable and fruit we needed, and the dry goods stores where we stocked up on canned, dried, and preserved goods. And don’t forget the tofu and noodle shop!
Chinese vegetables and fruits were non-existent—or hard to find at best—outside of Chinatown. To see seasonal fruits like lychees and dragon eyes stacked on the produce stands was always a pleasant surprise. When lychees started appearing in the fall, so did mooncake boxes, stacked to the ceiling at the local bakeries. Regardless of the time of year, we would always make sure to get a box of bakery goodies to bring home with us. The buns and egg tarts the following week were always savored even more, a real treat until our next Chinatown trip.
If it wasn’t already a holiday, there was bound to be an upcoming one that my mother wanted to prepare for. Special occasions called for whole fresh fish, thick slabs of layered pork belly, and Buddhist-style chickens that you could never buy in American supermarkets. “Chinatown chickens,” as I called them, are far better-tasting birds that are sold almost exclusively in Chinese supermarkets. They were and still are very special to this very day. Getting one to make baak chit gai (white cut chicken) or soy sauce chicken really mattered.
With so much to buy, we always seemed to be in a rush. As my sisters and I got older, we found our arms full with grocery bags, and we were tasked with shuttling them to our parked car for the trip home.
On rare occasions, we managed to squeeze into my grandparents’ apartment to spend the night. But most of the time, it was a whirlwind of a day trip, and everyone was exhausted when we climbed back into the wagon for the trip home.
My sisters and I would fall asleep from the long day and our monthly “fix” of goodies that we’d eaten earlier. My mom would keep my father company during the drive home, talking quietly in the front seat until my father’s voice shook us awake—”Liberty!”—and we knew we’d made it home safely. One more glorious day in Chinatown was over, until our next visit.
The Woks of Life Guide to Manhattan Chinatown
What Informed This Guide
While we are solidly New Jerseyans, we still visit Manhattan’s Chinatown, so we’ve included many of our family’s personal favorite spots in this list.
Sarah’s husband Justin also lived on East Broadway and Canal St. for almost five years, so we’re also factoring in some of the businesses that he frequented in his time there.
Finally, we reached out to family members—many of whom live in the NYC area—to get their recommendations. That means it’s a big list!
We have it organized by business type: restaurants, bakeries, groceries (specialty & general), shops, and personal care!
Uncle Lou on Mulberry – A relatively new addition to Chinatown, owned by a Hong Kong native and serving up delicious Cantonese food. BYOB. Get their crispy garlic chicken, and don’t leave without trying their warm taro sago dessert soup!
Wu’s Wonton King on E. Broadway – Cantonese Classics, with a big outdoor seating area for the warmer months, and BYOB! Get the Three Flavor Wonton in Bone Soup for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
Cafe Hong Kong on Bayard – A family recommendation. Sarah’s gotten takeout from here and commented that there were a lot of older generation folks dining in for lunch on a weekday—always a good sign. The word on the family grapevine: “signature dish is their steamed carp, but everything here is top notch.”
Hak Box on E. Broadway – A family recommendation! This place serves up hard-to-find Hakka-style food like large sui gao (dumplings), stuffed tofu, and cheung fun (rice noodle rolls) stuffed with minced pork and dried shrimp. A revival of the old restaurant, South Wind on Division St. that many grew up with on our Cantonese side of the family.
The Cheung Fun Lady (unsure of exact location) – This isn’t a “restaurant” per se, but rather one lady who’s been selling a variety of rice noodle rolls (cheung fun) and fish balls “forever” from her Chinatown street cart (find her on Yelp as “Rice Noodle Cart”). Usually on Centre St. and Canal or Rutgers and E. Broadway Monday through Saturday before 3 PM.
The Zongzi Lady on Grand – Somewhere on Grand and Chrystie, you might find a street vendor with a small folding chair and a box of homemade zongzi (sticky rice bundles) that are widely known as the best in the area. She offers several varieties, including Taiwan-style, Cantonese-Style, Shanghai-Style, Black Rice, Sweet Red Bean, Peanut, and Mung Bean.
Deluxe Green Bo on Bayard – Justin’s favorite spot for soup dumplings! (Also try Yu Garden in Flushing Chinatown. Our popo (maternal grandma) lives there, so we may put together a Flushing Chinatown post in the future!)
Wah Fung Fast Food on Chrystie – Affordable, juicy Cantonese roast meats over rice. The word is out on this place, so there might be a long line; get there early.
New Kim Tuong on Chrystie – Next to Wah Fung, also slinging delicious roast meats, as well as other Cantonese specialties. If the line at Wah Fung is too much for you, head here!
Great NY Noodletown on Bowery – An institution we’ve been going to for years, with rice plates, noodle dishes, and roast meats.
Fried Dumpling on Mosco – Super affordable bags of handmade frozen dumplings! Take them home and stock the freezer!
Hometown Hot Pot & BBQ on Grand – Great for individual hot pot enjoyment or large groups and parties. This place has 8 different hot pot soup bases and a full sauce bar. They also do BBQ, though we’ve only gone for the hot pot!
Golden Unicorn on East Broadway – One of the few remaining large dim sum halls left in Manhattan Chinatown. Get there early, but waiting in the lobby is like a New York rite of passage. Dim sum to order (check off your favorites with pen and paper menu). A few roving carts still make the rounds in the golden tapestried dining room.
Jing Fong on Centre St. – Originally an 800-seat grand dining room on Elizabeth Street (we used to go here every year for Chinese New Year banquets with our grandparents), Jing Fong was once Chinatown’s largest banquet and dim sum hall. Forced to close that location during the pandemic, the restaurant moved to a smaller location on Centre St. They also have an Upper West Side location.
Nom Wah Tea Parlor on Doyers – The first dim sum parlor that opened in Manhattan Chinatown (in 1920!). They also sell a variety frozen dumplings to take home from their Nolita location on Kenmare—also available for local and nationwide delivery.
Fay Da Bakery on Mott – A Chinese bakery offering all the familiar favorites—hot dog buns, char siu bao, bolo bao (pineapple buns). Get the butter buns in the round pans, which we’ve been eating since we could chew food! (Pop in the microwave for 20 secs and enjoy with a sprinkle of salt and hot coffee. Heaven.) They also have a location on 6th Ave. near West 4th St.
Tai Pan Bakery on Canal – Similar in size and scale to Fay Da, boxes of buns from Tai Pan bakery have shown up at many a gathering in our family. Literally around the corner from Fay Da, so you can try both spots!
Go Believe Bakery on Grand – A recommendation from a family member, this bakery offers buns as well as frozen dumplings and dim sum to reheat at home.
Mei Lai Wah on Bayard – A family favorite, offering not just bakery buns, but also congee, rice noodle rolls, and other hot food. As one of our cousins said, “IMO they have the best char siu bao in Chinatown now that Hop Shing is closed, but they are most known for their stuffed bolo bao — a char siu bao and bolo bao in one!” (Like this!)
groceries – Specialty
Fruit and Vegetable Street Vendors – For whatever is freshest, walk around and explore the produce stands around Chinatown. We often stop by the fruit stand at 93 Mulberry, which always has a nice selection!
Sun Ming Jan on Hester – Basically the equivalent of a Chinese charcuterie store, specializing in cured meats like lap yuk (cured pork belly), lap cheong (Chinese cured pork sausage), gon cheung (duck liver sausage), dried salted duck, salted pork, etc., i.e. everything you need to make Hong Kong Clay Pot Rice! They also sell joong (zongzi).
SC Meat Market on E. Broadway – A family recommendation! A go-to meat market with the cheapest oxtails in the area and a rotating selection of wagyu beef at reasonable prices.
Ben Meat Market on Grand – Mom and pop with roast meats (roast duck!) and pantry staples; we’ve also bought fresh (unsalted, uncooked) duck eggs here, which can be hard to find!
57 Bayard Meat Market (it’s in the name) – A meat market that also carries a selection of dry goods and produce. A cousin of ours really likes their zongzi.
Aqua Best on Grand – Family-run fish market sourcing a fresh selection and wide variety of seafood directly from fishermen.
Fong On on Division St. – FRESH tofu made in house—thrilled to find it outside of China; also fresh tofu pudding and soy milk!
Bangkok Center Grocery on Mosco – Thai and southeast Asian specialty ingredients (read: fresh galangal and lime leaves). Justin discovered this spot when he decided to make Tom Yum Soup—the first recipe he ever cooked for Sarah on an early date!
groceries – General
Tan Ting Hung Supermarket on Bowery – Compact grocery store with Chinese and Southeast Asian ingredients!
Ken Hing Food Market on Grand – Another small but packed grocery store with basic provisions!
Deluxe Food Market on Elizabeth – They have a wide variety of meat, seafood, and groceries as well as a large hot bar where you can pick up some tasty prepared foods. Do your shopping, and then grab dinner on the way out.
Chinatown Supermarket of Manhattan on E. Broadway – A one stop shop for everything you need to make our recipes. Sarah and Justin shopped here regularly when Justin was living in Chinatown, and this grocery store also comes recommended by extended family.
Hong Kong Supermarket on Hester – Another larger one-stop shop for produce, meat, seafood, and dry goods.
K. K. Discount Store on Mulberry – Get your carbon steel woks, lids, and wok spatulas here! Also find household items and dishware, with helpful guidance from Mr. and Mrs. Li. They were hit hard by a recent building fire, but have since re-opened (bring cash, as we’re not sure if their credit card processing machines are back up and running yet). They also ship—order your carbon steel wok, lid, and wok spatula here!
Pearl River Mart on Broadway (also a location in Chelsea Market) – While they’re technically in SoHo, they started in Chinatown and became a hub of Asian apparel, gifts, accessories, books, and housewares. They also sell food products—go to Pearl River Mart Foods in Chelsea Market for the widest selection. Pearl River Mart hosted our recent book launch!
Wing on Wo & Co. on Mott – Beautiful dishware, porcelain gifts, and limited edition runs of “Artist Line” porcelain homewares and jewelry created by Asian American artists, from the oldest operating storefront in Manhattan Chinatown.
Restaurant Supply Stores on Bowery – All the kitchen equipment, gadgets, and dishware you need from multiple family-run shops (also check out JFK Restaurant Equipment Supply on Canal and Win Restaurant Supplies on Lafayette).
Yu & Me Books on Mulberry – Books, coffee, beer, and wine in a friendly, chill space. Woman-owned and friend to The Woks of Life. There is a cozy little back area you can immediately start reading your book in.
Dahing Plants on Grand – A big selection of gorgeous tropical houseplants and more—we bought a monstera here 3 years ago that’s still going strong!
Joy’s Flower Pot on Hester – Find cut flowers, succulents, herbs, and houseplants in this small but mighty store.
Personal care services
Cutting Edge Salon on Hester – This is where we (Sarah & Kaitlin) get our hair cut. We’ve been going there for years—shoutouts to our stylists Nicky and Perry! There’s a small discount (or rather, no credit card fee) if you pay in cash.
iLook Eyewear on Mott – Where Kaitlin has all of her glasses fitted with prescription lenses. They’ll do custom tints and prescription lens swaps on optical quality sunglasses purchased elsewhere. Friendly and fast. They cater to English speakers and a range of Chinese dialects. Also, a snack bar while you shop or wait for your eye exam!
Acupressure/Reflexology – There’s a whole host of spots.* A friend of ours once got a quick 15 minute foot massage before a dinner reservation across the street from the restaurant. Life hack unlocked.
*We go to an acupuncturist/TCM specialist in New Jersey, but if anyone has good recommendations for Manhattan Chinatown, sound off in the comments!
Manhattan Chinatown Map!
If you’re going to use our guide to Manhattan Chinatown on the go, check out this map below! It has all the places we mentioned above, so you can see what’s close to what, as well as our descriptions of each spot:
In Judy’s (mom’s) words, “For so many of us—generations old and young—Chinatowns are a home away from home. Their sights, sounds, and smells are so deep-rooted in us, our heritage, and who we are. They’ve offered a comforting familiarity while generations of immigrants have found themselves “drifting, 漂” in a foreign land, and have filled many of us with that special warm, fuzzy feeling of nostalgia. The importance of preserving Chinatowns is not just for all the scrumptious foods, necessary wares, and rich histories. They are national treasures that we all need to uphold for future generations.”
Go out and #SupportChinatowns, wherever you are! If you have a favorite Chinatown spot, whether in NYC or elsewhere, share it below!