A Tale of Three Cities: Finding Chinese Food in New York City
In previous articles we have learned that though both San Francisco and Los Angeles have large Chinese communities and hundreds of outstanding Chinese restaurants, the geographic distribution of these restaurants is diametrically opposed: San Francisco with good Chinese food in most every corner of the Bay Area, while Los Angeles concentrating mostly in one area, the San Gabriel Valley. The third great Chinese food center in the United States is New York City, so which one of these models does it follow? Well, the answer is neither.
As was noted in the first article in this series, New York and Los Angeles are alike in that large portions of each metropolis are devoid of authentic Chinese restaurants. However, unlike Los Angeles and its concentration in a single region, good Chinese food may be found in several pockets of New York City. As was the case with Los Angeles, using our early 1960s point of reference, the Chinese in New York at that time were a miniscule segment of the total population, (though Manhattan Chinatown was a significant venue), so once again we are talking about a Chinese community predominantly consisting of relative newcomers. In New York, however, these newcomers moved into several scattered enclaves, creating several Chinatowns in three of the boroughs, all carved out of the urban landscape.
Manhattan Chinatown is unique among the historic core Toishanese/Cantonese established Chinatowns in that in large part it has lost its original bent, and has come to be influenced, if not dominated, by another regional Chinese group. These newer immigrants from Fujian province have not only transformed the face of Manhattan Chinatown, but have also created a ripple effect throughout the city, expanding the footprint of Manhattan Chinatown and given it a new vitality, particularly on and near East Broadway. The tide of Fujianese immigration accelerated in the late 1980s, with the expanded portion of Chinatown east of Bowery eventually being dubbed “Little Fuzhou.” Strangely, there are virtually no Fujianese in San Francisco, Los Angeles, or anywhere west of the Mississippi River — New York is the center of their universe. While the Fujianese have their own cuisine, it is not particularly popular with non-Fujianese. Fortunately, Fujianese chefs are quite adept with other Chinese regional cuisines, so a stroll through Little Fuzhou reveals top-notch Cantonese-style food at places like Fuleen Seafood and East Corner Wonton, and numerous sources of delicious dumplings and noodles from restaurants like Lam Zhou Hand Made Noodle, Prosperity Dumplings, Super Taste, and Sheng Wang.
Meanwhile the historic portion of Manhattan Chinatown from Bowery westward continues to thrive, though the predominant Cantonese influence too has been somewhat diluted by other regional cuisines. There are numerous outstanding non-Cantonese restaurants, like Shanghai Heiping, Shanghai Cafe, and 456 Shanghai (all on Mott St.), as well as Old Sichuan, Tasty Hand Pulled Noodles, and Xi’an Famous Foods. More modern Hong Kong-style food can be found at places like Full House Café, Noodle Village, Red Egg, and Yummy Noodle. Those interested in more traditional Cantonese food will be happy with Great N.Y. Noodletown, Nom Wah Tea Parlor, and 27 Sunshine, among others. Sadly, though, some of the better restaurants in Manhattan Chinatown have closed in the past year due to a large planned mixed-use construction project which may threaten additional restaurants.
While food in Manhattan Chinatown is pretty good for a center city core Chinatown, it pales to the food in Flushing Chinatown. Flushing Chinatown was the country’s first non-Cantonese Chinatown, and according to legend was rooted in the 1950s when the Nationalist Chinese delegation to the United Nations decided to set up shop here, rather than in Cantonese-speaking Manhattan Chinatown. When the United States began to permit Chinese immigration again in the late 1960s, immigrants from Hong Kong headed to Manhattan Chinatown, while Taiwanese immigrants opted for Flushing, eventually populating what became a full-fledged Chinatown. Ironically, the Taiwanese influence in Flushing has waned in recent years, with non-Cantonese or Fujianese mainland Chinese migrants coming to dominate. This is reflected by the presence of restaurants serving various regional cuisines such Little Pepper (Sichuan), Henan Feng Wei (Henan), Lucky Wenzhou (Wenzhou), Hunan House (Hunan), Imperial Taiwanese Gourmet (Taiwanese), Nan Xiang Xiao Long Bao (Shanghai) and a particularly strong group of Dongbei/Manchurian restaurants such as Fu Run. And despite the lack of a local Cantonese population, you will find better Cantonese food in Flushing than Manhattan Chinatown at restaurants like New Imperial Palace, Grand Restaurant, and Asian Jewels. Plus, Flushing has something that other Chinese American communities don’t have — large, multi-vendor food courts such as the New World Mall, Golden Mall, and the Flushing Mall food court.
Brooklyn Chinatown (Sunset Park)
Population-wise, Brooklyn has become the largest Chinatown in New York. It was one of the very few Cantonese Chinatowns that did not originate in the 19th or early 20th century, rather emerging in the 1980s as an overflow area from Manhattan Chinatown, coincident with the Fujianese movement into that Chinatown. Ironically, most of the Cantonese are now gone from Brooklyn Chinatown, displaced by Fujianese refugees from Manhattan Chinatown.
Brooklyn Chinatown is a long shoestring of a Chinatown along 8th Avenue. When I first visited Brooklyn Chinatown in 1990, it was all of four blocks long from 55th St. to 59th St. Now it runs from 40th St. to 65th St. The reason for the shoestring development is that 8 is the luckiest number in Chinese culture. Consequently, everybody wants to open a business on 8th Ave., and very few want to do so on any other street. As a result, Brooklyn Chinatown is now 25 blocks long and about 2 blocks wide. Despite the conversion of Brooklyn Chinatown into a Fujianese enclave, much of the Chinese food is Cantonese, such as that served at Pacificana Restaurant and East Harbor Seafood. However a recently opened venue with a great variety of selections is the Fei Long Food Court at the new south end of Brooklyn Chinatown.
Interestingly, the movement of Fujianese from Manhattan Chinatown to Brooklyn Chinatown has in turn triggered a movement of Cantonese from Brooklyn’s 8th Avenue Chinatown to satellite Chinatowns along Avenue U in Sheepshead Bay and 86th Street in Bensonhurst. These Chinatowns are still developing and offer predominantly Cantonese fare, such as Triple Z Seafood and Winly Seafood on Avenue U, and 86 Wong and Evergreen Park on 86th St.
Queens also has developed a small Taiwanese-dominated Chinatown in Elmhurst. Food-wise, this is the least Cantonese influenced Chinatown in New York, with restaurants like Uncle Zhou and Sweet Yummy House serving Taiwanese and Sichuan fare. However, like every Chinatown in the U.S., even those with few Cantonese residents, you can still find good Cantonese food, such as at New Broadway Seafood.
While New York is similar to Los Angeles in that there are vast areas of the city that have little or no decent Chinese food, unlike in Los Angeles, some of the very best Chinese restaurants in New York are located outside of the Chinese geographic community. Manhattan boasts top quality Sichuan and Hunan style restaurants such as Szechwan Gourmet, Legend, Hot Kitchen, and Hunan Manor, which many believe to be better than any of the Chinese restaurants in Chinatown. This is likely the result of the dominance of Chinatown by Chinese from southern China (Cantonese, Fujianese), making Chinatown not as welcoming for Chinese from other parts of China living in Manhattan. Still, large areas of Manhattan, such as the Upper West Side, Upper East Side, and Lower Manhattan are without notable Chinese food choices. And I remember walking for more than a mile along major commercial boulevards in the Bronx and not seeing a single Chinese restaurant (not that I would necessarily want to try one there if I did). So New Yorkers, like Angelinos, need to pick their spots to find authentic Chinese food.