I recently received a phone call from a friend of mine whose son had just started an entry-level job in the Manhattan office of our firm. He said he needed me to do a personal favor. I presumed the favor involved some kind of personnel issue, but that turned out not to be the case. Instead, he said that his son called desperately after he had gone to the office eatery downstairs and found, to his horror, that a fruit cup cost $8. At that rate, he couldn’t afford to eat out and would have to bring both his lunch and dinner to work every day.
I told my friend not to worry. The good thing about being Chinese or liking Chinese food is that the Chinese revere food so much that they believe even poor people deserve to eat delicious food, an unspoken corollary to our recent article on the lack of upscale Chinese food. Yes, the cost of living in Manhattan is very high, and Manhattan Chinatown is by far the poorest Chinese community in the United States. Nevertheless, you can get good and inexpensive Chinese food in Manhattan Chinatown, cheaper than any other Chinese community in the US, if you know where to look.
To understand economical dining in Manhattan Chinatown, one must recognize that there are really two parts to Chinatown. First is the original, Cantonese, tourist-imbedded Chinatown, south of Canal St. and west of Bowery. Then there is Little Fuzhou, east of Bowery and centered on East Broadway. Little Fuzhou is populated almost exclusively by immigrants from Fujian province, many of whom are undocumented. Working for subsistence wages, many of them cannot to spend extravagantly on food. To service this segment of the population, there are decent Chinese restaurants where nothing on the menu is greater than $4 or $5.
From Times Square, most people would think of taking the Q, N, or R trains to Canal Street and end up on Canal and Broadway in Chinatown. However, that puts you at the west end of the original part of Chinatown, several blocks away from any concentrations of Chinese restaurants, let alone the economical eateries of Little Fuzhou. The better option is to walk east a block from Times Square on 42nd St. to the Bryant Park subway station to catch the B or D train. It’s just a nine-minute ride to Grand St., and you come out of the subway station at the corner of Grand and Chrystie. This puts you in proximity to many of the 300 Chinese restaurants and bakeries in Chinatown, so there’s plenty to choose from.
If you walk east on Grand a couple of blocks over to Eldridge, you will find a number of dumpling and fish ball shops. Prosperity Dumpling at 46 Eldridge is the best of the bunch, and like many of the other shops sell fried dumplings at four for $1, and great flatbread sandwiches for $2. Many restaurants in the area, such as Tanxia Wang Fu Zhou Cuisine, 13A Eldridge, offer a generous order of noodles in peanut sauce for $2, or an order of meat-filled fish ball soup for the same price, as well as other low-priced noodle varieties. How about a skewer full of fish balls or other tasty grilled delights? K Tasty at 67 Eldridge has a nice selection starting at $1.50 each. If your preference is Cantonese roast meats, take a short stroll over to Wah Fung at 79 Christie Street. See that line out the door? It’s the locals waiting for their order of roast pork or chicken over rice for $3.50.
If you are more partial to Hong Kong-style street eats, head south past East Broadway to the less hectic part of Chinatown that sees few visitors. Can you imagine a delicious order of chow fun from Poon Kee at 39 Monroe St. for $1.50? The line out the door with a mixture of locals and outsiders tells you these could be the best rice noodles in Chinatown. But beware, once the morning production is sold out, the doors close. At Lee Chung Café, 82 Madison St., it’s rice noodles and more in an eclectic menu featuring Hong Kong, western, and Burmese specialties. But be prepared to pay over $5 if you want the signature Burmese fish broth noodle soup.
Another great source of economical food all throughout Chinatown are the dozens and dozens of Chinese bakeries. Chinatown bakeries don’t just sell sweets like cakes and cookies. Almost all of them also produce savory dim sum-like creations, or even serve actual dim sum in the back. These bakeries use water roux to create a satisfyingly creamy bread dough. Many also serve cold sandwiches using this style of roll at unbelievably low prices. At Yue Lai Bakery, 137 East Broadway, $1.50 will get you a sandwich stuffed with fried fish nuggets or chicken. There are too many good bakeries to mention, though some of my favorites for sandwiches and buns include Dragon Land, 125 Walker St.; Kamboat Bakery Café, 111 Bowery, and Double Crispy, 230 Grand St. And we haven’t forgotten you carnivores. How about a complete pork chop meal for $5 or less? You can score this at places like Hua Ji Pork Chop, 7 Allen St.
For those of you who feel more comfortable taking the subway to Canal St. instead, there are a few nearby economical choices at that end of Chinatown. Lunch Box Buffet, 199 Centre Street, is not all you can eat, but for $4.75 you can select five items, which practically speaking is more economical than a higher priced AYCE buffet. And around the corner, there is one of those pork chop places, Wah Mei Pork Chop, at 190 Hester St.
We have discussed only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to economical dining in Manhattan Chinatown. Sure, you can spend a lot more, even in Little Fuzhou. But if you’re on a budget, or just like the thrill of a bargain, there’s no place in Manhattan like Chinatown for lowering the cost of dining.
David R. Chan is a third-generation American who has eaten at 7,000 Chinese restaurants and counting. He maintains a spreadsheet of each of his culinary conquests — a document he began in the early 90s, when he bought his first home computer. "When I entered the workforce in the 1970s, that coincided with the rise of what we think of as authentic Chinese food in North America," Chan told the LA Weekly Squid Ink blog. "As such, my goal was to try every authentic Chinese restaurant in the Los Angeles area at least once." He has extended his list to New York, San Francisco, and thousands of restaurants beyond. Still, Chan admits, he can't use chopsticks.