Most observers of Chinese food in New York have dismissed the quality of Chinese food in Manhattan Chinatown when compared to the Chinatowns in Flushing or Brooklyn, or even to some of the Chinese restaurants in Manhattan outside of Chinatown. And while there are no longer any real destination Chinese restaurants in Manhattan Chinatown, the past couple years have shown signs that things may be turning around.
Most of these new options are flying under the publicity radar and represent a departure from the traditional restaurants of Manhattan Chinatown, creating their own little niches. A good example is Cha Chan Tang at 45 Mott Street. This may already be the busiest and most popular Chinese restaurant in Chinatown. Yet there has been virtually no mention of Cha Chan Tang in the food press or even the food message boards. This may be in part due to the fact that Cha Chan Tang serves Hong Kong-style café food, which might not rate the level of discussion among foodies that other types of food might. On the other hand, Cha Chan Tang’s menu includes an entire section of fabulous Yunnan Fish Broth Noodle Soup selections, which deserves widespread attention by itself. The breakfast specials are also tasty, and a real bargain.
A lot of the negative comments about food in New York Chinatown arise from the fact that it hasn’t kept up with the evolution of Chinese food in the 21st Century, in both Asia and North America. However, Mottzar Kitchen at 70 Mott St. is bucking the trend. Influenced by master New York chef Joe Ng, Mottzar offers a creative Hong Kong-style menu including smoked salmon in eggplant tempura, black bass avocado crackers, egg white with crab meat, goose web with sea cucumber, teriyaki lamb chops, and lobster with truffles. Still, the reaction to Mottzar seems rather mixed. First of all, the pricing is sometimes as much as 50 percent more expensive than what locals are used to paying in Chinatown. Also, some of these newfangled dishes are probably a shock to a community that has not experienced the evolution of Hong Kong-style food in the past 10 to 15 years that those in Hong Kong, Canada, and California have enjoyed.
Another under-the-radar Hong Kong-style café is Full House Café at 97 Bowery. Full House Café incredibly has over 400 items on their menu (don’t be fooled by the fact that dishes on its menu are numbered all the way up to 564), including around 40 dim sum items (menu, not carts, of course).
Then there’s Lee Chung Café, located at 82 Madison St. Lee Chung Cafe is located in the grittiest part of Chinatown, where even newly opened restaurants look like they’ve been in business for 40 years. In contrast, Lee Chung Café is modern and airy, and would fit in quite well on Mott St. or Canal St. or even Valley Blvd. in San Gabriel. Its eclectic menu includes Hong Kong-style street food and numerous boba drinks for the younger set. When I went there, they were serving ramen soup, grilled cheese sandwiches, Burmese fish soup, croissants and Hong Kong-style toast, but who knows what’s on the menu today?
Noodle Village at 13 Mott St. is another jam-packed restaurant, serving a variety of noodle dishes and perhaps the best clay pot rice in Chinatown.
On Bayard Street, it’s a collision of Chinatown and Little Italy at Cutting Board, 53 Bayard, which serves Chinese-style Italian food, as well as lobster rolls and lobster-topped beef sliders, and brings a fresh twist to Chinatown.
Spicy Village at 68B Forsyth St., formerly known as He Nan Flavor, introduces Henan-style food to Chinatown. Notable dishes include various meat pancakes (essentially flatbread sandwiches), big plate chicken, and hand-pulled noodles. The restaurant has been discovered by the hipster crowd, and I don’t know if that’s a good thing.
Then there’s Diamond Hill Café at 147 Canal St., which for want of a better description is the “Asian Chipotle,” offering build-your-own burritos and tacos with Asian fillings. Biting into my tofu burrito, I thought to myself, “tastes like Chipotle.”
Also worth noting is the reopening of the former Yogee Restaurant as 85 Chinese Restaurant at 85 Chrystie St., which closed down in mid-2012 leaving a temporary void in traditional Hong Kong-style food. Perhaps the best news is the return of their signature beef stew rice noodle rolls.
Last mention of recently opened Chinese restaurants should go to over-the-radar Xi’an Famous Foods at 67 Bayard St. This is a marvelous story of a restaurant lifted from the obscurity of the basement of the working class Golden Mall in Flushing into the East Village and Brooklyn, as well as Manhattan Chinatown. Unfortunately, the branch located under the Manhattan Bridge is gone, having lost its lease, but the Bayard location is much roomier. Despite Xi’an’s crossover success, there’s no doubt that its lamb noodles and lamb burgers are good and authentic.
Lastly, an old friend in new clothing is Poon Kee at 39 Monroe St., whose remodel took so long that many of us were afraid that this was another case of a Chinese restaurant “remodel” being an euphemism for “out of business.” Thankfully it has reopened, and this Hong Kong-style snack shop offers a tasty array of food in the $1.50 to $3.00 range. But caution, it opens early in the morning and closes fairly early in the day.
David R. Chan is a third-generation American who has eaten at 6,297 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.