Flavor and Fortune Spring 2003
by Harley Spiller
A reporter from TheMorningNews.Org contacted me at the end of March, 2003, to see if I would lead him to one of my favorite Chinatown restaurants in Manhattan. When he offered a $50 budget to pay for the meal, I smirked to myself that it would take me a week to spend that much money in Chinatown. So I upped his ante by offering to take him on an extreme dumpling-athon. "Let's go taste the very best dumplings at eight different restaurants in one lunchtime," I countered, and he accepted, albeit with some trepidation about his ability to complete such a marathon.
By the time our appointed date of April 6th had rolled around, SARS and the debilitating rumors about the new disease, had swept through the world. Despite Mayor Bloomberg's trip to Tart and Tasty and proclamation that we run a greater risk of being hit by a car than SARS, some were avoiding Chinatown altogether. The plan to spread our meal ticket among eight restaurants took on new importance.
We were to meet at 11 am at 31 Division Street's Dim Sum House, a plebian tea-luncheonette that was especially popular with the elderly and after-church sets. Their weekends-only dumpling, suey jing bao, a round, twisted-top dumpling with an opening like Cyclops' eye, contained a little bit each of pork, shrimp and mystery deliciousness. They were usually sold out before noon. This time, though, 31 Division Street had been all dressed up in new marble clothes and the old standby had turned, seemingly overnight, into a fancy Hong Kong style seafood house. It wasn't even open at 11 am (the old place was in full swing by 8 am). One of the old-time waiters, now dressed in a new maroon vest, recognized me and my glum look. He said, simply, "no more." Luckily, the reporter was a bit late so I had time to gather my spirits and pick a replacement starter for the big chow-down.
Min Jiang is a Fujian restaurant on East Broadway just above the Manhattan Bridge. It's a working class spot with more space reserved for the food than the patrons. You might not think twice about the steam table dishes in the front window, as they look very much like all the other Fujian offerings that flood the area around Eldridge and East Broadway. The affable owner/chef, however, is very talented and his superb Hong Kong style seafood dishes are about 1/3-off the price of equivalent dishes in fancy restaurants.
Min Jiang's handmade suey jao are plucked from a plastic freezer bag and take about 8 minutes to reappear on a plastic platter with a specially blended dip of soy, vinegar and spices. Loaded with fat wads of bright green chive and just a few crumbs of pork, the skins are at once firm and soft, a perfectly slippery bundle of strong flavor. We nail the plate almost immediately, the toothsomeness mightily impressing the mild-mannered reporter.
Next it's off to the Northern Chinese snack shop in the basement of the older of two shopping malls directly below the Manhattan Bridge. Shop is a nice word for the place with no English name. Rickety dining tables and dumpling assembly operations spread out in the subterranean hallways. It was only after visiting Shanghai that I had the nerve to try this skin-of-the-teeth operation. The place is so Chinese that there is not a word in English and ordering by round-eyes can only be accomplished by pointing. Although they have several types of dumplings, I've found better versions at other locations so we had the sesame noodles, which are nothing like the peanut-buttered glop of Chinese American fame. They are light, redolent of scallion, and come with a bowl of clear fishy broth on the side. The place is almost always busy with homesick Northern Chinese natives seeking the $1.50 pasta and other reminders of their motherland. We spotted a snack coming fresh out of the fryer and took a flyer on the burger-sized doughnuts covered with black and white sesame seeds. They were hot and crispy and loaded with pungent mustard greens that actually taste like mustard. Scrumptious stuff.
Next it was time for the ultimate pork and chive fried wonder, the gwor tip proffered at Dumpling House on Eldridge Street a block and a half below Delancey. Gwor tip are equally good at the newer and larger sister (literally) restaurant, Tasty Dumpling on Mulberry south of Bayard. The gorgeous and gregarious owner, Vanessa, greeted us and said she had seen me on TV. "I called my sister to tell her," she said, but "before I could say anything she said she had seen you too." I had been unwittingly filmed for a SARS story the week before while eating the special fish dumpling soup at Bayard Street's best broth maker, Bo Ky Pho. I pretended to put a mask on my mouth and leave. She laughed and we agreed that we can't hide from the unknown and invisible and had both chosen to simply go ahead with our lives.
Vanessa knows her customers and sometimes adjusts recipes to make them more health-conscious. For example, her sheng jeng bao, traditionally made with pork and just a little vegetable, have been altered to include black mushrooms and crispy water chestnuts in lieu of some pork. They have vegetarian dumplings, superb wontons, and sometimes a daily special like a northern delicacy I'd never encountered, ground beef in a doughy bun with a couple of tablespoons of fresh dill.
The mainstay of Dumpling House, though, are the fried pork and chive half-moons that develop a lacy golden brown crust from the half-fried half-steamed cooking method. Cooks preside over the flat-bottomed woks, constantly turning, adjusting, tilting, and adding water and oil until the top of the skin glistens translucently. Everyone, including fancy tour magazines from California, Toronto and beyond, proclaims Vanessa as the queen of the dumpling. At $1 for 5 pieces, there're quite a few frugal foodies who'd like to nominate her for President.
We were starting to feel a bit full, but the walks between restaurants were restorative. By the time we got to Yogee Noodle on Christie St. we were raring to go. Recently renovated, this is the cleanest and one of the prettiest restaurants in Chinatown. Main dishes like "paper-baked fried rice with chicken, squid and dried scallop" are world class. Their fried rice, fried broad rice noodle, and beef soup are also as good as it gets. We came for dumplings though and the only dumplings on the menu besides won ton, are fu chow yan pi won ton, which are a variety of wonton using fish in the dumpling wrapper. They come in soup and are tightly packed with shrimp and pork and a little green vegetable. The skin is translucent but firm, the faint fish flavor unveils itself slowly and the bouncing bundles soon disappear.
A dumpling tour would not be complete without the latest Shanghai export craze, shao lung bao, pork-and-crab dumplings with soup inside the wrapper. These delicate treats must be worried open with a slight nibble or the diner will be scalded with the boiling potion within the just firm enough skin. Joe's Shanghai on Pell Street is the leading soup dumpling maker in New York (although Joe's in Elmhurst is consistently the best of their several locations). The constant line out front somehow gives the staff license to be rude and bum-rush the clientele, but the glorious soup pockets are worth the hassle.
The plan next called for a visit to Shanghai Snack Bar on Elizabeth Street near the Canal Arcade, but we were starting to fill up and I wasn't sure their larger and porkier suey jow could compete with the delicacy of Min Jiang's. We shelved Shanghai Snack Bar for another day and headed to Tart n Tasty, downstairs on Mott Street just below Canal. Their specialties are tong shui, health tonic soups, but their watercress dumplings are standouts too. The long, wrinkled tubes come in clear broth and one can see the pink shrimp and bright green "Western vegetable" within. They are as tightly packed as the yan pi dumplings at Yogee, and you have to really use your molars to break into these firm and delectabe delights. They are clean and healthy tasting, almost like California cuisine.
For sure, we were already past full, but there was one more restaurant to go. I wanted the reporter to experience a particularly favored loci of dumplings, the 500-seat dim sum parlor now known as New Oriental Pearl, 105 Mott St. We had come for the excellent yu chi gao, shark's fin dumplings, but alas too many early birds had beaten us to the punch and they were sold out. We settled for lots of tea and an odd dessert, leung guar gao, or bitter melon balls. These deep-fried bright-green doughnuts are made with fresh bitter melon and a filling of black bean and peanuts. They taste uncannily like dark chocolate but ooze a bit too much oil for most tastes. New Oriental Pearl also sells a chicken dumpling with slivers of black mushroom that is unusual and exceptional, although we were too stuffed to consider another bite. Bow La, we learn, is the Cantonese term for "full."
The reporter decided to walk back home - to Brooklyn. I had a few cold lagers that afternoon but could only muster a salad for dinner. This extreme dining technique was gluttonous to be sure, but it was fun and enlightening to pit these house specials against each other in such a limited time. They are all winners and I'm up for the challenge again, although perhaps only once every couple of months. Any takers? Or would you prefer to try out some of the Russian dumplings in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn? Village Voice food reporter Robert Sietsema's word has it that henkali from Georgia are dead ringers for Shanghai soup dumplings, and that's not all. China's neighbors to the North offer a vast assortment of dumplings, including Ukrainian variniki Russian pelmeni and piroshki, Uzbekistani manti or surpa, and more. Anyone care to set a date? Please write me at email@example.com
The author thanks Rosecrans Baldwin, Rachel B. Knowles, and the unsung flour-covered heroes who rarely have time to put down the rolling pins and emerge from the back rooms of Chinatown.
Harley Spiller is in the process of creating a television series called SHOW YOUR STUFF with INSPECTOR COLLECTOR, a kind of Antiques Roadshow for kids. His personal collections of Chinese menus, spoons, fruit-paring devices, chopsticks, even toothpicks are all part and parcel of his passion for food, museums and the lifelong pursuit of knowledge.
1. Min Jiang, on the south side of East Broadway north of the Manhattan Bridge and south of Pike Street 2. unknown name snack shop in the basement of the older of two malls under the Manhattan Bridge(on the North Side of East Broadway) 3. Dumpling House, 118 Eldridge, 212-625-8008 4. Tasty Dumpling, 54 Mulberry, 349-0070 5. Yogee Noodle, 85 Chrystie, 212-965-0615 6. Sweet and Tart Cafe, 76 Mott, 212-334-7688 7. New Oriental Pearl, 105 Mott, 212 219-8388 8. Shanghai Snack Bar, 14 Elizabeth, 212-964-5640 9. Joe's Shanghai; 9 Pell, 212-233-8888 24 W. 56th, 212-333-3868 8274 Broadway, Elmhurst, Queens. 718-639-6888 13621 37th Avenue, Flushing; Queens, 718-539-3838