Monday, January 25, 2010
It was in the mid 50s at midday in New York City, possibly the warmest day of the year so far. However, it was a miserable day because of rain driven by strong winds from the early morning hours. When I got up for lunch, I consciously left my umbrella tightly rolled up near my desk in order to preserve it from the wind and headed outside. At first, going without an umbrella seemed like a good idea as I saw about a dozen broken umbrellas on the sidewalk in front of the courthouse. But then I noticed that the strong winds had deferred to heavier rain, so I got soaked as I headed to Hop Kee at 21 Mott Street, just about the closest Chinese restaurant to 60 Centre Street. The closest that is if you cut the angle, a favorite exercise of America’s Favorite Epidemiologist. Hop Kee is down a flight of narrow stairs as is its brother/sister/cousin/landsman Wo Hop 2 doors away. However, it was closed for yuntiff, 2 weeks until the Chinese New Year. Fortunately as the rain continued, alternatives were steps away. I went across the street into Hop Lee at 16 Mott Street and, to their credit, an aluminum pot of tea immediately appeared for me. I was steered downstairs into a small, plain, clean room because the Rotary Club was meeting on the main level. The tables downstairs large and small were soon filled mostly with Chinese people.
With the hot and sour soup I ordered came a dish of (yes) crispy fried noodles, mustard and duck sauce. The noodles were very good, although rectangular unlike the squares at both Wo Hops across the street. Even better was the thick duck sauce, not watered down, so it stuck to the noodle as you dipped it into the mustard. My mother would have been delighted. I ordered lo mein with three shredded meats which lost something in the shredding although the portion was large. While I ordered from the regular menu, actually not noticing the lunch menu at the edge of my table, Hop Lee charged me lunch prices which somewhat made up for the shredding.
The meal ended on two other positive notes – a hot towel to clean my greasy little fingers and orange wedges to clean my palate. They were both welcome. On the way out, I stopped at the little front desk to get a toothpick and noticed, slightly off the central line of sight, that the wall over the cash register had about 150 embroidered patches from police departments and some fire departments from all over the US and at least one in Spanish, maybe Mexico or Puerto Rico. This is a colorful display which should be shown to greater advantage.
It was still raining as I left and, without an umbrella, I did not stop to observe a funeral party assembling in front of one of the three Chinese funeral homes at the lower end of Mulberry Street. I have seen Chinese funerals using Italian street bands as they drove through narrow Chinatown streets, but I hastily made my wet way back to work without a sound track.
Tuesday January 26, 2010
I slept late and did not go to work. No Chinatown.
Wednesday January 27, 2010
I headed east, expanding my geographic scope along with my waistline. I got to Chatham Square where Worth Street, Mott Street, the Bowery, Park Row, St. James Place, East Broadway and Oliver Street meet. There is a spot west of Arlington, Virginia known as Seven Corners where US 50 and VA 7 intersect along with a couple of local boulevards. I have stood there and counted seven corners at that intersection. Chatham Square easily exceeds that.
I walked right into Fuzhouese Restaurant, 1 East Broadway, thinking it was the Funhouse Restaurant. It might well have been, because, except for the brightly-painted sign outside, the name was not found in English anywhere else. Their business card gave the address and telephone number, but no name that I could read or understand.
When I walked in, no other customer was in the restaurant, but another non-Chinese man walked in alone right behind me and sat further back. Only by pointing to the menu was I able to order from the waitress and the co-worker she summoned to help her. He understood my pointing much better than she did. Just as I finished pointing, the other patron called out, “Does anyone here speak English?” Of course, I said, “I do, but that won’t help you.” He got up and as he walked by me heading for the door, he said with a slight Eastern European accent, “When I came to this country 20 years ago from Odessa, I knew I had to learn English.” Maybe he’ll return to the Funhouse in 20 years.
The lunch menu was conventional and I ordered shrimps with lobster sauce. Only the colorful pieces of freshly-cooked carrots and string beans were notable in the disappointing dish served me. But, I sought disappointment after a fashion, because tonight I’m meeting Donna J. at Ben’s Kosher Delicatessen (38th Street between 7th & 8th) before going to the Rangers game together and I wanted to be hungry and eager to eat (so, what else is new?). Ben’s Kosher is very good; I often go there before a hockey game and I recommend it no matter where you are headed with the possible exception of the oral hygienist because real garlicky sour pickles are gratis. Also, sour tomatoes are provided upon request. On the other hand, Ben’s Famous, on Queens Boulevard in Rego Park, is great and not just because they named a sandwich after that swell human being Michael Ratner. They are not related, that is Ben’s to Ben’s or Michael to either.
Now, I might not have been disappointed in the Funhouse had I ordered off the regular menu which featured real Fuzhou chow, such as Pig Blood with Chives, Doi Chang with Fender Lee, Any Lamb Intestine Fuzhou Style and Sizzling Duck Tongue. In fact, I must admit, my meals to date in Chinatown have been pretty ordinary, free of daring or risk. But, as the name of that pretentious dating service for lazy Yuppies says, It’s Just Lunch. I pose no threat to the Zagat empire nor do I intend to. My loyal followers may choose to walk in my moccasins, but they may not encounter Doi Chang with Fender Lee along the way.
Thursday, January 28, 2010
When I was leaving the courthouse for lunch, “Law and Order” was shooting a scene on the steps of 60 Centre Street. This was the real “Law and Order,” where the late great Jerry Orbach portrayed Det. Lennie Briscoe, not one of the spin-offs that with 10 minutes left to watch have you saying, “That’s dumb.” The scene featured the hard-charging ADA Michael Cutter (I had to look up the character’s name). When I returned from lunch, some heavy equipment remained on and near the steps, but no sign of actors.
I went over to Chatham Square again and tried QJ Restaurant at 5 Catherine Street. From the outside it looks like a small take-out joint. In back, there were about 8 tables, empty except for two lingering Chinese elders at separate tables. They eventually left and one Chinese woman sat down to take their place. The front counter was busy, however, with take-out orders. All the customers were Chinese. I ordered marinated duck and spare ribs over rice. It was a small portion, but with tip I spent $5. Both meats were fatty, so I had to do some selective gnawing to get to the tasty bits. I still operate under the delusion that for a few bucks in Chinatown I’ll get duck as good as served at the Four Seasons for $40 or more.
The seating area was plain, clean. The tables had only a tray with salt, pepper, two kinds of soy sauce and a squeeze bottle of hot sauce. A fork came with my dish. Besides a couple of people working the take-out counter, there were two waitresses, both wearing orange polo shirts and orange visors. For a moment, I thought I was at Arby’s or Burger King, neither of which I recommend for Chinese food or anything except the bathrooms in an emergency.
QJ’s walls are covered with fluorescent red and green posters announcing specials written, of course, in Chinese. I could only distinguish between $8.25 and $9.50. When I’ve asked about these wall postings at other restaurants, the answer was always, “Not for you.” This is the Chinatown version of “Don’t ask, don’t tell.” I respected the code at QJ and ordered only what I could read.
Friday, January 29, 2010
Very cold day in New York. It was 21 degrees when I returned from lunch, possibly the warmest it has been all day. I went to Joe’s Ginger Restaurant, 25 Pell Street, one of a group of six related restaurants, some named Joe’s Shanghai Restaurant. Five of the six are in Manhattan, four in Chinatown, one in midtown. The original is in Flushing, Queens where it had great success popularizing (maybe creating) the soup bun, an ordinary-looking, round bun with soup inside surrounding the meat contents. On Joe’s menu, it is simply called “steamed bun,” but, if you unwittingly bite into it, hot soup squirts out, often on you. The eight buns to a serving are served with tongs; a soup ladle and wooden chopsticks are set on the table. Grabbing a bun with the tongs will usually cause a leak and soup will dribble across the table and up your shirt front (or tie) on the way to your mouth. You have to get a bun onto the soup ladle, nip into the bun and suck out the soup before taking a real bite. Even then, soup is liable to squirt which happened to me today on my last two buns, leaving enough of a mess on the table I did not linger to do the crossword puzzle.
Joe’s Ginger is pretty small, nicely decorated with a mirror along one wall to give it a more spacious feel. It’s busy with Chinese and non-Chinese customers. I also had a scallion pancake, probably the best I’ve ever had; crunchy as if it had been briefly deep fried. Once, in San Francisco’s Chinatown, America’s Favorite Epidemiologist and I, under the spell of the excellent scallion pancakes at Sam’s, 28th Street & Third Avenue, now gone, tried to order scallion pancakes without any success with a Chinese waitress who thought we were searching for IHOP.
In any case, Joe’s is the place for scallion pancakes. Other restaurants now have soup buns and call them soup buns which takes some of the fun away as far as I’m concerned.