Generations of New Yorkers have enjoyed the luxury of good, inexpensive Chinese food, some of it Americanized, some less so. Today Chinatown has more choices than ever: Old guard Cantonese, complete with roast ducks hanging in the windows, trendy Shanghai joints serving soup dumplings, dim sum restaurants, bakeries, tiny counters where people start the day with a cup of tea, a bowl of congee and a doughnut... Most New Yorkers have their favorites, whether it's Wo Hop, Hsin Wong, Joe's Shanghai, Mei Li Wah Coffeehouse, NY Noodletown or lesser known places they'd rather keep to themselves. Manhattan's Chinatown might not be as vibrant as Flushing's, but it's no tourist theme park, either. Granted, a few blocks have become that, but Chinatown stays refreshed by waves of new immigrants arriving and setting up shop. Many of the shops they set up happen to be food related businesses.
As a home cook I admire the frugality of Chinese cooking in general. Wastefulness is frowned upon, and value is appreciated; that lines up with my own way of thinking very nicely. I don't go out to eat often, but when I do it's no surprise when I end up in Chinatown. There are so many places where the food is good and I leave feeling like I got my money's worth (and then some). Extreme examples of this seem to be clustered on, or very close to Eldridge Street. They stand out so sharply in my mind that I drag people there. But they never seem to mind.
It's fun to eat delicious handmade food in places where if lunch costs more than $8 you're doing it wrong. A buddy from San Fransisco proclaims the dumplings in these shops "the best potstickers I've ever had." My dear friend Richard Priest calls them "pork porn." It was fun to watch band mates Jeff Kite and Mike Bloom overcome by the first bite of the Lamb burger at X'ian Famous. Or Julian Casablancas suspiciously eye a Fujian fish ball before trying and liking it. It was fun to see if my brother could polish off an order of dumplings and a bowl of hand pulled noodles. (He can). It's fun to see out of town guests shocked that places like these actually exist in 2011 New York. (There's so much more to this city than $14 cocktails and $35 plates of pasta!) It's even fun to pick up the tab; the damage is very little here.
So I'm going to take a break from offering home cooking ideas and instead suggest a walk down Eldridge Street. Depending on where you live and what your plans are for a New York City visit this may or may not be a practical suggestion. It stands as a tasty, inexpensive suggestion, regardless. Here's where I go:
Vanessa's Dumpling House, 118 Eldridge St. This is a good place to start. Word is out, and it's often crowded. What to get: fried pork and chive dumplings (four for a buck), sesame pancake sandwiches, homemade pickled cabbage (like a milder, sweeter take on kimchi). Mr Dunn, Glaswegian guitar tech extraordinaire (and a man with no patience for anything frou frou) considers this place a "top call." I took my nieces here years ago and they still talk about it. You can get more tasty food than most can consume in one sitting here for $4, all of it made before your eyes.
Prosperity Dumpling, 46 Eldridge St. There's a running debate on who has the better fried pork dumplings, Prosperity or Vanessa's. To me it's a knife-edge call: if you like more of a ginger flavor you'll prefer Vanessa's, but if thinner wrappers and pronounced scallion flavor are your thing Prosperity wins. A few years ago Julian Casablancas and I did a Lower East Side fried dumpling shootout, and Prosperity was our winner. The place can seat maybe ten people, so get your dumplings (five for a dollar) to go. Eat them walking down the street; they won't last half a block. Word is out about this place, too, so there is sometimes a line.
Super Taste, 26 Eldridge St. You can get good dumplings here, too, but the hand pulled noodles in soup are the star of the show. The spicy beef version is noteworthy, and quite spicy the last time I had it. (Also a bargain at about five bucks). You can watch the guy making noodles behind the counter.
Sheng Wang, 27 Eldridge St. To me this place is the star of Eldridge Street, and word seems to be getting around. Though the crowd is still mostly Fujian I've noticed other "aging hipsters" on recent visits. English is spoken here, but haltingly. Best to just point at the menu. Their policy has been not to serve tea, but they've realized many Westerners expect it, so it seems to show up at tables where Westerners are sitting. Last time I visited it arrived in small styrofoam soup containers. Very charming, even though the tea itself is weak. They offer both knife peeled and hand pulled noodles; the former are more interesting, but the latter are a little better, among the best I've had. Their steamed dumplings ($3 for 12) might be the best on Eldridge street - thin skins and a perfect balance of ginger and scallion flavor. They've elevated the lowly fish ball into a work of art as well, by giving it a ground pork center. It's obvious they're proud of that because they sneak one into most orders of soup, regardless of what you have ordered. I cut to the chase and order the hand pulled noodles in soup with fish balls ($4.50) to assure I get five or six in my bowl. Fifty cents extra gets you a fried egg on top.
Xi'an Famous Foods, 88 East Broadway. Walk to the southern end of Eldridge Street and you're looking at the base of the Manhattan Bridge. One of the businesses there is Xi'an Famous. This is food from Western China, with a Uighur influence. Nearly everything is oily, salty and spicy (cumin and hot pepper are well-represented). Imagine a mix of Chinese and Middle-Eastern flavors and you're not too far off the mark. Lamb and pork are the meats available, and their handmade noodles are completely different than those of their Eldridge Street neighbors - starkly white and quite thick. Most of the dishes here are too much of a commitment to eat on the street, and the shop's tiny counter can only accommodate three diners. So only go for the Cumin Scented Lamb Noodles, the Liang Pi Noodles or the Spicy and Tingly Lamb Face Salad (all excellent choices) if you're of a mind to seek out a bench somewhere to sit down and eat them. (You are just a block from Sara D. Roosevelt Park). If just a quick grab and go is more your style I'd have to recommend the lamb burger ($3.50): cumin scented lamb served on a bun that is like a tough Chinese version of an English muffin. That might not sound appealing, but trust me: it is sublime.