The bi-level dim-sum hall Golden Unicorn opened in 1989 and was named one of New York’s top five restaurants by Food & Wine in 1996. Macao-born Sam Chen started as a captain there in the early nineties, and over fifteen years he’s become the manager of this Cantonese mainstay. Today marks the Chinese New Year, when New Yorkers of all sorts will descend upon Chinatown to catch the parade and relish in tradition and dumplings. For those willing to go beyond chicken and broccoli, we asked Chen for some guidance on authentic eats.
What’s the best time to come for dim sum to get the most variety?
Noon to 1 p.m., and we have more items Saturdays and Sundays.
What are some of your favorite items?
Mushroom dumplings, sautéed shrimp dishes, steamed vegetable dumplings.
Where do you go for dim sum when you’re not eating at work?
Sometimes I try other restaurants to make a comparison — all dim-sum places in New York City, even in Queens, in Brooklyn. I try one this week, another one the next. Try the comparison of food, service. I have to know the difference. We always add new dishes. But some old dishes will never change — [those are] the most popular items — spring rolls, shrimp dumplings, pork shumai. Old-style. Mushroom dumplings [are] something new.
How does business change over Chinese New Year?
We’re expecting a crazy day on Monday. Just walk-ins for weekends and holidays.
What are some traditional holiday foods?
Chinese New Year cake, sesame balls, sponge cake with good meanings, and entrées with good meanings, too: pig tongue with dry oysters, lettuce with pig hands, the whole front leg. It’s a good meaning in Chinese, especially Cantonese. People can order [them] or not, maybe they know nothing about it. Some things too strange — like pig tongue — they won’t eat it.
Do you tell them about the special dishes?
Sometimes, sometimes not. Some ask, [but] most of them stay with regular dishes. You can order a [New Year’s] menu. $32 per person: food, tea, and water.
What is the traditional way to celebrate the New Year?
Firecrackers, line lion dancing. We eat together, like a family-reunion dinner, sending out and receiving lucky money.