The galleys for the The Fortune Cookie Chronicles, Times reporter Jennifer 8. Lee’s forthcoming book about Chinese food and restaurants, have flooded the city, and people are getting hungry. Since the mysterious, crowded world of Chinese food is something about which we can never get enough intel, a quick chat with Jennifer was in order.
What’s the main thing a non-Chinese person going out in Chinatown should know?
The first thing is that there really is a separate menu for Chinese people vs. Americans. Sometimes it’s on the wall in Chinese; sometimes it’s a separate physical menu. One time I went to Flushing with a Latina friend of mine and they gave us both the American menu, and I was totally offended!
Well, how can you get the stuff from that menu?
You first have to ask yourself, do I really want it? Americans don’t like to be reminded that the food they’re eating once walked or flew or swam. So there are no eyeballs, claws, knuckles, and so on. The Chinese love that stuff though. Not to mention a lot of transparent things that don’t have a lot of flavor and seem gummy, but which Chinese people like for their “kougan,” or mouthfeel.
How do New York’s three Chinatowns stack up?
Flushing is the biggest, and that’s where I go. The Manhattan Chinatown is very Cantonese and Fujianese; Flushing has a lot of Taiwanese food, northern and western Chinese; it reminds me more of China. As for Sunset Park, it’s really an extension of the Manhattan Chinatown. It’s the same population — buses and trains constantly go back and forth.
If Sunset Park doesn’t really count, what are your favorite places to eat in the other two Chinatowns?
I love the Flushing Mall food court. It’s amazing, all of these little booths with intense regional flavors: lots of cumin and coriander, Taiwanese egg pancakes, and so on. My family loves Mimi’s Shabu Shabu, which is actually a Chinese hot-pot restaurant where everyone gets their own pot. In Manhattan, I like the Moon House on Bayard Street for Shanghai food: little fried buns, cold sesame noodles, and fried fish with pine nuts. That’s really good. I also like Golden Unicorn and Jin Fong in Manhattan for dim sum. Grand Sichuan is the best chain.
Is there anything you’d like to see happen with Chinese food in New York?
The last big revolution was in the late sixties with the discovery of Hunan and Sichuan food. We’re still waiting for the Chinese Nobu. I hoped it would be Wakiya, which is truly amazing in Japan, but very disappointing here.