The food landscape in this ancient dining city is wreathed in endless myth and legend. Like many myths, these tales grow in power as they’re repeated down through generations, and like many myths, the more they’re repeated, the less bearing they tend to have on reality. There’s the great New York cheesecake myth (“Oh, you have to go to Junior’s”), and the great Italian red-sauce myth (“You haven’t had meatballs until you’ve been up to Arthur Avenue”). There’s the Coney Island hot-dog myth, the City Island seafood myth, and the freshly minted, still-evolving myth of artisanal Brooklyn. The Great Chinatown Myth has grown, over the decades, to encompass the food courts of Flushing and the new dim sum joints in Sunset Park. But its epicenter, I would respectfully argue, remains the old bustling neighborhood down around Canal Street, and I would also respectfully argue that the food in Manhattan’s Chinatown has never been more ordinary or predictable.
Sure, I enjoy hand-snapped noodles as much as the next guy, and, yes, my dumpling-crazed daughters devour the crispy-bottomed pork dumplings at Prosperity Dumpling, on Eldridge Street, by the barrel. I still shop in the markets around the neighborhood, and I’m told that you can still can get a decent seafood dinner at Oriental Garden, provided they seat you in the elegant, wood-trimmed dining room upstairs, you have access to the “secret” menu, and no one at the table orders the chewy, preheated Peking duck. Having grown up gobbling dim sum, and other indigenous local delicacies, as a fat little kid in Hong Kong, I also love the feel of the neighborhood, which is more classically “authentic” in its boisterous, bustling, tumbledown way, than many of the increasingly arid skyscraper cities and malls back in modern China.
But with apologies to Wilson Tang, whose relaunched Nom Wah Tea Parlor serves a decent facsimile of “classic” dim sum, and whose new restaurant, Fung Tu, up on Orchard Street, I enjoyed, the Chinatown dining scene has been stuck in neutral for years now. Talented chefs may come through the neighborhood now and then, but they rarely stay for more than a few months. Compared to Joe Ng’s best cooking at RedFarm, or Han Chiang’s elaborate menu at Han Dynasty, weekend dim sum in Old Chinatown feels less like a culinary event these days than a tired form of performance art. The old warhorse establishments along Mott Street tend to work fine for a quick fix of char siu or roast duck over rice, but if you sit down for an actual meal, chances are you’ll soon find yourself buried under a familiar tsunami of salty soups, leaden dumplings, and clammy, glutinous sauces.
I’d love to believe in the enduring myth of Manhattan’s Chinatown, I really would. Which is why, when a friend suggested we meet at his new favorite Mott Street haunt, a place called the Shanghai Café Deluxe, my heart lifted a little. Shanghai Café wasn’t new, exactly, but thanks to the mysterious alchemy of internet-driven tastemaking, it seemed to be experiencing a renaissance moment. The Shanghai soup dumplings — that enduring totem of Chinatown’s mythical dining scene — had been rated the best in town a couple of years back. After that, the Yelpers leapt into the fray, and now, according to my friend, people were traveling from points far and wide to sample them.
Would our dinner change my mind? Certainly the early signs were encouraging. When we arrived, on a blustery weekday evening, the little restaurant’s windows were covered with steam, and unlike the other predictably deserted establishments up and down the block, the dining room was so full that we had to wait for a table to clear. Instead of the usual assortment of addled-looking tourists and local diners, the wooden, pewlike banquets were filled with bearded gentlemen dressed in flannel shirts and merry, pink-cheeked girls who studied the lengthy, reasonably priced, generally excellent-sounding menu with avid intensity and called out to each other between tables to ask what was good.
Caught up in the merriment, we ordered a giant bamboo tower of the soup dumplings, along with a small flotilla of chicken and pork dishes and a great, Frisbee-sized salver of crispy noodles. The industrial-strength soup dumplings arrived first. They were sturdy and soupy, the way Chinatown soup dumplings tend to be, but in the humble opinion of the assembled dumpling experts at our table, they lacked the popping, diaphanous lightness that defines the best of the genre. The pot stickers were on the gummy side, too, although the pan-seared baozi were decent enough provided you wiped off the shiny residue of cooking grease. The recently re-warmed “crispy duck” wasn’t crispy at all, the fried pork chop was mostly bone and gristle, and the identical tasting orders of General Tso’s chicken and orange crispy beef were ringed with identical undercooked broccoli florets and obscured in the same viscous, iridescently orange, barely edible sauce.
Did we order wrong? Possibly. Was anyone else at Shanghai Café that evening complaining? On the contrary, the little room was filled with the happy, infectious sounds (laughter, the clatter of plates) that characterize a successful restaurant. All around us, a new generation of eaters were being intoxicated by the powerful Myth of Chinatown. This included my Shanghai Café-loving friend, who happily ate a tray of the soup dumplings, just like he always did, and then another. But the fresser to my right — a grizzled veteran of many mediocre Mott Street dinners — wasn’t so sure. He took one bite of the irradiated orange beef, then another, before putting his chopsticks down for good. “Let’s try Flushing next time,” he said.