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Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Chinatown Tastes Like _____???

In recent years I've thought more about Chinatown's smell than taste because, from an olfactory perspective, it's one of New York's most vibrant regions. Fluids abound. Vegetables stands and butchers mingle with open-air fishmongers and giant bags of trash. Rainy days bring piquant new zests to the fore. Add body odors and “angry summer heat,” and you're left with a nose-twisting potpourri of whims, moods, and stank.

And yet, Ms. Slab always tells me to keep an open mind. Sure, we usually head to Flushing for Chinese food... but maybe it was time to give Manhattan's C-town another go round. And what better day to do so than the annual Taste of Chinatown celebration?In case you haven't heard, the ToC began in 2004 as a way to bring eaters back to the area post-9/11. And every spring and fall since, they've hosted a shindig where ~50 restaurants set up outdoor stalls and offer small dishes in the $1-$2 range.

Street dim sum with a twist: it's also a contest. You're supposed to vote for your favorite, and drop it in the ballot box. But to be honest, this event really wasn't conducive to ruminating on “which is best.” It took most of our energies just to weave thru the massive crowds, and out-elbow folks for food. While Ms. Slab doesn't bring much in the way of bulk, she has unusually sharp elbows and a 'take-no-prisoners' attitude. So I brought her along on Saturday, and we got to tasting...We started at the least likely place: the Vegetarian Dim Sum House. Dim Sum is great, veggies not so much; and the combo? A big “eh.” We bought what I thought (hoped) were donuts, but they turned out to be some sort of fried chewy rice-flour ball stuffed with a gluten stir-fry.The only antidote to a non-pork pork bun is a 100% pork pork bun. So we walked down to the Nom Wah Tea Parlor for said pork bun, a spring roll, and (what we hoped was) a donut. Sadly, the pork bun was pretty mediocre: tough “mystery meat” style with gloopy red dye #4 filling. But the surprise winner? That delicious donut. I don't even know if it qualifies as a donut, but it was sugar-coated fried dough. It almost tasted like custard. This was the creamiest non-cream-filled donut I've ever eaten, and that's a good thing.Donut quotient satisfied, we moved on to the hard-working crew from Doyers Vietnamese. They offered an impressive spread of grilled meats and fresh summer rolls, shrimp salads and fluffy aromatic rice... all at $1 a taste. Nice. And tasty. Especially that “grilled pork chop on rice.”The crowds picked up but fast, so we took this guy as our model of how to stay cool calm and collected under hectic circumstances. Note the simultaneous leg-perch and toothpick action; he's a pro.Ms. Slab posted up in the Peking Duck line, while I went down to Mosco Street's Bangkok Grocery. They were serving one of the day's tastiest treats: fresh green curry with chicken and thai eggplant. They were also handing out recipes and selling packets of their curry paste, but in all the excitement I forgot to grab either.Also, Ms. Slab was still waiting patiently outside the Peking Duck House. They had the day's most expensive dish ($2/piece, minimum 2 pieces), but also the most popular. Nobody seemed to mind the double-XL lines... probably because Peking Duck is usually expensive, and nigh impossible to recreate at home. You need a duck (head-on), something to “puff” the skin from the flesh, an oven big enough to hang it vertically, and a real sharp knife. The PDH served succulent, moist meat with some of that prized crispy skin, folded in a pancake with green onions and hoisin.Not to be outdone, friendly neighbor Ping's Seafood served some real stunners. We were lucky to get these golden shrimp straight from the fryer.Yet Ping's coup de flavor wasn't seafood related at all. Maybe it's the pork enthusiast talking, but we loved their crazy take on the pork bun, a saucy meatball-type thing served in a soft, sweet roll. Taste + creativity + pork = winner.Do you remember the whole bubble tea craze that swept Manhattan a few years back? They played themselves like Benneton, but a few stalwarts remain. Case in point: the Teariffic Café, where we headed for a palate-cleansing milk tea. Alas, no liquids in sight. They only had fried finger foods, and lots of 'em: curry veggie squares, and something that bore a striking resemblance to the Chicken McNugget. (Minus the barbecue sauce. Don't lie, I know you like that stuff!)The one thing notably absent in all the fun: beer. I was gonna try bartering with this guy for a Tsing Tao, but he looked pretty comfortable. So we took that as our signal to call it a day.A day well spent, at that. We're not about to abandon Flushing anytime soon, but this did leave a good taste. It also reminded me of the days when Restaurant Week was actually a fun, reasonably-priced introduction to food you might not otherwise sample. Same idea here, for a fraction of the price with way more people. And that combo, my friend, leaves the sweet smell of success!

Til Tuesday,

–J. Slab



For more info, check out the official Taste of Chinatown website. And if you're the planning ahead type, make a mental note for round 2, sometime this Fall.

And show our buddy Kara Zuaro some love. She's good peoples, and her book “I Like Food, Food Tastes Good: In the Kitchen with Your Favorite Bands” was just released today... Click here to check it out.

2 Comments:

OpenID iwantmore said...

This was one of my favorite days of the year. A lot of them had the same thing, and the peking duck line was too long, but the weather was great and the food was fresh. I forgot about it until reading your post, this makes me happy.

11:22 AM  
Blogger J. Slab said...

yeah, it's on again soon & i'm ready for a sunny dim sum day...

11:18 PM  

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