Wednesday, February 06, 2019

Chinese New Year in New York

Happy Year of the Pig!
Gong Hao Fat Choy! Yes, its is time for the annual Chinese New Year's blog post. This is notable because a) I'm not Chinese, and b) this is a blog post. The first factoid should become apparent very soon, but the second merits discussion. I started writing this blog back in 2006 while spending a summer in Istanbul, mainly to show my friends and family the things I was eating.

Henan lamb noodles at Spicy Village near Grand St. subway.
I first read about this newfangled thing called blogging in an article in New Yorker Magazine around 2000. At the time, I had not been active in weekly journalism for a year and I saw blogging as a way to keep my writing chops in shape, push-ups in written form. This blog (purposely misspelled to its dialect form and named after a fiddler I know in Romania whose name means, essentially, 'The Lord' - he tells you what to do and you did it) began in Istanbul in 2006, ostensibly to share photos of food, travel, and music with my friends all over the globe. For a while blogs were the new kid on the internet block, and I was posting a lot, often getting over a thousand hits a day on some story about strange Romanian fiddles, what Turks put in their lamburgers or pizza in The Bronx.
Ioan Pop on vioara cu goarne, and no, I can't get you one.
Blogging was to HTML what the Beatles were to Lawrence Welk. For a couple of years bloggers were celebrities, and some managed to eke out book deals or monetize their blogs into a small fortune. Those days are now long gone... attention spans have shrunk down to Twitter and Instagram and even more imbecilic platforms (Snapchat!) which make blogging look like what it is: a home for aging blowhards to discuss weird ethnic fiddle construction, klezmer history, and Chinese food.
Hungarian-friendly kolbรกszos sticky rice lo mai gai from Shanghai in Ft. Lee, NJ. 
Which is fine with me. I may be posting a bit less than I used to, but I am not giving up the ghost just yet. My migration pattern often sees me spending a couple of months a year in the New York area - specifically, in Jersey, but close enough that a three dollar Spanish bus gets me into Manhattan and on the A train within a half hour of the old homestead. And after a week of nasty polar vortex during which Fumie dragged my nonathletic ass to watch... Johnny Weir, Olympic figure skating champion at the Bryant Park ice rink. I was very, very, very cold. Oh, the things I do for love.... this sub-antarctic survival test was preceded by a trip to a Vietnamese restaurant in the Bronx with Professor Emeritus Bob Godfried, the Man Who Knows the Bronx Better than Anybody.

Rice Pancake at Com Tan inh Kieu. 
Located along Jerome Avenue south of Kingsbridge, the Com Tan Ninh Kieu has upgraded itself from a cheap grubby local lunch space into a cheap and sleek restaurant that draws wary outsiders up the #4 subway to the Bronx for excellent Vietnamese pho and regional style Viet food. I love Vietnamese cuisine - and it is not that widespread in the New York area. I had a Vietnamese room mate in college... which very quickly grew to having 12 Vietnamese room mates in our two bed dorm room, so I know of what I speak. Chinatown is really the only part of Manhattan left that is of any interest to me, since the rest of the island seems to have turned into a Trump branded mall selling fashion sneakers and avocado toast to NYU students. While the city's main Chinese neighborhoods have migrated eastward to Flushing and Sunset Park, Manhattan's old neighborhood has remained staunchly Cantonese, and the old fashioned elaborate Chinese writing used in signage down here is nearly unintelligible to many mainland Mandarin speakers. And I like Cantonese food... it is what I grew up with, and when I was a wee teenager I was already familiar with the offerings of the Chinese tea shops down here, when I could stuff myself for a dollar on pork buns and rice rolls. My love for Cantonese wonton noodle soups leads me to systematically try every noodle shop in the city.

One of the last old time dim sum tea shop bakeries is the Mei Li Wah on Bayard street. For starters its cheap. And small. And dingy. It makes no concession to trendiness or, for that matter, hygiene. If authenticity is what you are after, yeah, it is authentic in an old New York meets Hong Kong way. If you want retro hipster old style Chinatown with a menu set up for non-Chinese, go to nearby Nom Wah. If you want to eat in an old Jackie Chan movie set, try Mei Li Wah. For starters their pork buns are the best in New York - huge, stuffed full of roasted pork and sauce, almost a full meal for a buck fifty.

There are crowds at the door buying the pork buns as fast as they came out of the kitchen, but we managed to grab a booth and enjoy a sit down meal. Buns to start, of course, but their shiu mai are also great (at least if you like big meaty noodly shiu mai) I like to come here for some of the items I usually only see in dim sum parlors, like cheung fan rice rolls. Here you can get a plate of them rolled into little carpets supporting a stew of beef navel (stomach) meat and ginger... lots of chewy tendon and and connecting tissue on fluffy rolled rice noodle. This is what I miss living in Europe...

Beef Navel Rice Roll... 
The Mei Li Wah has a short little menu, but the real dishes are displayed in photos taped around the walls of the room - this is how Fumie discovered the Sticky Rice Egg Thing. We know that is what you call it because that is what neighboring Chinese diners at Mei Li Wah called it when pointing at Fumie's plate asking to order that "Sticky Rice Egg Thing." When Chinese customers point at your plate for the waiter, you are doing something right.

The Egg Thing, however, reveals itself to be an edible Chinese style Clown Volkswagen: compressed inside a wad of sticky rice is a vast molten sea of meat, cabbage and Chinese chives.


Anonymous said...

Thanks Bob. Happy New Year. Please keep blogging.

NH in Paris said...

I alternate between drooling and chortling at your blog posts. I second the keep on blogging motion :-)

The doodler said...

I third it! Your blog is delightful and fascinating.