Grub Street: The absolute best Chinese restaurant in Chinatown (NYC)

Grub Street (by Hannah Goldfield):

For six weeks, the editors of New York Magazine and Grub Street are publishing a series of definitive lists that declare the absolute best versions of 101 things to eat, drink, and do. The idea that there is “no good Chinese food in Chinatown” has prevailed for quite some time now; it’s an argument that’s been put forth by our own Adam Platt. It’s true that if you’re looking for Chinese food that will expand your mind and thrill your palate, you’re much better off trekking to Flushing or Sunset Park, or even other parts of Manhattan. It’s also true that there’s a certain brand of Cantonese food — made bland, sweet, and gloppy to cater to a certain American sensibility — that dominates in Chinatown, or at least most people’s idea of the neighborhood, and some of it is genuinely bad. But there are dozens and dozens of restaurants in the neighborhood — with new ones opening regularly and old ones changing hands. Not all of them are Cantonese, and some of them offer food that is very good — plus a whole lot of atmosphere. Herein, five of the absolute best full-service Chinese restaurants in Chinatown, right now.

The Absolute Best

1. Royal Seafood
103 Mott Street, nr. Canal St.; 212-219-2338

It’s a good idea to call before making plans for dinner here; though they don’t take reservations, except for large groups, the entire place is often bought out for banquets. Even when they’re not closed for a private event, you might find yourself an unwitting participant in one, since they often rent out half the dining room for weddings and the like, bisecting it with a curtain. But what could be more fun than eating festive, family-style Cantonese standards — like the really excellent off-menu lobster you’ll see on almost every table, hacked into shell-on pieces, then lightly fried in batter and strewn with ginger, scallions, and garlic — while listening to the joyous sounds of celebration from the other side? It’s an institution, as integral to the fabric of the local community as it is welcoming to outsiders, with cheerful pale-pink tablecloths, friendly but efficient service, and plenty of delicious non-lobster dishes, too, including the addictively crispy, caramelized fried Peking pork chops; a steamed half-chicken, served with the requisite salty scallion-ginger-oil condiment; and full dim sum service on weekends. For a similar but calmer and less exciting experience, Oriental Garden offers many of the same dishes in a much smaller dining room, which makes, especially, for a refreshingly non-hectic dim sum destination.

2. Spicy Village
68 Forsyth St., near Hester St.; 212-625-8299
Spicy Village, formerly known as Henan Flavor, is a definition hole in the wall: a narrow sliver of a space that lets in almost no natural light, with just half a dozen tables. Food arrives, for the most part, in Styrofoam, but that does little to detract from its fantastic flavors, imported from China’s Henan province. Jagged-edge hand-pulled noodles show up in bowls of rich, steamy lamb or beef broth bobbing with brisket or fish balls, and again dry-sautéed with egg and tomato or dense, pungent black-bean sauce. Perfect steamed pork dumplings come a whopping 12 to an order, for just $5 — almost nothing on the menu is more than $6. An important exception is the $13.75 Spicy Big Tray Chicken, beloved by Danny Bowien and Mark Bittman; it’s a mess of juicy dark-meat bone-in chunks and tender quartered potatoes enveloped in a dark, satisfyingly beer-based braise, flecked with Sichuan peppercorns and cumin and fennel seeds. It’s best ordered with a side of those hand-pulled noodles, and/or a couple of “pancakes,” arepa-like doughy rounds with crisp exteriors that come plain or stuffed with minced pork or egg.

3. Great New York Noodletown
28 Bowery, nr. Bayard St.; 212-349-0923

Ask a celebrity chef for her or his favorite places to eat in Chinatown, and you are likely to get New York Noodletown among the responses. Open daily until 4 a.m., it has a reputation for being nothing more than a place to fill a drunk stomach cheaply, and it’s true that the grimy-tile-and-fluorescent-light atmosphere is probably best appreciated (read: ignored) under the influence, but the food is also much better than it has to be, no matter your mental state. There are noodles, of course, in soups topped with juicy slices of roast pork, chicken, or duck, or served in a room-temperature tangle drizzled with a tangy ginger sauce that will make the back of your throat tingle pleasantly, plus a scattering of shredded raw scallion (it’s the dish David Chang credits as the inspiration for the chilled ginger noodles on the menu at his Noodle Bar). And when in season, soft-shell crabs are salt-baked to a deeply satisfying, light-as-air crackle.

4. Big Wong King
67 Mott St., nr. Bayard St.; 212-964-0540

There is something deeply comforting about Big Wong King, which serves up top-notch versions of many Cantonese standards, but is an especially good place to get a warm bowl of perfect congee, topped with roast duck or salted pork and chopped thousand-year egg, and best ordered with a giant fried cruller for dipping. It’s hard to imagine a better breakfast. They also do a mean steamed rice crêpe, flecked with tiny dried shrimp and scallions and drizzled in soy sauce — or, for a full on carbfest, get the one that comes wrapped around slices of that same fried cruller. To top it off, the service is a thing of wonder, with waitstaff moving around the room in a seamless ballet, delivering and removing plates and pouring tea and water with an efficiency that could be studied in business school. Depending on what you order, you can be in and out of here in 20 minutes. Which is not to say you’ll want to be; the late-’70s décor, which includes a wood-paneled wall with a groovy round doorway that divides two dining areas, is part of the charm.

5. Wonton Noodle Garden
56 Mott St. nr. Bayard St.; 212-966-4033

There is no shortage of wonton soup in Chinatown — it’s on the menu almost everywhere — but it’s nice to know that one of the very best versions is at a place so named for it, sometimes also referred to as New Wonton Garden, due to a change in ownership. A big corner of the dining room is devoted to the soup’s making, with a huge vat of deep golden, intensely umami broth (if the flavor comes from MSG, they’re using it masterfully) simmering at all times. Poured over a nest of thin egg noodles and a handful of neatly wrapped wontons filled with juicy pork and perfectly crunchy shrimp, it makes a filling, excellent meal, but there are plenty of other things on the menu to supplement, from classic roasted meats to Cantonese-style lo mein, served with a side of broth.

NYC to welcome ‘Year Of The Monkey’ with Lunar New Year Festival

Fireworks over the Hudson River for the Chinese Lunar New Year on Tuesday, Feb. 17, 2015. (Credit: CBS2)

CBS New York/AP:

 New York City will be celebrating the Lunar New Year with a five-day festival early next month.

The Year of the Monkey Celebration” runs from Feb. 6 through Feb. 10.

The festival, presented by the China Central Academy of Fine Arts, is hosting a myriad of events, including the “The Fantastic Art China” exhibition at the Javits Center, where traditional and contemporary Chinese artworks will be showcased.

Environmental conservation efforts for monkeys in China also will be highlighted.

A Hudson River fireworks display set to the music of Oscar and Grammy Award winner Tan Dun is scheduled for Feb. 6.

The Empire State Building is also planning a light display for Feb. 6 and Feb. 8. And the New York Philharmonic’s 5th Annual Chinese New Year Concert will be held at Lincoln Center on Feb. 9.

Last June, Mayor Bill de Blasio made the Lunar New Year an official public school holiday. An estimated 15 percent of New York City school children celebrate the Lunar New Year.

VICE: The Strange Tale of ‘Shrimp Boy,’ the Old-School Chinatown Gangster Being Sent Back to Prison

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Kwok Cheung Chow, a.k.a. Raymond Chow, a.k.a Shrimp Boy, at the Ghee Kung Tong headquarters in San Francisco in 2007.

VICE (by Max Cherney):

Raymond “Shrimp Boy” Chow was convicted by a San Francisco jury Friday on 162 separate charges. Prosecutors painted a picture of him as a dangerous thug who ran a well-oiled crime machine dealing in drugs, illegal booze, and cigarettes—a heartless operator willing to murder in cold blood when necessary. As a result, Chow is likely facing life in prison, though he plans to appeal.

The conviction brought to an end nearly two years of legal wrangling and drama that was extensively followed by the local media. At one point, Chow’s lawyers made headlines by trumpeting court documents they said implicated local government officials in unethical behavior at best and criminal corruption at worst—though none have been formally charged.

Twenty-nine men and women, including Chow, were named in the initial charging documents—a lurid 137-page affidavit that included the now-convicted former State Senator Leland Yee‘s apparent aspirations as an international arms trafficker. The now-disgraced Yee pleaded guilty in 2015 to a single racketeering count centered around his alleged arms business and propensity for taking bribes from government agents. (He’s awaiting sentencing.)

I was closer than most to the case, covering it for a local magazine, a blog, and a weekly newspaper. I first met Chow at the San Francisco county jail, a soul-sucking compound in the belly of the city’s “tech district,” South of Market. The metal stools, thick glass windows, and ongoing clang of gates smashing shut made for onerous circumstances, but Raymond and I continued a dialogue throughout his trial. I always found him irreverent and upbeat—Chow’s longtime girlfriend told me after the verdict that he’s “insanely strong” and “very Buddha-like.”

He was willing to candidly discuss the government’s accusations, proclaiming his innocence and describing Ghee Kung Tong, the local organization the feds say was involved in all sorts of illegal activity, as a “private self-help group.” (Tongs are fraternal organizations for Chinese-Americans and are sometimes accused of being fronts for crime.)

It’s a weird way to get to know another human being, through glass and over a telephone, via conversations the government is likely recording and will almost certainly use against the prisoner if possible. “I don’t want to make friends like this,” Chow told me during one visit. He later offered to cook us dinner when he got out.

I have never shaken Shrimp Boy’s hand, but know more about his life than many of the people I talk with regularly on my current business reporting beat. That might have something to do with the way Chow throws out details of his life in a manner that seems almost reckless: During the trial, he admitted to doing blow, “cut[ting] someone up” at the age of nine (he details the experience in an unpublished memoir he shared with me), buying sex after getting out of prison, and even taking money from undercover FBI agents—though he maintained that he wasn’t taking the dough in return for overseeing criminal behavior of his alleged associates.

Chow has undeniable charisma. He’s big-mouthed and big-hearted and always (if you believe him) looking out for the immigrant community he’s a part of. According to those close to him, the man is broke enough that he had to live with relatives and his girlfriend upon getting out of prison in 2002, his most recent stretch in the federal pen. (Somehow, though, Chow always seemed to wear tailored, two-piece suits on the outside.) If he does have millions of dollars, even his lawyers have no idea where all the cash is—they took on this marquee client pro bono.

Chow is represented by the office of famous defense attorney J. Tony Serra, which is how I started covering him in March 2014. I was lucky: Curtis Briggs, an associate of Serra’s I had previously worked with, was angling to bring Chow on as a client. The man trusted me, and invited me over to listen to the call as he pitched Chow from their offices in San Francisco’s North Beach neighborhood—a building that reeked of weed. (“We do things differently,” one of Serra’s staffers told me.)

Tony Serra, right, an attorney for Raymond “Shrimp Boy” Chow, pictured at left, listens to speakers at a news conference in San Francisco, Thursday, April 10, 2014. 

I watched and listened as Briggs, a tall, handsome ginger in a suit, reeled in Shrimp Boy. The lawyer worked with a frenetic intensity and passion, and as we waited for the call, Briggs and former-gangster-turned-community-leader Eli Crawford offered their take on the local character.

To hear Chow’s defenders and friends tell it, he’s a community worker of sorts—Crawford described how he and Chow had been giving talks to the city’s troubled youth. In Chow’s memoir, he writes about speaking to high schools, middle schools, and at-risk youth—all to stop kids from following in his footsteps. He also writes that he partnered with a local politician and organized a series of talks about Chinese culture and heritage, for which the city presented him with an award honoring his contribution.

Of course, Chow also has a history of criminal activities including armed robbery, arson, and assault. In his early days, he was a gang enforcer and describes in the book the surgical precision he deployed when hurting enemies. “Beating someone down for a living is a science, ain’t nothing random about it,” Chow writes. “You appraise the target for strengths and weaknesses…. Inflicting injury is a delicate balance, like a recipe you season to taste. You have to be able to evaluate the level of damage you’re doing while you work, and you can get pretty damned good at figuring in the cost of an injury right there, heat of the moment. Most importantly though, you have to know when to stop.”

Later, Chow claims in the unpublished book, he founded a band of home invaders that robbed people all over the Bay Area. He also claimed to have run a brothel and siphoned $250,000 in profits from that operation into a growing coke distribution business back in the 1980s.

But according to Chow and his supporters, that criminal life ended in the 1990s. Indicted on racketeering charges in 1992 and convicted in 1996, Chow was part of a massive case that sent an atomic shockwave through the West Coast crime world. The feds disrupted what might have eventually become the largest heroin trafficking ring in America: The crooks’ plan was to unify disparate gangs and start shipping in smack from the Golden Triangle in huge quantities.

Chow was released from prison in 2003 after cutting a deal with the feds and testifying against his former boss and mentor Peter Chong. (Chow claims in the memoir he had no choice because Chong betrayed him by paying for Chow’s lawyer to take a lavish trip to Macao, sending her off with $60,000 worth of designer handbags—and an agreement to drop Shrimp Boy as a client.)

At the time, Chow recalls in his memoir, the decision to testify against Chong challenged his view of the world. “Some 30 years before, as a child, I’d set out to become a gangster,” he writes. “I sacrificed 20 of those years—the prime of my youth—locked up, a key player in a world that completely vanished beneath my feet. All the gang leaders, dope pushers, scandalous ex-cons and tough guys I’d known were long forgotten and out of the game. Everybody I’d come up with in Chinatown had flipped or cooperated somehow. Once upon a time, they all believed in our code and lived by it. Now every last one had shattered it.”

Those claims may have contributed to Serra taking on Chow as a client, since the attorney doesn’t usually represent people who might be called snitches. “I represent a beautiful man who 12 years ago transcended a lifestyle most people never have the courage to walk away from,” the defense attorney told me when I was writing for San Francisco. He experienced a true epiphany after prison and became a role model for many unfortunates. He has devoted his life since then to bona fide social causes.

As a free man, Chow rubbed shoulders with celebrities, talking loudly and publicly of making a film about his life story. In 2006, after a community leader named Allen Leung was gunned down, Chow took over his post as top boss, or Dragon Head, of the Ghee Kung Tong. (Chow was convicted for arranging Leung’s murder on Friday.)

Raymond “Shrimp Boy” Chow with a man his girlfriend says was a federal undercover in 2011.

Federal prosecutors vigorously argued during the trial that Chow’s work in his community was nothing more than a disguise, offering him cover to oversee a group of old-school Chinatown thugs and their illicit money-making schemes. The gang allegedly trafficked drugs and untaxed hooch and smokes, plotted murders, laundered money.

For their part, Chow and his lawyers maintain the case is bigger than the one-time crook—and insist the investigation shed light on how power in San Francisco really works. They say Judge Charles Breyer was prejudiced against the defense from the start, chopping down their witness list from 48 to less than ten and refusing to consider evidence that implicated city officials. Briggs called Breyer an “attack dog whose sole job was to guard the elite’s secrets and to usher Chow as quickly as possible to life in prison.”

It took a lot of balls to do this with America watching, but that is an indication of just how comfortable the people he is protecting really are, and it illustrates their time tested trust in him,” Briggs added.

Both Serra and Briggs have vowed to appeal, and Briggs argues they have a good shot, though Friday’s verdict was obviously a resounding win for the prosecutors—a victory observers were pretty much anticipating. As Stanford Law Professor Robert Weisberg told the San Francisco Chronicle, “If you have tapes that are perfectly consistent with informant testimony, then juries convict a great deal of the time.” He added that he expects the verdict to be upheld.

Whatever happens with the appeals, Chow is going to spend years behind bars, an environment he knows well by now. And the networks of local political power and crime he spent much of his life in will hum along without him. Shrimp Boy supposedly got his nickname from his grandmother in Hong Kong, who apparently believed that a pseudonym would protect the short kid from evil spirits.

KCET: How senior fashion is turning heads in San Francisco’s Chinatown

You Tian Wu 82, about his fashion philosophy: “When you’re young you don’t have to care about fashion. But when you’re old, you have to.”

(Photo: Andria Lo/Chinatown Pretty)

Panda Express kicks off food truck tour with “Orange Chicken Waffles” at LA’s Chinatown Summer Nights

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FoodBeast (by Peter Pham):

Panda Express is heading on a special cross-country tour in honor of its love for orange chicken. Using a customized food truck, the chain will be traveling to select cities giving away free samples of their original chicken recipe to fans and patrons.

The Chinese-food inspired fast casual chain will also be offering a limited Orange Chicken and Waffles dish. Now that sounds like something we’d follow a truck around over. Make sure to get there early though, because only 200 servings will be available.

The event will kick off on August 22 at LA’s Chinatown Summer Nights which starts at 5pm. Aside from giving away food, Panda will also host a variety of activities and cooking competition for fans to enjoy.

The chain will be sporting the hashtag #OrangeChickenLove for the promotion.

Shaolin Monks in London’s Chinatown