Monday, June 29, 2009
Fried Rice Queen
I know many New York sinophiles in constant pursuit of China’s finest, but to find the best of the best, put down that vodka soda and march out of The Web. While I feel fairly confident in my restaurant-hunting skills, I decided I might need a bit of help in these uncharted waters. Luckily, as of this publications date, I happened to be seeing a dashing Chinese man who told me where his parents like to dine when visiting New York. Now I’m on to something…just like my mother can discern which brand of chopped liver sits in front of her with a mere whiff, parents born in Hong Kong must know what’s what when it comes to NYC’s Chinese culinary scene.
I was skeptical of this midtown recommendation, feeling fairly certain that the best Chinese meals lived south of Canal Street, but the restaurant’s alternate Chinatown location and the window full of magazine clippings allayed my fears. We walked past the glimmering Buddha, faux marble paneling and went straight upstairs. I took the Hello Kitty-inspired décor as a good sign. As we sat, our waiter ask if we were ready to order, and again every 5 minutes until I satiated him by ordering a Tsingtao (imported Chinese beer) and an order of their famous pork soup dumplings to start. We then proceeded to cross-reference the menu with my manfriend’s e-mail describing what and how to order. I may or may not have had to call him to review my Chinese pronunciation…
When the moment of truth arrived, I went down the list of items with menu in hand, pointing my way through the order. Then, however, I hit a snag. One dish that “is amazing,” wasn’t on the menu. Not only was this vegetable a special order, but I was only instructed how to say it in Cantonese. I took a deep breath and with beads of sweat dripping down my forehead, I tried to sound as nonchalant as possible and said, “Oh, and an order of oong choy.” To my shock and delight, the waiter barely flinched and just kept writer on his pad, whew.
By the time I was done hyperventilating from the ordering ordeal, our pork soup dumplings arrived in a large bamboo steamer. What makes these dumplings standout from the typical American-Chinese variety is the tablespoon or two of rich pork broth that accompanies the pork ball inside each little noodle pod. We stared, unapologetically, as the next table over went through the fragile dumpling-popping process. We were far less successful in executing the dumpling dance, but here’s how it should go: place one dumpling in a large soup spoon and top with a soy sauce and fermented ginger concoction. Delicately either use your chopsticks or your teeth to puncture a small hole in the noodle. Sip the soup as it fills the spoon and eat the deflated remains.
It was easy to see why Joe’s Shanghai is famous for these dumplings, not only were they fun, but delicious as well. The pork was tender and flavorful and the noodle was light and just gummy enough. Not long after, our main courses arrived. The young chow fried rice was a fairly traditional version, made with pan-fried white rice, chicken, pork and shrimp – not that brownish stuff you get at your local Quan’s Kitchen. The beef with green beans was good, but not particularly notable. And then came the infamous oong choy, which reminded me of broccoli rabe with hollow shafts (cue giggle) and no florets. The spears were crunchy, refreshing and salty; an illusion of health veiled in oil. After some online snooping, it turns out that oong choy is water spinach: a semi-aquatic tropical plant grown as a leaf vegetable, yum.
Dinner was going so well that when the dessert menu’s arrived, I decided we shouldn’t push our luck and just asked for the check. I’m not an Asian expert, but I’m pretty sure the flan isn’t indigenous. Instead, we finally succumb to the pressure of being a New York City tourist and sat down to our Carnegie Deli cheesecake.
24 W 56 Street
New York, New York 10019
(between 5 and 6 Avenue)