Chinatown

Gut Instinct: Nom, Nom, Nom

Beside zombie clowns and working a full-time office job, few things frighten me as much as listening to a barber talk.

To me, being confined to a chair with scissors clacking and clippers whirring is a form of temporary imprisonment. It's trusting your life, or at least your looks, to another human being. The arrangement sends my pulse into a frantic foxtrot. My unease is exacerbated by idle chitchat about the weather and whether or not I think the Yankees will win the World Series this year.

In standard social settings, it's easy to flee inane chatter. Sure is hot outside, isn't it? Yes, yes it is. Now I must be off to do that…thing. In a barber chair, you're unable to escape conversation. Sure, chatty Cathys like my wife love spending time at a salon—girl talk!—but New York is a loud, maddening metropolis. Peace and quiet are rarely in stock. That's why I get my hair cut in Manhattan's Chinatown, where the barbers barely speak a lick of English.

Over on crooked Doyers Street (colorfully dubbed "Bloody Angle" because gangs once bided their bloodthirsty time there, waiting for rivals to round the bend), barbershops line the curvaceous block. Though they appear indistinguishable, trial and error has led me to settle on Hip Kee Beauty Salon (10 Doyers St., betw. Pell St. & Bowery, 212-587-3305). "Haircut?" the barbers call out as I enter the rectangular room festooned with photos of folically immaculate Chinese men and women. "Not too short," I tell the barber. He nods. Our conversation ends. The haircut begins. After my hair is hacked off, the barber straight-razors my sideburns and scrapes my hirsute neck till it's as smooth as gelato.

For almost seven years I've been getting my hair cut at Hip Kee. During that time, I never ventured across the narrow street to Nom Wah Tea Parlor (13 Doyers St., betw. Pell St. & Bowery, 212-962-6047). It's Chinatown's oldest dim sum salon, slinging dumplings, pastries and steamed buns since 1920. Given my dumpling addiction, it's surprising that I've avoided Nom's potstickers. But I had my routine, hitting dollar-dumpling shacks such as Prosperity Dumplings (46 Eldridge St., betw. Canal & Hester Sts., 212-343- 0683) or A-Wah (5 Catherine St., betw. Division St. & Broadway, 212-925-8308), home to crisp, clay-pot rice topped with mushrooms and an egg—bibimbap by way of China.

Not dining at Nom Wah was an oversight. Yet I recently saw the restaurant in a new light, thanks to news that Wilson Tang, the nephew of longtime owner Wally Tang, had taken over. Instead of slashing and burning decades of history, creating a shiny tourist temple, Wilson merely gave Nom Wah a facelift. Grease and dust, be gone! Lights were brightened, tables made less rickety, the kitchen modernized. The result was a restaurant with one foot in 1956 and the other in 2011. It was a timeless eatery that it was high time to visit.

The opportunity arrived via email. Fellow writer and cheap eats fan Craig Nelson invited me to Nom Wah to celebrate the release of his Chinatown Chow Down app, which decodes the neighborhood's restaurants. "Complimentary dim sum and $2 beer," his invite read. Free dumplings and cheap booze? I booked it to Doyers Street, eager to kill two birds with one stone: a haircut, then Nom Wah.

Per usual, the barbers at Hip Kee did right by me and my unruly locks were tamed. To do the same for my appetite, I crossed the block and popped my Nom Wah cherry. I filled my plate with a sampling of plump har gow, shrimp-porkmushroom siu mai, oyster sauce-slicked greens and deep-fried, salt-and-pepper spare ribs. I sat at a table topped with a redand-white checkerboard tablecloth, pulled on my Taiwan-brand lager beer—forgettable but frigid and refreshing—and nibbled my dumplings tentatively, then ravenously.

I've dined on my fair share of dim sum, but these handmade nibbles were a 180 from the wan, soggy eats typically doled out from carts by ancient women. These dumplings were fat, juicy and flavorful, not even requiring a soy sauce shower. The thin-sliced pork was salty and crunchy, a potentially winning salvo in the ceaseless war against hangovers. And the lightly blanched greens were bright and snappy, a pleasing workout for my incisors and molars. Much like waiting 'til I went to college to make the beast with two backs, I thought to myself, Why did I wait so long to experience such pleasure?

I ran my hands through my buzzed hair, hoping it'd regrow soon to give me another reason to return to Doyers Street.

Read—and vote for—the original story at the New York Press website.

New York Press' Gut Instinct: Dim Sum of My Parts

Dim sum = yum yum! Photo: Flickr/hilabean

Now that I'm a newly engaged man, I must come to terms with my fiancée's shortcomings: namely, her disgust for dim sum.

"I'm not going to eat dim sum with you. It's so greasy," she says, wrinkling her nose in a manner I might find cute if her words weren't so hurtful. "Not all dim sum is greasy," I rebut, extolling the pleasures of feather-light cheung fan rice rolls and steamed, shrimp-stuffed har gow. But her eyes glaze like a Krispy Kreme cruller, another a.m. eat she shuns for Kashi cereal—gerbil feed, as far as I'm concerned. "I'd rather you make me poached eggs," she suggests instead. "How about that?" Mmm… no. Nothing elevates my serotonin like a Saturday spent at Sunset Park's Pacificana (813 55th St., at 8th Ave., Brooklyn, 718-871-2880) or Chinatown's Jing Fong (20 Elizabeth St., betw. Bayard & Canal Sts., 212- 964-5256), snatching willy-nilly steamer baskets stuffed with translucent dumplings and fluffy buns packed with roast pork. Dim sum is a communal experience that's part spectacle, part uncertainty: What edible mysteries are those cart-pushing ladies peddling? What do they cost? And will I save enough space to have a second round of steamed spare ribs?

Like a solitary pervert popping into a peepshow, I must get my dim sum jollies by my lonesome. I take my pleasures on Fridays. That's when I toil at my magazine copyediting gig in Midtown, ensuring that celeb names are properly spelled. Trust me, Hayden Panettiere is hardly an easy stroll through the alphabet. Since I toil near Rockefeller Center, my preferred trains are the B or the D. Traveling from Brooklyn, the first Manhattan stop is Grand Street. This quadrant of Chinatown, far from the whispering salesman hawking knockoff Gucci, is my culinary playground. Within a five-block radius, I can stuff my craw with Far East eats tailored to my mood.

If I'm head-crushingly hungover, I'll hit Wah Fung No. 1 Fast Food (77 Chrystie St., betw. Hester & Grand Sts., no phone). Less than three bucks buys a palm-size aluminum container bursting with rice, cabbage and enough caramelized, jerky-like roast pork to make me oink all afternoon. For a soothing start to my morn, I'll decamp to the northwest corner of Elizabeth Street and Hester Street. Till 2 p.m. daily, two friendly ladies man a cart vending madeto-order steamed rice noodles. A wide, shallow tray is filled with rice-flour batter, topped with your preferred ingredients (shrimp, pork and, my choice, eggs) then steamed to squiggly perfection. Several squirts of thick soy sauce seal the $1.75 deal. For a quick bun pick-me-up, there's nothing finer than the fluffy porkand-veggie specimens sold at narrow, helter-skelter Deluxe Food Market (79 Elizabeth St., betw. Grand & Hester Sts., 212-925-5766). If I crave a fleshfree bun, then I'll cut a rug to Queen Bakery (150 Mott St., betw. Grand & Broome Sts., 212-966-8998) for one freighted with mushrooms and nubs of mock meat. It equally pleases my taxed arteries and stomach.

Despite these eateries' gut-stuffing glories, I count myself lucky to have recently discovered Lucky King Bakery (280 Grand St., betw. Forsyth & Eldridge Sts., 212-219-8434). Like similar establishments lining Grand Street, the bakery welcomes a steady clip of wizened men, who enter empty-handed and toddle off toting cups of milky coffee and flaky pastries. For years, I slunk past the shop without so much as sampling one morsel. Pressed for gotta-get-to-work time, I typically beeline to my roster of favorite restaurants. But a few weeks ago, I found myself with a few extra minutes to explore. That's when I spotted the wispily mustachioed man leaving Lucky King, his mouth wrapped around a cloud-like bun spilling out roast pork. My stomach grumbled. I was tractorbeamed inside.

I first encountered glistening baked goods stuffed and topped with frosting— not my jam. I tiptoed deeper into Lucky, past tables filled with patrons perusing the newspaper, and gasped. There was a towering steamer brimming with buns and all manner of dim sum delights: scallion pancakes, spare ribs, rolled bean curd skin crammed with mushrooms and bamboo shoots. Nothing cost more than a couple bucks. Chinatown: The land where cheapskates go to heaven every day.

"What do you want?" asked a young counter girl wearing a smock and a smile.

"Everything," I moaned in my bedroom voice. Her smile froze as if she were spritzed with liquid nitrogen. "Sorry," I said, composing myself and placing my order: siu mai dumplings constructed with shrimp, shiitakes and pork; a porkand-vegetable bao; spare ribs; and the aforementioned bean curd. I brought my treasures to an empty table, near a Chinese grandpa wearing New Balance sneakers. He gave me and my gluttonous repast the ol' hairy eyeball.

"You like dim sum?" he asked. "I love dim sum," I said, popping the bao between my full, expectant lips and biting into bliss.

Read—and vote for—the original article at the New York Press website!

New York Press' Gut Instinct: Driving Myself Crazy

My personal version of hell. Photo: flickr/juicyrai

I stood in my striped boxer shorts in the kitchen, listening to my girlfriend's latest accusation.

"Did you eat my yogurt?" she asked, rooting around in the refrigerator for her last container of Greek yogurt. It's thick and packed with protein, and lord she loves her protein.

I wiped a white smudge from my lips. "No. Why would I do that?" Unlike George Washington, I can tell a lie. She fixed me with a withering gaze. "Because you never go to the grocery store," she said. "That's not true," I replied. "Buying beer doesn't count," she said, gesturing to the fridge's bottom shelf. It was crammed with dozens of bottles of delicious drunkenness. "Don't touch my beer!" I said, grabbing a bottle of Brooklyn Brewery's lovely, lemony Sorachi Ace. "Just buy groceries," my girlfriend declared. Her tone indicated that it was a command, not a polite suggestion.

Dear readers, I have nothing against grocery shopping. As a child, I loved spending Saturdays with my mom at Kroger, where the aisles were wide enough to accommodate an SUV. Saturdays meant sample day, a free smorgasbord of frozen pizza, microwaveable burritos, cubed cheese and sliced deli meat. "Would you like another, sweetheart?" the smiling sample ladies would ask, passing me another toothpick-speared morsel. "Go tell your mother how much you liked it."

Beyond free food, I loved finding bargains. My brain filled with recently learned long division, hands clutching coupons clipped from the Sunday paper, I'd suss out the best prices per ounce. "We don't need name-brand flour," I'd tell my mom. "The store brand costs less." Even as a child, I was a cheapskate. And the name of the game was buying in bulk. Rice, sugar, beans, beef— everything's cheaper when bought in arm-straining amounts.

Bringing home those heavy, low-cost foodstuffs was a snap thanks to our skyblue Colt Vista minivan, which brings me to the crux of this tale: Without a car, shopping for groceries is a big ol' botheration. (Yes, there's FreshDirect, but buying groceries on the Internet feels unnatural, like browsing for a mate online. Call me old-fashioned, but I prefer to grocery-shop like I once dated: with lots of fondling.)

Like most New Yorkers, I do not own a car. My last vehicle, a tan-toned Nissan Stanza minivan, gave up the ghost in 1999, following a 24-hour breakneck jaunt from Denver to Dayton, Ohio. Since then, I've driven Coney Island's Eldorado bumper cars more often than an actual auto. I prefer biking, which keeps me from ballooning to 300 pounds of grease and beer.

But my girlfriend likes sliding behind a steering wheel. Whenever we, say, return to Ohio or New Hampshire, she pilots our rental. "As long as I'm driving, I don't mind long car rides," she says. I'm OK with this arrangement. She drives. I drink. Everyone is happy. Then our friend Matt ruined our equilibrium with an offer my girlfriend couldn't refuse: share their station wagon for less than $90 a month. "I'll be able to go hiking and antiquing," she said, "and you can go grocery shopping."

Buying groceries on the Internet feels unnatural, like browsing for a mate online. Call me old-fashioned, but I prefer to grocery-shop like I once dated: with lots of fondling.

So, on a snowy Sunday, I found myself piloting the station wagon to Sunset Park. My destination was Fei Long Supermarket (6301 8th Ave. betw. 63rd & 64th Sts., Brooklyn, 718-680-0118), a former auto-body shop converted into one of Brooklyn's best Chinese groceries. The produce room stretches nearly a block, offering rows of 'shrooms and garden-fresh greens. Freezers overflow with dozens of different dumplings; the noodle aisle is a carbohydrate cornucopia; and stir-fry sauces are stacked to the ceiling. Sweetening the deal is Fei Long's parking lot. It's plenty spacious and easily accessible. Not so easy? Driving to the supermarket.

An unsung benefit of not owning a car is never suffering road rage. But it took two minutes to be stricken by that affliction. "Get the hell out of my damn way!" I screamed at an idling livery cab, waiting in the middle of the road for a customer pickup. Red lights, traffic jams, glaciers chilling in the road: My lazy Sunday drive became a pulse-quickening, blood-boiling excursion. I actually empathized with drivers who lay on the horn to chastise jaywalkers. But I refrained. I retreated into my happy spot, a delicious land loaded with all the dumplings and noodles I'd soon acquire. I eased into the parking lot, locked the car and gazed longingly at an empty trunk that I'd soon fill with food.

Read--and vote for--the original column on the New York Press website.

I'm Officially Obsessed: Xi'an Famous Foods

Photograph: Michael Kirby Smith

Too often, I'm remiss in posting the stories I pen every week. But I can't overlook this week's treat, published in the latest issue of Time Out. Xi'an Famous Foods crafts killer, wildly flavorful noodles and lamb dishes (think: cumin, chili oil, cilantro, vinegar) sold for a song. To boot, most dishes hover around $5. Hard to go wrong with that, my fellow cheapskates. If yer interested, read it up!

Gut Instinct: From Xanax to Xanadu

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From Xanax to Xanadu Eggs and bacon? Eww! A lifelong brunch eater finds bok choy bliss in Sunset Park

“Hey, Josh, want to do brunch?” is a question I answer by screaming and galloping to a dark corner safe from runny eggs, crisp bacon, fluffy pancakes and other sinister tortures. Whereas New Yorkers find brunch to be both Xanax and Xanadu—mingling with friends, scanning the Sunday Times, faking interest in the previous night’s coitus companion—I despise brunch. Particularly when people use it as a verb.

My belief places me in a NYC minority more miniscule than single heterosexual men. Why? Because brunch is hell served with greasy taters. Service is erratic. Lines are epic. Seating is cheek to jowl. Waiters force customers out as quickly as plates are cleared. In this regard, brunch-serving restaurants are like porn stars angling for an orgy world record: Pack ’em in, pleasure not included.

Ideally, brunch spots would operate on Chinatown’s magical formula: low cost + high volume = a happy me. I find this mathematical bliss at old-school diners like Tom’s and old-man coffee shops like Mei Lei Wah. Here, roast-pork buns cost $.75. A coffee is another $.75. Sure, the wrinkled cashiers are surly and the clientele ain’t winning any beauty contests, but I’m allowed to dine at my pace, not one dictated by profit margins.

Instead, eateries’ formula of high volume + high cost = the reason I avoid brunch like Greenpeace volunteers begging for donations. During weekend mornings, I’ll cook gossamer egg sandwiches for everyone, but it’s easier to convince me to wax my Speedo line than hit brunch.

Then my lady friend hit me with an order: “My cousin Jen and her girlfriend want to meet you,” she said.

“Great,” I replied. Maybe I could cadge a free drink off a family member.

“She wants to have brunch.”

“No.”

“Please?”

“N-O.”

“I’m asking you nicely.”

I considered standing firm, but since I’d like conjugal relations before 2009, I played good boyfriend and compromised: “Dim sum!” I exclaimed. “Dim. Freakin’. Sum.” It’s chaotic. It’s mysterious. It’s a sensory assault that requires snap reflexes to differentiate delectable and repellent eats.

“OK, dim sum it is on Saturday,” she said.

On Friday night, I prepared myself by getting pie-eyed at a birthday party. This fete was for home brewers opening Connecticut’s Upside Brewing later this year. This meant beer. Gallons of beer. I sipped Upside’s smooth English bitters before guzzling Captain Lawrence’s bourbon-y Nor’Easter Winter Warmer and Green Flash’s imperial IPA. It smelled like marijuana and made me unfortunate.

“Oh, my God!” the host screamed. He watched, googly-eyed, as I relieved myself outside. “You’re peeing on my grill.”

I slurred an apology and snagged a cab, mumbling along to Rihanna as I sped.

The next morning, my girlfriend dragged my bedraggled body to Sunset Park. It was an instant restorative. I love visiting this hurly-burly Chinatown as much as I adore sniffing my fingers when no one’s looking. I drift among crowds, snacking on thin mei fun noodles and joining cantankerous Chinese women in uncovering plump shiitakes and leafy bok choy.

“Stop looking at the vegetable stands,” my girlfriend said, as if I were ogling another woman. “It’s time for dim sum.”

In Manhattan, I head to Triple 8 Palace or Jing Fong. In Sunset Park I’m gaga for Pacificana (813 55th St. at 8th Ave., 718-871-2880), located above a bank. The parlor’s nearly as long as a basketball court, with ceilings tall enough for Yao Ming to trampoline. The tablecloth-topped tables are filled with Chinese families feasting wantonly—$10 covers even gluttonous diners, tips included. Our foursome sat down. We sipped green tea. Then I began flagging down cart-pushing ladies with vim that belied my beer-addled brain.

“Har gau!” I commanded to a woman peddling bamboo containers filled with translucent shrimp dumplings.

“Rice noodles!” I ordered, grabbing a plate jiggling with soft shrimp-studded rolls.

“Gimme…that!” I said, nabbing bean curd stuffed with mushrooms, pork and other minced creatures. Soon arrived plates burdened by soy-sauce-slicked greens, fried buns with black-bean paste centers, skin-on eggplants. Our bill filled with circular stamps, signifying each—god bless dim sum—sub-$3 purchase.

“I thought you didn’t like brunch?” my girlfriend asked, chopsticking up a veggie dumpling. Her cousin was enthralled by black-bean goo, the girlfriend occupied by a crisp scallion pancake.

“Shh,” I replied, plucking more steaming deliciousness from endlessly circling carts, like sharks in reverse, until my lips curled into an odd shape that looked awful close to a smile.