I have a favorite Chinatown Restaurant. Me?
When I was a little girl my parents brought me to Chinatown in Manhattan. I don’t remember what we did there but I do remember feeling frightened. Nothing was familiar — the sounds, the faces, the smells, the signs, the crowds. It was sometime in the fifties.
Now I go to the city at least once a month, and I stay with my friend Lee in his apartment on Mott Street. Lee is not Chinese. He inherited the apartment from his late wife. He feels Chinese. I don’t. This is my second Chinatown experience, and I feel just as much a foreigner.
We have two dogs – a sixty and a one hundred pounder. They are large dogs and very conspicuous in Chinatown and so are we. We take them down to Columbus Park and if the weather is good and we have time, we walk them out among the city and state government buildings and parks. We are more or less just part of the city outside of Chinatown. My dog has leash aggression and the whole time we’re walking I’m on a vigilant lookout for “other” dogs. For two country dogs, they do very, very well in the crowded streets of Chinatown, where so many of the people are elderly and slow and there is so much food out on display in the markets in the streets, and incredible smells coming from the trash bags along the sidewalks. Most people smile at them. The dogs are less intimidated than I am.
Lee and his wife frequented two restaurants, both owned by the same family. They were very friendly with the owners, and they would joke about matching their children up. When we go in for dinner or for meals to bring back upstate, they recognize him, and now me. It is always nice to be welcomed into a restaurant with a big “hello again” smile and the food is great. One of the great days in my friend’s “getting used to being in Chinatown without his wife phase,” was the day he approached the owner to work with him on the menu for a banquet for some family that were in town. Sitting around the table with the waiters bringing out one delightful, authentic dish after another and with his family beaming, made him feel as though he really was Chinese. (Our neighbors know him for his excellent crispy noodles and stir fry and we’ve been joking about opening up Lo Fan’s Noodle Shop in the mid-Hudson Valley region.)
Last fall we went to Hsin Wong, one of the two restaurants, and noticed a big “B” in the window. New York City’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene had initiated a new two-step restaurant inspection process in 2010 that requires restaurants to post their ratings in the front window. My son Morgan has a career in public nutrition and food policy and I had read about this program with interest, as I read anything which makes me feel more connected with my sons, when it first was announced. He had worked in kitchens a good part of his high school and college life, and had told me stories that I don’t want to repeat about kitchen conditions. I thought the city was doing a great service by conducting the inspections and letting diners know the results.
But now, I was confronted with a dilemma. Did I want to not eat in this less than pristine restaurant that I had eaten in with relish before? Did anyone that we knew ever get sick from lack of sanitary practices in Hsin Wong? There was a lot of conflict here.
Of course we went inside, had a wonderful dinner, bought our see yu gai and Chinese broccoli and went home. We were correct in following our instincts. After all Thomas Farley, MD, MPH, Commisioner of the Department of Health, wrote that:
“In the first year or so of grading, we expect that most restaurants will earn a B grade. Restaurants with B or C grades should improve their overall food safety practices, but the Health Department immediately closes restaurants with conditions that may be hazardous to public health.”
The next time we were in Chinatown we went out to eat and found Hsin Wong closed. No sign literally or figuratively of what happened – just a overhead metal gate where chickens and roast pork used to hang.
We went to Yee Li, formerly known as The Big Wang, the other family restaurant down the street, chatting with the owner while we ate. He told us that they had lease renewal issues at the Hsin Wong and that was that. Besides, even I was quite aware since my short re-acquaintance with Chinatown, that stores and restaurants were always opening and closing. Business there had dropped considerably since 9/11 and the “fortification” of the NYC police headquarters made it difficult for downtown workers to get to Chinatown for lunch.
We were in Chinatown just last week, and much to our surprise we found a big C in the window of Yee Li. Oh no. What will the owners do? Clean up or close up? We don’t know any of the facts and it is better not to even venture a guess. We had another wonderful meal and brought back chicken and pork and ribs and had friends over for dinner and everybody is feeling good. No General Tso’s revenge.
But we are curious what will happen to Chinatown. The city has recently designated it as one of its more than 60 “Business Improvement Districts” and there is a movement among local groups and committees to preserve the character of the neighborhood.
The apartment house on Mott Street shares a stoop with a popular restaurant. The shop on the other side of the door sells fans, hats, Chinese jackets and dresses, t-shirts, tote bags, and scarves that drape over onto the stoop. Every time I walk out onto the street I squint in the bright sun and I look around and wonder how I got to be where I am. We’re going down for Chinese New Year. We’ll sit on the fire-escape and watch the dragons. I can’t wait.
We were down for a visit a few weeks ago. Yee Li has it’s A! — April 2013