Thursday, February 28, 2013

The Chinatown Project - Day 2 - H.K. Wonton Garden

Day 2 of Grand Jury Duty was one of those gross, wet days that have the subway stations flooded and the subways crowded with people. It reminded me why I am thankful that I do not have a daily commute anymore. When lunchtime rolled around I knew I wanted a restaurant that was close by and had something that would be perfect for a nasty day. I settled on H.K. Wonton Garden.

H.K. Wonton Garden is a small, clean restaurant on Mullberry Street. Do not confuse it with New Wonton Garden on Mott Street. H.K. Wonton Garden is known for their noodles and, of course, wontons. It is also know for the curious but festive attire of their waiters, Hawaiian shirts.

When I walked into H.K. Wonton Garden I was greeted with a comforting sight, two tables full of officers from the N.Y.P.D. Yes, it was comforting to know that they were there to protect me. But the real reason it was a welcome sight is that a restaurant full of cops means you have come the right place. Cops know their beats, and they know they best places to eat. H.K. Wonton Garden is proof of this theory.

I menued up and my first call was Steamed Cantonese Roast Pork Buns.

The keys to great pork buns are two-fold. The first is the bun. It should be light and fluffy, not dense and chewy. The second is the roast pork filling. It should be rich, meaty and plentiful. H.K.'s hits both marks. Damn fine pork buns.

Next up Pork & Chive Dumplings.

Great noodle wrapper. Nice filling. Solid dumplings.

Finally, Tender Beef Stew with Noodles and Wontons

Rich beef broth. Chunks of beef falling apart under your fork. Fresh thin noodles and house made wontons. The best of all worlds. This is a destination dish and perfect rainy day food. Brawnier than Pho, less refined than ramen, this is a stew worth leaving the house for. So get out of those pajamas, put on some boots and go get some.

Day two was a home run. Warm, full and refueled, I officially added H.K. Wonton Garden to my Chinatown go-to list. Definitely add it to yours. I will be back to try the vast array of other noodle dishes and soups.

H.K. Wonton Garden - 79 Mulberry Street, Between Bayard & Canal

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The Chinatown Project - Day 1 - Big Wong

Today was day one of two weeks of Grand Jury duty. By law I cannot discuss the tedious, excruciatingly boring day I had on jury duty. Hopefully it will get better. However, I am free to discuss where I went for lunch.

My plan is to hit ten different Chinese restaurants over the ten days of my service. I am going to try to avoid favorites like Nom Wah Tea Parlor and stalwarts like Joe's Shanghai and Wo Hop. I am also going to avoid the standard fare of your local joint. No General Tso's. No Mu Shu Pork. Instead, I am going to dig a little deeper. First up, Big Wong King.

Big Wong King is a classic Mott Street restaurant. It is a bare bones, no frills restaurant. The service is brusk and no nonsense. You will be whisked to a table as soon as space opens up. Don't be surprised if you are seated with another party or person. The tables are communal and the folks at Big Wong have no interest in having a single seat open.

Big Wong specializes in Cantonese food. It is known for roast meats, noodles and congee. I am a fan of roast meat, especially roast duck, so I went for an order of roast duck. No rice or noodles or soup. Just roast duck. (The guy sitting next to me got the roast duck noodle soup and it looked great. He seemed very happy with it. Note to self)

Roast Duck at Big Wong

 Rich, slightly greasy, Big Wong's roast duck is moist, succulent and delicious. The duck was served cool. It was meaty with minimal fat. I would go back to try it in different dishes.

One of the dishes Big Wong is most known for is Congee. I will admit I have never been a congee fan. It may be that I have never had good congee, and I believe congee is one of those dishes that can turn you off for life if you have a bad version. But I wanted to follow the spirit of my challenge, and the dish that most people talk about at Big Wong is the Congee with Shredded Pork and 1000 Year Egg. I went for it.

Roast Pork Congee

I am officially a congee convert. Big Wong's Roast Pork Congee was a revelation. Thick and warm, this congee is comfort food at it's core. The congee has a subtle depth of flavor that is complimented by rich bites of salty roast pork,  the sharp bite of scallions and meaty chunks of mushroom. Each spoonful soothes the soul, and warms you up on a cold February day. Yeah, I finally get it.

I think the total time between ordering my food and it hitting the table was all of two minutes. My bill was under $13. I was full, happy and had plenty of money left in my pocket. As I paid, I noticed a few trays of some kind of fried bread behind the counter. Apparently Big Wong makes a savory and a sweet fried dough. I had to try one. I went for the sweet fried dough.

Sweet Fried Dough

Imagine a zeppole the size of Portuguese role with a crispy, sweet topping. Excellent.

Big Wong King is that classic, cheap Chinatown Restaurant you are always hoping to find. It was the perfect place to start my project. The bar has been set. Where to next?

Big Wong King - 67 Mott Street, between Bayard & Canal

Monday, February 25, 2013

When life hands you Lemons - eat Lemon Chicken

I received one of the most dreaded pieces of mail, a jury summons. Grand Jury to boot. I have served jury duty before, but never Grand Jury, and this was a Grand Jury notice. Thanks goodness it was state and not Federal, but still. It says I will serve everyday, all day, for two weeks. Bummer.

But when life hands you lemons, look for some really good Lemon Chicken. I have decided to see this as an opportunity to explore Chinatown. I have ten days of lunch hours surrounded by an array of great Chinese restaurants. I am going to try a different one everyday and really get a sense of what Chinatown has to offer. So, starting tomorrow night, look for updates (Monday - Friday) of the day's discovery. I will do my best to post each night. And if you have any great suggestions for me within walking distance of 100 Centre Street please let me know. Let the eating begin.

Friday, February 22, 2013

A gift to NYC from Israel - Breads Bakery

The idea that the Atkins diet, or any other diet for that matter, or that the gluten free movement would mean the end of bread was always, and remains, silly. Bread has been a staple food for centuries. How do we know Passover is almost upon us? Boxes of Matzoh start appearing on supermarket shelves. The most recognizable symbol for Passover, the Matzoh, exists because the Jews didn't have time for their dough to rise. Stupid Pharaoh. That is how much we love bread, and how upset we get when we can't find a crusty loaf.

Baguettes at Breads Bakery

One of the many benefits of the rise of food culture is the bounty and availability of great bread. Here in NYC trendsetters like Amy's Bread and Sullivan Street have been joined by new comers like Bien Cuit and Greenmarket standouts such as Bread Alone and Hot Bread Kitchen to offer a diverse and delicious array of bread. But lest ye think the market has been glutted, a master of leavened dough has opened a bakery on 16th Street, right off Union Square, and you should part the Red Sea to get there.

OK, enough of the Passover references. But it is around the corner, and they go over better then Purim jokes. The new Bakery on 16th Street is Breads Bakery. It is the first US outpost from Uri Scheft, the renowned baker and owner of Lehamim Bakery in Tel Aviv. Judging by the crowds at the three week old store, this will be the first of many Breads Bakery outposts here.

The front counter and offerings at Breads Bakery

Breads Bakery's large selections of breads includes Mr Scheft's signature walnut bread, baguettes, olive loafs and a dense, delicious sourdough. Breads Bakery also has savory treats like cheese straws and bourekas and delectable sweets like brownies, cookies, croissants and rugelach.

Sweets and savories at Breads Kitchen

Breads Bakery features a cafe in back and seating for a quick bite or cup of coffee. Mr Scheft grew up in Denmark so a number of smorrebrod, Danish open faced sandwiches, are also available.

Drinks and Sandwiches at Breads Bakery

The Cafe at Breads Bakery

Seating at Breads Bakery

There is a nice touch that Breads Bakery does that makes it all the more welcoming. You can sample just about everything. In the front of the store there is a big cutting board in the middle of the room. Invariably, there is an employee cutting up various examples of their breads and other wares. I was in yesterday and I sampled a walnut cranberry bread, an olive bread, the sourdough and a carrot cake. I am not sure why other bakeries don't do this. All the breads were wonderful. The carrot cake was heavenly. I wanted to buy everything I tasted. It reminded me of the first time I was in the store.

On my first visit I was at the counter getting ready to pay. I looked in the case and saw some overgrown rugelach that looked more like a mini chocolate croissant. I asked the gentleman helping me what flavor they were. "Nutella," was the response. (Yeah, that's right. Nutella rugelach.)  He saw my eyes widen and asked me if I had tired them yet. I let him know I had not and grabbed one and handed it to me saying,"Here, you have got to try one." He was right. I bought a bag full. This is customer service, and they way to sell more rugelach. It is just like the scene in "High Fidelity" when John Cusack says "I will now sell five copies of the three EPs by the Beta Band." He puts the Beta Band CD on the store stereo, leans back and waits. All the patrons start nodding along, and the CDs sell. Hand someone a free sample of Nutella rugelach and they will buy more.

Nutella rugelach

Purim is this weekend. Breads Bakery has hamtaschen: traditional poppy seed, chocolate, vanilla and apple. Their babka would make even Haman smile. Yes, they sell challah. But don't worry, even if you are not one of the Chosen Ones, Breads Bakery will make you feel like you are.

Breads Bakery - 18 East 16th Street, near Union Square. 212-633-2253

Sunday, February 10, 2013

I shop everywhere, but I get coffee on 14th Street

If you have lived in New York City for sometime you may remember this tag line:

"I shop everywhere, but I buy on 14th Street."

This was the tag line used in advertisements to promote the merchants on 14th Street as Union Square and the area around it was being redeveloped and brought back to life. It always seemed a bit sad and desperate, especially considering the fact that the areas north and south of 14th Street were coming back to life but 14th  Street still seemed seedy and low rent. A lot of that has changed, but 14th street is still an interesting mix of the high and low. Lush Soaps and Diesel mixed with dollar stores and Taco Bell.

The stretch between 1st and 2nd Avenue has improved thanks predominantly to a few small restaurants. Places like Curly's (now gone), Artichoke and Kambi Ramen have brought life and destination food to the block. But these are huddled on the Eastern stretch, closer to 1st Avenue. There is, however, a new beacon of hope and caffeine. In one of the small, step down storefronts on the north side of 14th Street, closer to 2nd Avenue, Madman Espresso has popped up.

Madman is the passion project of Meyer, a local resident who's business is real estate but true love is coffee. Madman is small, handsome and welcome new coffee spot. Madman brews beans from  Doma Coffee Roasting, a great roaster out of Idaho who uses organic, fair trade beans. The set up is like a traditional, small Italian espresso bar, but they offer pour over and other options as well.

La Marzocco espresso machine, naturally.

The pour over set up.

The coffee is great. My cappuccino was served, classic Little Italy style, in a glass mug. Sugar cubes invite you to sit and stir. A little biscotti is offered, compliments of the house. A few pastries and croissants are offered but tend to go quickly. Hopefully a sign that Madman is here to stay.


 Madman is the perfect spot for a quick hello and a quick pick me up. The name "Madman" may refer to the owner's passion for coffee rather than his decision to try it on 14th Street. Either way, I am happy he was crazy enough to give it a go. I hope more people follow his lead. Welcome to the neighborhood.

Madman Espresso - 319 East 14th Street, between 1st & 2nd Avenue.