Tuesday, March 19, 2013

The Chinatown Project - Day 5 - Shanghai Heping Restaurant

Day 5 fell on a Monday so I was rested and ready to dig into some good Chinese Food. I found a lunch companion among my fellow jurors, Scott, who was more than up for the Chinatown challenge.  This was a pleasant development because it was going to give me the opportunity to sample more dishes. The choice for today was Shanghai Heping Restaurant on Mott Street, just north of Canal Street. Two weeks earlier I had eaten at Shanghai Cafe (which sits two doors down from Shanghai Heping)  for Chinese New Year and enjoyed it, so I was ready to see how the two stacked up.

The first thing that strikes you about Shanghai Heping is that is is fairly large and roomy for a place on Mott Street. There is a large waiting area in the front, a nice amenity when the restaurant is busy. There are big, roomy booths and large round tables for big groups. The decor is basic but nice and fairly modern looking. It is a place you can get comfortable in. The only question was the food. Does it make you want to stay?

Steamed Tiny Buns with Pork:


These are Shanghai Heping's soup dumplings. Fresh noodle wrapper, good filling, nice broth. If I had to choose between these and Shanghai Cafe next door, Shanghai Cafe might get the edge, but these are really good. And along with the food that follows, they more than get the job done.

Scallion Pancakes

I love scallion pancakes. Let me amend that. I love good scallion pancakes. Scallion pancakes should be light, very crisp and fresh. Unfortunately, you rarely get good scallion pancakes. I order them all the time and suffer through dull, soggy, doughy pancakes that are closer to bad naan than scallion pancakes. Shanghai Heping's scallion pancakes are the pinnacle of what scallion pancakes should be.

These are simply the best scallion pancakes I have ever had. Incredibly light, crisp to the point of shattering when you bite them. The have the slightest chewy interior. This is perfection. I could not believe my luck. There are plenty of people who frequent certain Chinatown spots for their soup dumplings. I would come to Shanghai Heping just for their scallion pancakes.

Baby Shrimp with Chili Sauce

Scott is a big shrimp fan, which is fine by me. He had his eye on the Baby Shrimp with Chili Sauce so we went for it. It was a winner. It was packed with plump little shrimp. The sauce was slightly sweet, nicely tangy with a little bit of heat. It was a nice dish that redeemed it from all the cloyingly sweet versions out there.

Dong Po Pork:

There is no description of this dish on the menu. Remember the name. It may have been the best thing I ate over my ten meals in Chinatown. It comes out as a giant slab of pork belly bathed in sauce, surrounded by baby bok choy. I was too slow to get the picture before the server pulled out a pair of sheers and started cutting the pork into pieces.

The dish came with buns:

Dong Po Pork is, essentially, a make your own pork bao dish:

This is about as good as a pork bun gets. The pork belly itself was excellent and perfectly cooked. The thick slabs of meat and fat are bathed in a lip-smacking Chinatown meets Texas BBQ sauce. The pillowy buns are soft, toothsome and slightly yeasty. They balance the richness of the sauce and and the heft of the meat and fat. This is pork heaven. The bok choy is a great accompaniment. Bright and fresh, it is a nice counterpoint to pork. It comes out of the dish without being drenched in sauce and helps you feel less guilty about the decadent pork buns. This is a destination dish.

Shanghai Heping was a winner and a true find. It is another great addition to my Chinatown go-to list and the one I will probably return to first. With four out of four great dishes, I can't wait to get back and sample more of their offerings. I will have to bring more people with me because I cannot imagine not getting the Dong Po Pork. Or the scallion pancakes. Or the Tiny Buns. Or the Baby Shrimp.

Shanghai Heping Restaurant - 104 Mott Street between Canal & Hester Street - 212-925-1118

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

The Chinatown Project - Day 4 - Sau Voi Cafe

Day 4 found me missing the morning session of Jury Duty. I had a prior commitment and our great Clerk George let me miss the morning session. I promised to be back by 2pm for the afternoon session. Things ran late and I popped out of the subway across from 60 Center Street at 1:40 pm. I had twenty minutes to get lunch and get to the jury room.

My options seemed extremely limited. Either get a sandwich at Starbucks or go old school and get a dirty water dog for lunch. I thought about getting a dog in honor of Jerry Orbach but decided to make a quick check of anything else close. Tasty Dumpling and Fried Dumpling were too far away. I thought all was lost until I noticed something that looked promising a few blocks north on Lafayette. I hustled up Lafayette and walked right past Sau Voi Corp.

I checked the address and found myself in front of what looked like a corner grocery with lotto, cigarettes and the usual soda and chips offerings. I stepped in and instead I was confronted with bins full of Vietnamese Pop CDs and DVDs of Vietnamese movies. Then I realized that tucked in the corner, behind the door was a tiny food counter selling Banh Mis and a few other Vietnamese dishes. There were three friendly Vietnamese women behind the counter taking orders and making the food. I ordered the Bahn Mi Pate Gio then hustled back to the juror room just in time.

For the uninitiated a Bahn Mi is a Vietnamese sandwich. It usually contains some kind of meat along with vegetables. The Pate Gio I ordered featured ham and Vietnamese Pate with pickled daikon radish, carrots, cucumbers and cilantro. Meaty, sharp, and bright, it was one of the best Bahn Mi sandwiches I have had. One more thing. The Bahn Mi was $4.00. Let me be clear. The Bahn Mi Pate Gio you see above was $4.00. In New York City. This may be the single best food bargain in NYC.

I promised I would not repeat a lunch spot during the Chinatown Project and I will not. That does not mean I can't hit Sau Voi Cafe on the way home and stock up on a few Bahn Mi for dinner.  Any Vietnamese Pop recommendations?

Sau Voi Cafe - 101-105 Lafayette Steet, on the corner of Walker Street (inside Sau Voi Corp)

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

The Chinatown Project Day 3 - Tasty Dumpling

Day 3 of the Chinatown project found me with limited time for lunch. We were released early but I had a conference call to take so I had to eat quick. Not a problem. Right behind the courthouses, across Columbus Park on Mullberry Street, sits Tasty Dumpling. Tasty Dumpling is one of the many cheap dumpling spots that Chinatown and the LES are known for. I knew it would be fast and cheap, and I hoped for Tasty.

Tasty Dumpling is the proverbial hole in the wall. It is small, dark and beat up. There are a handful of tables to sit at. The other option, on a nice day, is sitting across the street in Columbus Park. I ordered and stayed. Considering the prices, I took the liberty to order a few things besides the dumplings. Here is the recap.

Pork and Chive Dumplings:

This is the namesake dish. 5 dumplings for $1.25. The filling is very good. The wrapper is of the thick and chewy variety, as opposed to the thinner, lighter style. It is the classic Chinese Restaurant dumpling. Best ever? No. Solid and a great value for $1.25. Yes.

Tasty Dumpling has two Sriracha Sauce bottles on each table.

The bottle on the left has their dumpling sauce. Standard fair. The bottle on the right has a watered down Sriracha Sauce. A lot of people complain about it being watered down but I actually think it works to the benefit of the dumplings and other dishes. I tastes like it is cut with vinegar and the result is a nice sauce for the dumplings that has the bite of Sriracha and vinegar tang of dumpling sauce. After tasting it I retired the dumpling sauce and went with the Sriracha.

Pork and cabbage pancake:

I was expecting something similar to a scallion pancake. Instead I got this. How do I describe this? Imagine if you combined a Sausage McMuffin (but better) and a soup dumpling. This is what you would get. Initially odd, but in the end really quite good.

The inside is a solid patty of pork and cabbage similar to dumpling filling.The patty is wrapped in dough that tastes like a hybrid of a dumpling wrapper and English muffin. Like a soup dumpling the interior is filled with broth. It is unique and tasty. I might even prefer it to the dumplings. It is great on it's own but the Sriracha Sauce gives it a nice kick.

Noodles with Ma La Sauce (Hot)

Noodles with Ma La Sauce can be served either hot or cold depending on your preference. I ordered it hot. The noodles in this dish were fresh and excellent. The Ma La sauce (or Mala sauce) is supposed to be very spicy. Here it was tasty but timid. I would ask them to make it spicier next time. The fresh cool cucumber was a nice balance. Douse it with the Sriracha Sauce and you have got something.

Spicy Cucumber:

This was the sleeper hit for me. Chunks of fresh cucumber tossed in hot oil with spicy pepper. Simple and delicious. The fresh, cool cucumber contrasted with the hot oil and spices. A winner and one I am going to try and create at home.

The negatives at Tasty Dumpling? A total lack of ambiance, which you can live with. The fact that everything comes packaged in Styrofoam, which is harder to swallow. The positives? Good, cheap food. This was my bill:

Pork & Chive Dumplings - $1.25
Cabbage and Pork Pancake - $1.50
Noodle with Ma La Sauce - $3.00
Spicy Cucumber - $3.00
Root Beer - $1.00

Total for more food than one person can or should eat - $9.75

Cheap, tasty food. That is what Chinatown is all about. I only wonder what will happen if Mayor Bloomberg bans Styrofoam. The price of dumplings may be rise to $1.50. Oh, the horror.

Tasty Dumpling - 54 Mulberry Street Between Bayard & Mosco Street.