Rediscovering Chinatown’s Mulberry Street (aka the “One Block, Two Hours, So Many Treasures” post)

Having time to kill is a privilege rarely afforded residents of a city as perpetually in motion as New York, so when the opportunity presents itself — you go for it.

Which is how I found myself wandering into virtually every shop on the block of Mulberry Street between Canal and Bayard streets recently. I  love all of New York’s Chinatown(s), but Manhattan’s Chinatown holds a special place in my heart. I lived on the periphery of Chinatown when I first moved to NYC almost a decade ago and spent many an evening or weekend afternoon getting delightfully lost in its many lanes and alleys, being transported by the sights, the sounds, the smells, returning home with a few favorite or curious new food stuffs to try — tea, noodles, prepared foods, brightly packaged snacks in unusual flavors.

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The view from Table no. 15 at Thanh Hoai 1 on Mulberry Street.

Mulberry Street, it turns out, boasts an incredible amount of diversity in just one block: Vietnamese and Chinese restaurants, as well as a vegan Chinese restaurant; a couple of Asian grocers, including a Japanese market; a handful of shops including a jewel box of a store filled with goods from Nepal. I had no idea such a place existed in our fine city. It’s a real treasure.

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Speaking of treasure, I came home with quite the bounty. Here, my spoils from the day, from left to right: Premium Jasmine Green Tea ($3.50 for 100 ct. tea bags!) Prince of Peace brand; elephant incense holder from Nepal ($5) and decorative bells made out of Nepalese paper ($2); jar of Sambal Oelek ($2.59), the popular chili paste from Huy Fong Foods out of Irwindale, CA; Gia Vi Pho Hoa ($2.39), “Vietnamese special spice for pho” made by Throng Food Intl. in Santa Ana, CA; packet of Yeo’s Malaysian curry powder ($1.59) imported from Singapore; Mishima’s Nori Komi Furikake ($3.95), a roasted sesame and seaweed all-purpose seasoning, imported from Japan; and lastly, Morinaga‘s milk caramel candy ($1.95), imported from Japan in a box that states “Since 1913.”

Mulberry Street just landed a sweet spot on my list of favorite food blocks in NYC. I’ll be back soon, I promise. Xx

Saturday: The $5 Meal at Vanessa’s Dumpling House (aka the “I’ll Be Back for You, Sesame Pancake” Post)

Journalism 101: All lists are subject to the opinions, experiences and, ultimately, taste of the author. There’s no such thing as an authoritative list.

photo-1Nevertheless, when a food blog with New York cred, like the Village Voice’s Fork in the Road, posts a list called “Our 10 Best Chinese Restaurants” and only two of the entries are in Manhattan, and I haven’t been to one of them — you bet that place just moved onto my radar.

And so the Eldridge Street location of Vanessa’s Dumpling House was filed away under: Chinatown, sub-category, “cheap, fast, no-frills.”

photo-3Which means it’s going to be busy, if not crowded, all the time. Don’t expect to get a seat — if you get one, you are very patient and/or fortuitous. Be prepared to take out your food and find a bench or curb nearby — the benches in the newly-renovated median of Allen Street are the closest — or stand along a wall while you shovel 4, 8, 10 or more dumplings — varieties include pork and chive, pork and cabbage, Chinese vegetable, chicken, shrimp and more — into your mouth.

On a solo first visit, I opted to try just one of the dumplings so I could sample more of the menu and still get in and out for $5 (so cheap!):

— Order of pork and cabbage fried dumplings (4 ct., $1.50)
— Pork wonton soup (large, $2)
— Sesame and scallion pancake with vegetables ($1.50)


$5

photo-2I was so prepared to fall in love with the dumplings, which turned out to be just okay. The casing was too thick for my taste, and a little gummy; inside, the meat-and-cabbage ball slid around in a pocket much too big. Frankly, I prefer the dumplings I’ve bought frozen at Deluxe Food Market to Vanessa’s.

On the other hand, the sesame pancake, now that’s something I’ll be back for. First of all, it’s more sandwich than pancake: A triangular slice of a giant, circular seeded bread is cut in half and stuffed with julienned vegetables and fresh herbs, all drizzled with a light, and lightly spicy, oil.

The pancake has a lot of the same fresh flavors and attributes that have turned the whole city onto that Vietnamese staple, the banh mi. Priced at $1.50 ea., I’m certain I’ll be back here around this time of month — the making-it-stretch-’til-payday-days — in the near future.

Vanessa’s Dumpling House, 118 Eldridge Street, between Broome and Grand streets.

Sunday: …. and What a Seafood Feast it Was

A cheese and salumi plate from Murray’s Cheese Shop; four courses of prawns each prepped in marinades made from scratch; frog’s photo-1legs; salad; one giant fish, cooked whole; and many bottles of wine — I love having friends who love to cook as much as I love to eat.

What was the occasion? Over the last few days prior, a crew of friends and a couple of family relations arrived in the city from various places overseas, the closest being London and the furthest being Australia.

On top of that, Pride Week was wrapping up with a parade and the rooftop we were on offered brilliant views of the streets below, which were alive with revelers, the cityscape, the sunset and, later, Pride-themed fireworks over the Hudson River. 

photo-6I got to be the shopper’s aide the day prior on the trip to Chinatown’s fish markets, where I learned that the key to shopping at the various seafood markets is to first do a lap, scope out all the goods, and then on lap no. 2, buy the best. Just like markets everywhere, quality and quantity varies on a daily basis. 

photo-7That gorgeous, orange-y fish top center became the piece de la resistance of the meal: It was baked whole, after being stuffed and rubbed with oil, lemon juice, fresh ginger, basil, green onions and fresh hot peppers. We thought it was a red snapper, but it didn’t quite cook up like a snapper, said the chef. Or was it the hugeness? (The fish weighed in at 4 lbs.) Needless, it was tasty.  

photo-4photo-5Unfortunately, I didn’t get pictures of all the prawn courses, but we started with the ones on the left, which were marinated in a fresh and spicy lemon-ginger-herb mix, and ended with the ones on the right, which were cooked in a hoisin-style sauce with water chestnuts and diced Chinese sausages. (Which were my favorite.)

You cook before eating, right?”  the market clerk asked us as he was heaping sausages into a plastic bag. (Generally a good rule of thumb to follow with Chinatown goods.)

… And then there are these little beauties. The frog’s legs were an impulse purchase — found at the same market were we saw this hulking alligator’s leg for sale,$3.99 a pound — and I am so glad we went for it. I’ve had frog legs before, but everything was buried under deep-fried batter. 

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                                 A first attempt at pan-frying the legs turned out to be too much for the delicate meat; the legs fell apart under the duress of the high heat and being tossed in the pan. We simply baked them instead, and they turned out brilliantly. I’ve had nothing like them before. In texture, they’re as light as fish meat and the to eat them is not unlike eating chicken wings, where one part side of the joint is heavier on meat than the other, and you run into the occasional vein or tendon. 

Verdict: I’d eat it all again tomorrow, but I’m not sure when we’ll have that exact same intersection of special occasions again, if ever. It was just lovely how everything worked out.  

Dinner: Bun Cha Gio (The “I’m Going To Try Something New at Pho Grand” Post)

Don’t get me wrong, I like pho. But sometimes, the quantity of rice noodles overwhelms me: They’re not enough, and too much, at exactly the same time.

photophoto(4)So, this time, “I am going to try something new,” I announced to my friend, as we photo(6)settled into our cozy, two-top right next to the window at Pho Grand in Chinatown. I was busy studying the photos on the backside of the take-away menu, and figuring out their corresponding menu numerals, when my friend pointed out to me: “I love that your idea of trying something new is picking something from the picture menu.”

photo(5)Hey, I sort of love that, too. Take the dish I chose, no. 45, the bun chao gio. Lovely photo, absolutely uninspired English translation: Bun Cha Gio, spring rolls with lettuce and rice vermicelli, $5.45. Who would read that and think a.) it’s enough for dinner and b.) oh, spring rolls, you mean dainty, delicious rolls stuffed with a savory mushroom-pork mix, wrapped in rice paper, and then deep-fried, but they’re miraculously not greasy? Yeah I wouldn’t have gotten that, either. But the picture was intriguing, and the bun chao gio were a hit.

Plus, as I pointed out to my friend, kind of cool that I picked the one dish that has a photo on the take-away menu and not on the regular in-house menu. Good thing I picked up that take-out menu at the start.

Pho Grand, 277 Grand St. (btwn. Eldridge and Forsyth), 212-965-5366

Gratuitous photo of table condiments, one of my favorite groupings to take pictures of, after the jump:

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