Big Flavors in Little China

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Yang Huang spends 12 to 14 hours a day, five or six days a week, in the kitchen of Buddakan, the soaring Meatpacking District showplace that turns out, on average, 750 covers of knockout modern Chinese cuisine a night. It’s Huang’s job to oversee a kitchen staff of over 80 and ensure that every plate that exits the wok—including the restaurant’s signature edamame dumplings, redolent of shallots and Sauternes—shimmers with the same perfectly balanced flavors as the last. In pursuit of perfection, he and co-executive chef Brian Ray taste and correct dishes all evening long. By 1:00 or 2:00 in the morning, when they close the kitchen, their legs ache and their palates are spent. This nightly power graze could dampen the appetite of even the most ardent devotee of Chinese cuisine, but on his day of rest, Huang, who was born in Guangdong, China, refuels with the foods of his homeland.About once a month he leads his staff on a tasting tour of Manhattan’s Chinatown to explain the lesser-known flavors of his native country and open his charges’ minds to new menu ideas.

On a chilly winter morning, I meet Huang and Ray for one of these tours, a sensorial pile-up of Chinese sights, sounds and flavors. When I arrive at our designated meeting place at Canal and Mott streets, Huang and his entourage are clustered around an unmarked NYPD sedan, shooting the breeze with an old high school buddy of Huang’s who now works as a plainclothes officer out of Chinatown’s Precinct 5. “We brought our own private security,” jokes the chef. Along for the tour this day are a handful of his servers and kitchen crew, including Kyle Eakins, one of Buddakan’s 13 line cooks.

Although he grew up in Park Slope, the chef’s roots run deep in Manhattan’s many-layered Chinatown; for him, the street hawkers, bao-filled bakeries and narrow alleys hold old friends and many memories. His beloved godmother, Sui Mei Zhen, whom he refers to as his grandmother, still lives in the neighborhood on Henry Street. Huang’s family stayed with her for a time after they first arrived in the United States in 1985. Although the first Chinese immigrants began to arrive in Lower Manhattan as early as the 1850s, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and later federal immigration quotas limited new arrivals. When the 1965 Hart-Celler Act abolished these quotas, the trickle of newcomers became a flood and they created a world of their own centered on Mott, Pell and Doyers streets. While Huang, who lives in Brooklyn, often saves a bridge or tunnel trip and shops in Sunset Park’s “Little Hong Kong” district, he prefers the Manhattan original for its history, size and variety. “If you want, say, Buddhist vegetarian food, there’s a hundred different places here, and only two or three in Brooklyn,” he says.

Over the years, the area’s Cantonese majority has ceded power to other provincial dialects and foodways; today it teems with a variety of regional (Shanghaiese, Chiu Chow, Szechuan) and international (Malaysian, Thai and Vietnamese) foods. Over the last decade, as a large Fujianese population has moved in, Chinatown’s borders have expanded, along East Broadway to Pike Street to the south, east of Bowery to Chrystie Street, and west to Baxter Street. Chinese commerce has crept north of Canal, too, to colonize a good portion of Little Italy.

The first stop on our tour is Fong Inn Too (46 Mott Street, near Pell Street), where bean curd and noodle products rule. The tiny shop supplies Buddakan’s daily shipment of pillowy chow fun rice noodles. It carries dried as well as fresh plain or soy-sauce-flavored tofu, and related products such as soy custard, egg noodles, frozen dumplings and—those glutinous staples of dim sum carts—rice flour-based turnip cakes.

Down the street, a branch of the Japanese chain Aji Ichiban (37 Mott Street, near Pell Street; there’s another outlet at 167 Hester Street, between Elizabeth and Mott Streets) is the go-to store for addicts of Asian candy or dried fruit, fish and meat munchies. Small bowls of samples sit atop orderly, neatly labeled bins, and our group moves through them like a swarm of locusts. All manner of preserved, salted, sour, sweet, fruit- and licorice-flavored dried plums dominate the store’s kaleidoscopic offerings. Although meant as snacks, they raise tantalizing cooking possibilities. “We used to buy candied plums here for a tea-smoked duck dish,” Ray recalls. We pick through shredded dried squid, preserved olives, delicious strips of black-sesame-flavored dried cod, mint-flavored kumquat, jackfruit and honeyed pineapple. There are individually wrapped fruit-flavored marshmallows, honey-lemon-cola hard candies, chocolate-covered gummies and much more. Our tour has only just begun, though, so we press on.

Huang recommends Chung Chou City next door (39 Mott Street) and Great China Inc. (90 Elizabeth Street) for dried abalone and Wisconsin-cultivated ginseng root (reputed to be better than its Chinese counterpart). He uses the root in a soup with Silkie black chicken, Chinese herbs and wolfberries, and notes that Korean cooks like to make this soup in a double boiler to keep its potent healing powers from evaporating. “This is our Jewish chicken soup,” says Huang. “It restores energy.”

We also encounter what seems to be the white truffle of the Chinese herbal medicine kingdom: cordyceps, also known as caterpillar fungus or, according to Huang, “golden worm,” for its dusky brown worm shape. Reputed to help fight cancer and enhance everything from immunity and organ function to circulation and sexual vitality, the most expensive variety sells at Chung Chou for $1,198 a pound and at Great Wall for $587 a pound.

On the level of more affordable luxury, we examine different bins of dried scallops (starting from $38 a pound), dried shark’s fin and sea cucumber, as well as long, pale-yellow dried fish stomachs, which Huang says are good braised in soups and stew. A few doors away, Huang makes a pit stop for coffee at New Golden Fung Wong Bakery (41 Mott Street), where we admire Cantonese-style flaky hopia pastries filled with mung bean, lotus seed paste and preserved egg. They are tempting, but we save our appetite and set out into the cold.

As we cruise by Chatham Square, near where Mott Street meets the Bowery, Huang is crushed to see that an old standby, Chatham Restaurant, is no longer there. “I can’t believe it! I used to come here early in the morning when I visited my grandma and buy her steamed buns. It was great for that,” he recalls. The business “did a lot of numbers” in buns, he adds, and briefly imagines its owners rich and happily retired in the suburbs.

It’s the association with his grandmother, though, that seems to be the most powerful one for Huang. “She is the kind of person who would pick me up from school with two peeled, hardboiled eggs in a plastic bag for me; she knew I wasn’t used to the food here yet and would be starving,” he recalls. “She is the greatest grandmother in this life.”

As if to prove that there is some continuity in the world after all, Huang recognizes a wizened jade amulet vendor at Bowery and Pell Street from his childhood days. “He sells fake stuff,” the chef whispers to me. He perks up even more when, right next to the jade vendor’s table, he spots a street cart offering freshly made, spherical “Hong Kong Cakes” (15 pieces for $1), which we all share. The cart owner drizzles batter into a pock-holed hexagonal iron griddle, then flips them like Swedish ebelskiver to create spongy, waffle-like snacks.

For a taste of old Chinatown, we stroll through the shadows of the Chinatown arcade (45-48 Bowery, between Bayard and Canal Streets), a covered alleyway of shops and restaurants that runs between Bowery and Elizabeth Streets. Huang recommends the clay pot rice casseroles at Yummy Noodles, which anchors the Bowery side entrance. Emerging on Elizabeth, a few doors down from the arcade, he shepherds us past Oriental Garden (14 Elizabeth Street, near Bayard Street), a favorite dim sum spot. We drop in to inspect the live king crab, sweet prawns, bay scallops, oysters and razor clams in the restaurant’s fish tank. While a Buddakan server fondly recalls oyster carts in her native Mexico that sell the plump bivalves dressed with lime and chile, Huang grows misty-eyed at the memory of a feast of fresh king crab that his friends treated him to on a recent birthday. A true Cantonese chef, he is horrified and slightly offended at the idea of seasoning pristine king crab flesh with anything more than a pinch of salt and a quick dip in light soy sauce. “You don’t want to kill the flavor!” he exclaims.

Huang’s prior experience elbowing through the packed markets of Hong Kong or Shanghai comes in handy when we step into Deluxe Food Market (79 Elizabeth Street, between Grand and Hester streets), a mobbed indoor food hall that stretches between Elizabeth and Mott Streets. On offer are exotic fare ranging from alligator claws to frogs, giant bags of frozen dumplings, and a plethora of prepared dishes from the unfamiliar to the homey (pork stomach with soy sauce, dace fish paste, fried eggplant, sticky rice).

We emerge, slightly dazed, on Mott Street and check out a vegetable stall’s dried bok choy, which Huang says is simply boiled in water with salt and hung to dry, and dried guava, good in soups, according to the chef. Then, in another example of how Huang’s personal history is embedded in the neighborhood and community, we run into his old friend Lan Kwok, who is hawking produce at 145A Mott Street. Kwok, it turns out, gave a 16-year-old Huang his first restaurant job chopping vegetables at Dragon Garden restaurant in Park Slope.

At K. L. Malaysia Beef Jerky (95A Elizabeth Street, near Grand Street), thin slabs of beef, chicken and pork are given a Singapore-Malaysia-style jerky treatment and grilled to a wondrously, soft, sweet and caramelized finish. The shrimp-flavored pork jerky ($18 a pound) that we sample, is not the chewy style Americans favor, yet it packs the umami punch of a great bar snack.

The jerky, it turns out, is just an appetizer for a feast at Golden Unicorn (18 East Broadway), which claims to carry over 100 types of dim sum. The eating begins with steamed chicken feet, a prized delicacy to Huang, but to some nonnatives nothing more than mildly seasoned cartilage on a plate. One of his line cooks loves the feet: “I’m really into texture,” she says. It tastes to me like chicken skin without the crackle, but Huang counters, “It’s not as fatty, and it’s good for you!” Like many of his countrymen, he is crazy about all foods cartilaginous and has great faith in the healing properties of collagen.

A round of Tsingtao appears, and then a parade of dim sum: chow fun, elevated by flecks of dried orange peel, cilantro and shredded beef; shrimp dumplings; steamed beef balls; pork bao and spinach dumplings. The steamed spare ribs are so good that Huang playfully accuses one crewmember of hoarding them. Roger Luo, Golden Unicorn’s chef, drops by to say hello to Huang and welcome us. After Luo returns to the kitchen, the second stage of the meal, which I was not aware existed, begins: large platters of chef Luo’s elegant, flavorful Cantonese cooking. Soy-glazed bass is offset by a refreshing vegetable mix of pickled daikon, cucumber and carrots. A fabulous deep-fried chicken on the bone is marinated in a five-spice, cumin, cinnamon, sugar and vinegar mixture, then deep-fried and served smothered in crispy, deep fried garlic. Eakins marvels at the “amazingly crispy skin,” and Huang says approvingly, “He cooked it perfectly.”

Our admiration for the chef only grows when a trompe l’oeil platter of sliced, baked Asian sweet potatoes appears that have actually been scooped, buttered, sweetened, whipped, enhanced in other mysterious ways, then broiled. Huang praises chef Luo as “not a typical Chinese chef, but one who uses his head to think of new things,” and urges Eakins, the acknowledged master of gnocchi at Buddakan, to make a sweet potato variation on the Italian dumplings for the kitchen crew’s next family dinner.

As we stagger out onto the street, where winter’s early dusk has begun to fall, Huang suggests one final stop: the Original Chinatown Ice Cream Factory (65 Bayard Street, near Mott Street). “My treat!” he urges. We groan, but the thought of black sesame ice cream cones from the legendary shop is too hard to resist. Eakins laughs at the signboard in the shop, which lists, under “Regular” flavors lychee, red bean, black sesame, taro and something called “Zen Butter.” “Exotic” flavors include pistachio, butter pecan and chocolate. A fitting description and end to our tour of Chinatown, where the exotic is regular, and the regular, well, who wants that here?

No Passport Needed: Chef Huang’s favorite New Year’s noshes.

The biggest holiday of the year in China is New Year’s, which
begins on the first day of the lunar calendar and continues for
two full weeks. This year, the holiday begins on January 23. Chinatown
will bloom red and gold with hanging paper decorations,
fireworks and dragon dances. But for urban eaters, the special
foods alone are worth the trip to Canal Street. Here are a few of
chef Yang Huang’s favorites celebratory tastes:
1. “They have great glutinous rice desserts here and sweet sesame
balls that I love to eat for the New Year.” Nice One Bakery,
47 Bayard Street
2. “I get a whole chicken here—head and feet still attached—for
a holiday meal. I typically marinate it with ginger, garlic and soy
and steam it.” Bayard Meat, 57 Bayard Street
3. “This is where I stop to pick up dried ingredients I need, such as dried
scallops and oysters.” Kam Man Food Products, 200 Canal Street
4. “Every New Year I eat wife cakes [flaky disks filled with
winter melon, almond paste and sesame seeds, seasoned with
five-spice powder], and this place has some great ones.” Tai Pan
Bakery, 194 Canal Street
5. “This is one my favorite places to pick up good Wisconsin ginseng
and tea leaves.” Po Wing Hong Food Market, 45 Elizabeth Street

Photo credit: Jena Cumbo

Brian Halweil

Brian is the editor at large of Edible East End, Edible Long Island, Edible Manhattan and Edible Brooklyn. He writes from his home in Sag Harbor, New York, where he and his family tend a home garden and oysters. He is also obsessed with ducks, donuts and dumplings.

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