456 Shanghai Cuisine

photo by Robert Menzer

Dozens of Chinatown restaurants serve some semblance of Shanghainese food, but few do it with as much friendly polish as 456 Shanghai Cuisine, which opened in 2010 on Mott Street, the heart of the neighborhood’s Cantonese stronghold and onetime home to the Chinese gangs of Five Points. This was also the neighborhood where founding chef and part owner Zhou H. Li’s grandfather ran an earlier incarnation of the 456 brand years ago. Inside the grandson’s expansive, round-tabled room, vested waiters proudly proffer hot steamers of soup dumplings, here called “juicy pork bun,” two-bite wonders deeply imbued with porcine flavor and perhaps enhanced by a drop or two of sesame oil. Eat them alongside larger plates bearing all manner of steaming red shellfish, stir-fry, and dim sum from the south of China, helpfully annotated on the menu to point out dishes the New York Times’s Sam Sifton recommended in his glowing 2011 review. We’re partial to the pork shoulder in honey, the broccoli in garlic sauce, the scallion pancake, and the sweet eight-jewel rice.

Great NY Noodletown

photo by Robert Menzer

One of Chinatown’s great late-night bargains, Great NY Noodletown — a mainstay of the community for more than 30 years — specializes in roasted meats and, true to its name, an array of springy noodles and steaming dumpling soups. Noodletown also combines the two for a wonton soup on steroids, with a deep bronze broth; buoyant, thin-skinned wontons; and slices of rouge-ringed Chinese roast pork. From its corner spot, the downtown standby has extended its culinary influence beyond the neighborhood’s borders, counting culinary deity David Chang as a fan: The chef readily admits that the ginger scallion noodles at Momofuku Noodle Bar take inspiration from the Noodletown version, in which tender lo mein noodles rest beneath a Hong Kong–inspired slurry of mashed ginger and slivers of scallion. Meats hang in the front window, and the dining room possesses all the charm of a racetrack bathroom, but it’s worth braving all that and the communal seating — which has landed many an unsuspecting diner in the midst of a heated family argument — for a taste of noodle and char siu heaven.

Lam Zhou Handmade Noodle

photo by Robert Menzer

At the back of a glorified hallway on the Chinatown–LES border, an employee of Lam Zhou Handmade Noodle thwaps long ribbons of dough into submission, eventually separating the lengthening putty into strands. Behind a swinging door, a cadre of cooks turns those hand-pulled beauties into an assortment of noodle soups, each bobbing with different bits of pig, cow, or fish. Take a seat at a grubby table in the dining room and try not to be put out by the fact that you’re being paid no attention by the staff. Order the basic beef noodle; the broth is lent flavor by what must be a well-cured pot: It’s rich, redolent of garlic, and fortifying, and it swims with bits of beef, sautéed greens, and, of course, those noodles, which have both weight and chew. Add chile sauce from the table if you need a sinus-cleanser along with a warm-up, and supplement your order with pungent, thin-skinned pork dumplings. Fork over the spare change you found between couch cushions, and head back out to East Broadway feeling utterly renewed.

Nom Wah Tea Parlor

photo by Robert Menzer

This old-school Chinese tea parlor has held down the quiet, elbow-shaped alley that is Doyers Street since 1920; its faded gold and red awning bears the ragged toll of its years (or at least, the years since 1968, when it moved from its original location right next door). Nom Wah Tea Parlor survived several ownership changes until 1974, when Wally Tang bought it after working there more than 20 years. His nephew Wilson took it over (and gave it a minimal cosmetic revamp) in 2010, but the elder Tang remains on site, making sure the dumplings, noodles, stir fries, and soups remain true to the original under the kitchen leadership of Chef Kong, who has been there since 1982. Tang’s old-fashioned dinette remains mostly unchanged, as does the dim sum, which you can feast on for days and still have money left over. Try the rice rolls, wide, floppy noodles with cilantro or scallion, beef or shrimp, or the “Original” egg roll, which the restaurant claims to have invented decades ago: an eggy crepe stuffed with cabbage and pork and begging for a splash of soy. There’s no excuse for skipping the dumplings — whether fried or steamed, in soup or dry. And yes, there are teas galore, of course.

Oriental Garden

photo by Cynthia Koo

It’s difficult to stand out within Chinatown’s stupefying maze of restaurants, but Oriental Garden, a sophisticated space open since 1984, consistently draws diners and industry folk hankering for authentic Cantonese cuisine. Manager Kwok Koo, who has been with the restaurant for 20 years, claims the place boasts the largest amount of live seafood in town, and indeed, a wide variety of marine creatures swim in massive tanks at the front of the space. Choose a specimen or two, and they’ll be returned to you on massive, eye-catching platters; whole fish, crab, lobster, prawns, and (enormously phallic) geoduck clams are all good bets. Dim sum is on offer at all hours, and some of the dumplings are excellent. Look for the fried shrimp balls, shrimp-stuffed eggplant, and crisp golden tofu. Also try the fried chicken, an essential element of every Chinese holiday menu.

Prosperity Dumpling

photo by Robert Menzer

This may be New York’s quintessential hole-in-the-wall takeout joint; aside from a ledge along each wall that bears only napkins, soy sauce, and hot sauce, there is no place to enjoy your meal, and every dish that leaves the kitchen is packaged in Styrofoam. But at five for $1, Prosperity Dumpling’s supple, Beijing-style dumplings — stuffed with moist, rich vegetables (carrots, mushrooms, cabbage) or loosely ground pork with lots of scallions — are fast, cheap, and far better than they need to be for this joint to stay in business. Order them steamed or fried, or frozen in bags by the 100 that you can take home for a quick and easy any-night-of-the-week dinner. During warmer months, tote your meal a few blocks east to Seward Park for lunch al fresco.

Shu Jiao Fu Zhou Cuisine

photo by Robert Menzer

Chinatown’s eastern streets have filled with Fujianese immigrants in recent decades, turning the area into a Little Fu Zhou. And in the heart of this neighborhood, you’ll find Shu Jiao Fu Zhou Cuisine, a rickety dive awash in harsh fluorescent glare. A handful of noodle soups swim with everything from fish balls to beef tendon, and pork-packed dumplings here are sold by the half-dozen to diners — and by the frozen 50 to in-the-know shoppers. But the dish you’ll see on most tables, and the one that makes Shu Jiao our favorite Fujian spot, is the platter of long flat noodles in thick, sticky peanut-butter sauce. Speckled with just a few scallions, drizzled with soy sauce, and lightly redolent of the oil they’re sautéed in, they’re served on a Styrofoam plate and cost just $2, which makes this gem one to keep in your back pocket for a rainy, between-paychecks day.

Spicy Village

photo by Robert Menzer

Packed during lunch and then again for dinner, Spicy Village, an unglamorous speck of a restaurant on Forsyth, is best visited during that sleepy dining twilight between 2:30 and 6 p.m., when you have a chance at avoiding a wait. Danny Bowien and Mark Bittman both love it, and both have publicly admitted to repeat visits and having shaken down the owners — husband-and-wife team Ren Fu Li and Wendy Lian — for recipes. Bowien put what he learned into rotation at his temporarily closed Mission Chinese, and Bittman uses the research for his New York Times Magazine column. This is one of the only Henan spots in the city, and the entire menu is reliably good, though the place is renowned for its big tray of spicy chicken, a large-format beast of a dish with beer-soaked, twice-fried, stewed-in-brown-chile sauce chicken, vegetables, and potatoes (order it with noodle or rice to add balance). The noodles are also worth your attention: hand-pulled, rough-hewn, firm, and wide, they’re served in soup or dry; we like the dry version with lamb, tossed in a spicy brown broth with bok choy.

Sun Hing Lung Co.

photo by Bradley Hawks

The metal clapboards are raised early at Sun Hing Lung Co., a tofu producer in a compact stall in Chinatown, and it’s worth stopping by in the morning to order classic Chinese breakfasts of soft, custardy tofu and fresh soy milk, hot or cold, sweetened or straight up. But the kitchen, if you can call it that, is best known in the neighborhood for its rice rolls, which are really cheung fun, a large, flat steamed rice noodle. Rice batter — sometimes dotted with additions like dried shrimp, egg and beef, or corn and cilantro — is poured into a tray and slid into the boxy, metal steamers in the back. Once set, the noodle is dumped into a Styrofoam container, where it scrunches up on itself, gelatinous and floppy. A splash of soy, a squirt of peanut sauce, and a dab of chile go a long way on the ivory folds, fragrant with the aroma of freshly steamed rice. Most menu items top out at $1.25; $8 buys you 50 frozen pork and chive dumplings. If you want a chair, though, you came to the wrong place: Henry Street’s your dining room, pal.

Tasty Hand-Pulled Noodles

photo by Robert Menzer

This Chinatown noodle shop garnered a hungry following when it opened in 2009 during the height of the economic meltdown, and not for its cushy accommodations. Tasty Hand-Pulled Noodles is divey and unadorned: Duct tape holds together an exterior window, the linoleum’s peeling, and the bathroom is scrawled with poetry that includes lines like “pull my noodle” and “cock pit.” But as Wall Streeters packed their desks into banker’s boxes and took one last sad ride down the elevator, cooks here were slapping down slabs of dough and pulling them into noodles — springy strips sometimes round and sometimes sliced thin with a knife. Food lovers immediately took note, and to this day, the tiny dining room, no bigger than a dry cleaner’s foyer, is filled with in-the-know eaters and Chinatown locals alike. Opt for beef-noodle soup, a cloudy, bone-soaked broth in which the noodles of your choice swim with dark slices of beef, carrots, onions, and greens. You should also order the roast duck pan fry, featuring long, thin hand-pulled noodles you’ll need to cut with scissors. This dish epitomizes what a good lo mein should be: greasy, rich, and studded with cooked-but-still-crisp vegetables, presided over by fragrant, sweetly spiced duck.

Xi’an Famous Foods

photo Courtesy Xi'an Famous Foods

Restaurateur–entrepreneur Jason Wang should be exempt from ever buying another Father’s Day gift; he has already made his old man’s vinegar and chile-oil-based sauces famous via celebs Anthony Bourdain and Andrew Zimmern, who’ve featured Xi’an Famous Foods’ fast-casual Northern Chinese outposts on their programs. Wang’s genius isn’t just in exploiting the oversize flavors of his ancestral cuisine. Far more impressive is the rapid expansion the brand has undergone without a sacrifice in quality; from its flagship stall in Flushing’s Golden Mall, X’ian now proliferates throughout Manhattan and Brooklyn. With so much Cantonese and Shanghainese food represented in Chinatown, Xi’an provides a bold, cumin-spiked alternative, serving up bulbous lamb or spinach dumplings in black vinegar, thick squares of wheat gluten tossed with roughly-chopped “cold skin” noodles, and bone-in nuggets of chilled lamb face served with an herb salad. And Xi’an’s sumptuous chopped pork and lamb “burgers,” with slow-simmered meat stuffed into griddled rice flour buns for $3.50, are cheap eats to rival any in the five boroughs.