Used to be a ‘new’ Jersey Girl   : now A Colorado Girl

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Chinatown Food & Culture Tour


Last Saturday we drove into the city for the Chinatown Food & Culture Tour. This makes the third tour that we have taken with Foods of New York Tours. We did the Greenwich Village tour last year around this same time, and when my sister was here visiting in June we did the Chelsea Market tour. This time we invited neighbor Kim’s mom, Bea, to join us as she loves Chinese food and Kim does not! Of course, it was one of the hottest days in the heat wave that we’d been having.

We left early since our tickets said they did not recommend driving because the area was very busy and congested. It took us exactly one hour from our door to pulling into the parking garage. So much for leaving plenty of time! I think going on a Saturday was helpful because we encountered no problems.

Right from the start it was obvious we were in Chinatown. Everything was in Chinese! Of course it was in English as well, but the English was very tiny.

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We were to meet our guide in Chatham Square (now also known as Kimlau Square) which turned out to be a short walk from our parking garage. It’s a very busy intersection with roads branching off from every aspect.

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This statue of Lin Zexu stands in the square.

photo by Rick

Our first stop was Dim Sum Go Go just off the square.

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At first look it appeared to be a fast food place as the name sort of implies. When I walked up to the window to look at the menu I saw lots of Michelin awards—one from every year for excellence. Once inside our guide directed upstairs to a large table overlooking the street and square. Air conditioning, yes!

I didn’t know that literally translated Dim Sum means “from the heart.” I also didn’t know that the first Dim Sum were created as a packet to hold medicinal remedies by a village doctor as an easy way to dispense medication to the sick. It later became popular in tea houses as a way to serve food to bring more people in.

Here was our first round: steamed Dim Sum. The white one that is crimped on top like a clutch purse is a duck dumpling; the pink one is a chicken dumpling (and my favorite of this group!); the round white one was a chive and shrimp dumpling and eaten last as a palette cleanser—very fresh and bright.

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Are they not tiny works of art? Everything here is made to order. Nothing is ever frozen.

Our second round was a fried pork dumpling (in the back) and the very delicious steamed roast pork bun (the very white one). Yummy! (The dumpling in front half eaten is my chive and shrimp from the last round. I was slow eating.) Our guide described the wrapper for the roast pork bun as being a kind of extremely dense Wonder bread, so it was not a dough like the others were.

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After this I was pretty full but I knew there was quite a bit more food to come. From here we did a short walking tour to help digest our food.

Chinatown was apparently a very seedy area of town at one time. Gang wars, opium dens, bordellos, gaming dens, saloons, etc. Doyers Street was famous for gang wars because of it’s abrupt turn. Anyone hiding around the bend could not be seen from the street creating a great place for an ambush. I love the streetlights here—they are shaped like lanterns.

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There are also lots of underground tunnels in this part of town, now most of them blocked off and unused, that were used as quick and dirty exits from all the nefarious activities that once took place. We went down in one that is now taken over by businesses and shops in what is pretty cheap real estate.

Nom Wah Tea Parlor has been around since the 1920’s. Our guide told us that Woody Allen loves to come here every Wednesday.

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We also learned that not everything is as it appears to be in Chinatown. This “restaurant,” The Gold Flower, is right next door to the tea parlor. However, it is not a restaurant at all. Behind those doors lies one of the trendiest bars in New York City: Apotheke!

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According to our guide who has been there, all the staff members wear white lab coats and they claim to “serve prescriptions daily.” Prescriptions in this case being cocktails to match the mood you want to be in. The drink menu is creative and varied and the cocktails are listed under these categories: Health & Beauty, Stimulants, Stress Relievers, Pain Killers, Aphrodisiacs, Pharmaceuticals, Euphoric Enhancers, Therapeutic Treatments and House Remedies. Sounds like a fun time to me!

Another building masquerading as something it is not is this one at 37 Mott Street, “Mei Dick Barber Shop.” Don’t go here to get your hair cut. This is really a poker den.

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Our next stop was Elite Health Products, a shop selling all kinds of Chinese herbs, teas,  and a colorful array of all things ceramic for tea. There were many strange things in large clear glass jars. Abalone, dried sea cucumbers, swallow nest, ginseng from Wisconsin (of all places). It turns out that Wisconsin has better ginseng than China does! Imagine that!

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Now that we had digested our dim sum we were ready for our next food stop:


Once we were seated in this lovely little restaurant our guide proceeded to tell us the behind the scenes story of how they prepare the duck from start to finish. I won’t go into the whole thing here, but I was unaware of all the special preparation that went into making Peking Duck, Peking Duck. The quick and dirty explanation is: “First, air is first pumped into the duck to stretch and loosen the skin, and then boiled water is repeatedly spread over the bird, which is then carefully dried. The dried skin is rubbed all over with maltose and the duck is then roasted in a hot oven for a period of time until the meat is tender and the skin crispy.” I think there is a lot of controversy about how the birds are raised, like there is with foie gras. If you want to know more about what happens before it arrives at your table looking like the photo below of ours, follow this link.

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Don’t be put off by the head and neck still being on the bird. As it turns out there was some sort of law in New York years ago that fowl could not be frozen with the head on, so leaving the head and neck on the bird was one way to prove your bird was fresh. The law is no longer in place but the tradition goes on.

It was carved table-side. First the crispy prized skin, then the meat.

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He then folded the duck (crispy skin on top) along with cucumbers, scallions and a hoisin-based sauce into homemade pancakes. Delicious! I am getting hungry just telling you about it!


Then it was a walk around the streets to just look and observe.

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Next stop was the ABC Restaurant where once again we sat down in a lovely air-conditioned dining room and more delicious food: a traditional Cantonese Roasted Eggplant dish and the yummiest fried rice I have ever had. By this time I was getting very full and wishing I could have eaten more but space was limited!


We sampled some iced plum tea at Ten Ren’s Tea Time and browsed the tea selection. Some were very pricey!

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Our one and only sidewalk tasting was dessert. While our guide Burt ran across the road to Hon Cafe to pick up our Tiger Roll, we stayed in the shade under the awning of Ten Ren’s.

And so, with the consumption of our final tasting, our delightful tour of Chinatown was complete.

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I hope I’ve inspired you to visit on your own or take the tour yourselves some day! I know we are going back very soon!



let’s go to Apotheke!

All those fun little “behind the scene” facts and tidbits are facinating.  I’ve never been on a City Tour and it makes me wonder what I’ve been missing out on.

Luke, I agree but I don’t think they’d let you in just yet. wink

Susie, I’m sure Seattle has food tours too of different parts of town, don’t they? You should explore the possibility!

Okay agreed, but I can find places where they will. Hope the wood hasn’t fallen over yet!

What an interesting blog - I’ve really enjoyed the tour - thank you.

Hi Joyce! Glad you enjoyed it. There was quite a bit more to tell but I didn’t want to bog it down with details, so I just hit what were to me the high points. It was so much fun I think we are going to revisit the area in a few weeks!

Peking duck house is DA BOMB!  My only regret is I didn’t ask for the carcus so I could make duck stock.  Kicked myself all the way home.
EVERYONE has to take a picture of Big Wong!  ~grin
Interesting tidbit… we went out to eat in Chinatown recently with a friend and his oriental wife.  She ordered everything for the table.  Everything was delicious and light, and when I asked the name of one of the dishes she told me, but went on to say that they wouldn’t serve it prepared that way to a Westerner.  Apprently the Chinese get served food that is prepared differently….. I found that very interesting.

Maggie, we brought the duck carcass home but it out in the fridge in the garage and forgot about it. :( It was too hot to make soup out of it anyway. We will go back! They told us that most restaurants have a menu for locals and one for Westerners. Two very different menus, so that does not surprise me at all.

YUM! The food looks more plentiful and tastier than the Chelsea tour we took.  You really took the duck carcass home???(!!)  Just looking at his/her face could put me off from eating this, even tho I love duck meat. I just don’t want him looking at me.  What a fun tour!

Bigsis, Yes we were kind of disappointed in the Chelsea tour as far as the food was concerned. Sorry about that but we had no idea. Yes we brought the carcass home because usually they make soup for your “dessert” out of the carcass and since we only had the duck we had the option of bringing it home with us. You don’t have to look at the duck, just eat! wink P.S. He was more or less staring up at the sky and not us.

This is excellent!  I’ve been to China Town only once and that was many many years ago.  How fun this must have been!

Helene, well you should go then! I am ready to go back and do it all over again. This tour is an excellent way to get started!

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