This March, New York State Assemblywoman Yuh-Line Niou, who represents Manhattan’s Chinatown and the Financial District, did something she never thought she’d do: She started revealing her favorite, often little-known Chinatown spots to eat. Using the hashtag, #NiouYorkEats, she began highlighting on Twitter the best places for curry chicken, dumplings, tofu, duck, mantou, and more.
We persuaded her to go one step further, and share an unabridged version of her favorites with us.
Consider this just a first taste. In August, we’ll be featuring lots more stories about Chinatowns across the country — telling the tales of how they’ve struggled, but often endured, through a pandemic-driven economic crisis that has hit Chinese restaurants harder than most. Now more than ever is time to remember why we love these communities, and their restaurants, so much. Because Chinatowns are where we gather together to eat.
Niou, an admittedly voracious eater who grew up all over the country — from Seattle and El Paso and Beaverton to Vancouver, Washington and Moscow, Idaho — was initially hesitant about sharing her personal favorites, wanting to remain neutral among the businesses she represents.
But COVID-19 changed all that, especially when Chinatown businesses in her district had already seen a 50% loss in business in February, before the shutdown. In fact, three of Niou’s favorite restaurants — Let’s Makan (“let’s eat” in Malaysian), Amazing 66, and Chatham Seafood — have permanently closed because of the pandemic.
“I’m no longer going to keep the places that I love secret. In times like this, I hope that everybody goes, and loves them as much as I do,” says Niou, who is Taiwanese American. “ I love my culture, I love my food, and I love my district.”
Niou’s connection to Chinatown stretches far beyond her role as its state representative for the past four years. When she first moved to New York for graduate school a decade ago, she worked at Winnie’s, the karaoke bar with a cult following for more than three decades.
“When you walked in there, it was everything that’s New York but also Chinatown,” Niou says. “That is how you’d describe Winnie’s Bar: It is happiness. It is grit. It’s all of the city in one teeny, tiny location with all of the characters in it. They even had a dog, Princess, a beautiful husky, and a cat, Mao Mao (“meow meow” in Chinese), who slept in the basement.”
Winnie’s is no longer at its original Bayard Street location where Niou once worked — it reopened in a new spot on East Broadway last April — but it remains one of many places she is quick to recommend.
Now that more of Chinatown’s 291 restaurants are starting to reopen, she hopes more people will dine in the neighborhood — and that they won’t let COVID fears, xenophobia, racism, or common misconceptions about Chinese food (or Asian food generally) keep them from discovering the dishes that will become their new and perennial favorites.
Dumplings at Super Taste
“This is my largest secret,” Niou says. “Look, there are many places that have delicious dumplings, no doubt; I love them all. But Super Taste is like home. Every family probably has stories about how they cooked together and ate together, and for Asian families, dumplings are such a unifier.”
And indeed, each dumpling here, filled by hand, tastes like those you might make at home with your family — MacGyvered rolling device (regular rolling pins just don’t work) and Chinese grandma included.
She recommends taking a bag of frozen dumplings home. And ordering beef noodle soup with knife-cut noodles; or the hand-pulled noodles with soybean paste known as zhajiangmian. 26 Eldridge Street.
Vegetarian Dim Sum at Dim Sum Go Go and Buddha Bodai Kosher Vegetarian Restaurant
Niou loves many of Manhattan’s established dim sum palaces such as Jing Fong and Golden Unicorn, but she particularly loves Dim Sum Go Go for its “beautiful” vegetarian dim sum options: “Some people don’t realize this, but nearly every Chinese restaurant has vegetarian food.” She also recommends Buddha Bodai Kosher Vegetarian Restaurant for a fully vegetarian dim sum experience. Dim Sum Go Go, 5 East Broadway. Buddha Bodai Kosher Vegetarian Restaurant, 5 Mott Street.
Soup Dumplings at Shanghai 21
Shanghai 21 has three different soup dumplings, and while Niou says several Chinatown staples serve great xiao long bao, these are her favorite. 21 Mott Street.
Sesame Noodles, Peking Duck, Dry-Fried Pork, and Beef Noodle Soup at Hwa Yuan Szechuan
One myth Niou wants to dispel is the idea that Chinese food is only fast food. For fine dining, she suggests Hwa Yuan Szechuan. Shorty Tang, owner Chen Lieh Tang’s father, was responsible for introducing America to sesame noodles.
“They have some amazing, amazing dishes, as well as a very extensive and beautiful wine list.” In addition to those sesame noodles and the Peking duck, she rounds out a to-go order with beef noodle soup, and crispy dry-fried pork strips that “taste like a miracle in your mouth.” 42 East Broadway.
Chicken Curry at New Tu Do
For Vietnamese-style chicken curry that you can dip slices of French bread into, Niou recommends New Tu Do. 102 Bowery.
Night Market Crispy Chicken and Golden Crust Pork Chops at Taiwan Bear House
Niou is fond of the lunch boxes sold here, which include rice, vegetables, and everything from pork belly to fried chicken. Her personal favorites are the Night Market Crispy Chicken, or Taiwanese-style popcorn chicken “sold in a bag, just like you’d get at the night market,” and the Golden Crust Pork Chops. 11 Pell Street.
Seafood Boil at Sup Crab
Niou recommends buying “a bushel’s worth” of any seafood you like here, from spicy crawfish and crab legs to clams and mussels. Both Cajun and Sichuan spices find their way into boil sauces like the Flaming Ghost Street and the 13 Herbal Spice. 97 Bowery.
Wonton Noodle Soup at Wonton Noodle Garden
“I know it’s a staple and everyone knows about it, but it has the best broth, and the wontons are legit and the skin is so thin and QQ (a Taiwanese term for soft and chewy).” 56 Mott Street.
Roast Pork Buns and Egg Tarts at Mei Lai Wah
“They are the best pork buns in Chinatown, hands down. They are so fresh and so delicious. They are that perfect size, not too big or too small. They have such a great amount of filling in each one.”
And the egg tarts? This is Niou’s favorite, but she advises diners determine their preferences before they find their own. “You have to know what people like. Do you like the flaky crust or pie-like crust? The burnt European version? There are a lot of different kinds and preferences. With egg tarts, you can go real deep.” 64 Bayard Street.
Yunnan Guo Qiao Rice Noodles at Deng Ji II
“Yunnan-style noodles are kind of like a hot pot. They bring you a boiling soup broth, and you put all these different ingredients, and rice noodles, into the soup. Deng Ji is the best for that. It is so delicious. The broth itself is so rich.” 51 Division Street.
Hot Pot at Happy Lamb Hot Pot and 99 Favor Taste
The communal nature of hot pot makes it challenging to enjoy at the moment — social distancing and all that — but it’s something Niou savors even in summer. Her two favorites are Happy Lamb Hot Pot (temporarily closed) on Bowery, and 99 Favor Taste (open for delivery), which offers all-you-can-eat hot pot and tableside barbecue. Happy Lamb Hot Pot, 105 Bowery. 99 Favor Taste, 285 Grand Street.
Sponge Cakes at Kam Hing Coffee Shop
Niou buys sponge cakes by the box at this Baxter Street institution. “Their sponge cake is so light, so airy, so fluffy that you will pass out. It is so good. Sometimes I eat them so quickly that I almost choke because they’re so good and I can’t stop stuffing my face with them.”
Note: Kam Hing’s Baxter Street location is currently closed for renovations, but you can still get the sponge cakes at Tonii’s Fresh Rice Noodle on Bayard Street, where you should also indulge in some fresh rice noodles. 83 Bayard Street.
Soy Milk, Herbal Tea, and Everything Else at 46 Mott
Niou says she’ll happily enjoy “anything chef Tony makes” at this Cantonese-style bakery located on 46 Mott Street, accompanied with fresh soy milk or cooling herbal tea. 46 Mott Street.
Malaysian Desserts at Kuih Cafe
This tiny cafe is “very good,” especially with its array of kuih — bite-size snacks and sweets that are often both sweet and savory. 46 Eldridge Street.
Dole Whip at Chikarashi
In addition to savoring fresh uni, Niou loves ordering chef Michael Jong Lim’s take on Dole Whip, the pineapple ice cream generally only served at Disney theme parks or, famously, at Dole’s headquarters in Hawaii. “I kid you not, it’s just as good as when you had it as a kid.” 227 Canal Street.
Ice Cream at Minus10, Soft Swerve, and Chinatown Ice Cream Factory
Niou loves the fresh cream used to make the Thai-style rolled ice cream at Minus10, and she’s also a fan of the variety of flavors to be found at Soft Swerve, like ube purple yam, black sesame, and Hong Kong milk tea. And she never misses a chance to get almond cookie ice cream from The Chinatown Ice Cream Factory. Minus10, 10 Mott Street. Soft Swerve, 85B Allen Street. Chinatown Ice Cream Factory, 65 Bayard Street.
Mochi Doughnuts at Alimama Tea
Niou’s favorite flavor here is cereal. “It’s the best doughnut on Earth.” 89A Bayard Street.