You don’t live to be an 82-year-old restaurant and not develop some sort of a following. Especially if you’re 82, and in New York City. The second-oldest restaurant in Manhattan’s storied Chinatown (right after Nom Wah, which turned 100 this year), Wo Hop is an unapologetic bastion of Chinese American cuisine, a beacon to the late-night crowd, and a culinary landmark in its own right. And don’t even get us started on the Wo Hop upstairs-downstairs rivalry. (If you know, you know.*)
In a city that has recently seen a boom in regional Chinese restaurants from Yunnanese to Hunanese, one might relegate Wo Hop and its Chinese American menu as a relic of New York’s culinary past. Yet when we quizzed a number of Chinatown patrons on where they loved to eat, Wo Hop came up repeatedly.
“I bet 115 people are going to say Wo Hop,” said Lucas Sin, the chef at the New York-based homestyle Chinese chain, Junzi Kitchen. He wasn’t entirely wrong. Here are what five Wo Hop regulars had to say about this mythical institution, a shrine to a bygone era.
Joanne Kwong, President of Pearl River Mart
“There’s a Wo Hop Upstairs and a Wo Hop Downstairs and anyone who’s a Wo Hop devotee definitely has a preference. Don’t trust anyone who says they like both. I grew up going to Wo Hop Upstairs and have eaten the exact same meal every single time. It only works for two people, which is why my husband and I don’t like to share with our kids, haha.
We order the pan-fried flounder cubes with choy sum underneath. The flounder is glistening and flavorful, with the perfect amount of crunch. White rice is the perfect companion to soak up the tasty oiliness from the fish and vegetables. On the side, we order the fried dumplings, which admittedly are fried to a crisp and then drizzled in heavy oyster sauce. It’s not a place for delicate, subtle cooking.
Old-school Cantonese places will always have a complementary soup as an appetizer and a red bean soup for dessert if you ask nicely for it. The waitstaff here seem gruff at first but they actually love to chat, and the clientèle is definitely not hipster — it’s a mix of Chinese and what look like working class, outer-borough New Yorkers, who also seem like they’ve been coming here for decades.”
Lucas Sin, Chef at Junzi Kitchen
“I know a lot of Chinese people who don’t like Wo Hop. But I think Wo Hop is amazing. Maybe it’s because I’m foreign [Sin is from Hong Kong] but Chinese American food is so, so interesting to me. It’s similar to Hong Kong cooking, but it’s a little different. And everyone chalks it to up Chinese American food being sweeter, but it’s not just sweeter; it’s like the set of techniques and the approaches are a little different. Wo Hop does an incredible brown sauce that is best expressed over their mushroom egg foo young. They serve their egg foo young on a pedestal — like this silver platter that is literally elevated above all the other foods — and I think it’s just so special.”
Jennifer Tam + Victoria Lee, Founders of Welcome to Chinatown
“We go to the upstairs, and we just about always order the same dishes. Our absolute go-to is the salt and pepper squid over rice with a runny egg. They also give you free soup, usually bone broth; Chinese restaurants have been serving this for years before it ever became a millennial trend.
The waitstaff has worked there forever, and there is a certain unspoken bond we hold with them; they know what we want to order; how our mood is; often offering a bad Cantonese joke if they could sense you were having a rough day. We don’t know each other by name, but we know each other through the expression of food.”
Grace Young, Author of Stir-Frying to the Sky’s Edge and The Breath of a Wok, and Producer of Coronavirus: Chinatown Stories
“I count myself among the Wo Hop regulars who know that walking down the funky steps at 17 Mott means entering old-school Chinatown dining in a 10-table restaurant that will never be replicated. Its walls covered in family snapshots and business cards, some dating from the restaurant’s founding in 1938, Wo Hop prides itself on knowing its faithful customers — and their kids — by name, a testament to the sense of community on offer here. What they come for: unapologetic, Chinese-American, Cantonese dishes such as pan-fried flounder over choy sum, and beef chow fun, always expertly stir-fried with wok hay — the breath of a wok, I might add. ”
Wo Hop is open for outdoor dining seven days a week, from 10:30 a.m. to 4:30 a.m. Call 212-962-8617 for takeout.
*For those who don’t know: OG Wo Hop — “Downstairs” — is down a flight of stairs at 17 Mott Street, where jacketed waiters and an old-timey Chinatown vibe pervades. The newer Wo Hop Next Door, or “Upstairs,” is on the ground level of a no-nonsense enclave at 15 Mott Street. In the words of Pearl River Mart president, Joanne Kwong: “Don’t trust anyone who says they like both.”
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