The first time I went to Great NY Noodletown, I didn’t walk there. I ran. I had recently moved to the city, and as a fresh new transplant hosting an out-of-town friend, I did what I believed any New Yorker would do: Show them how the city never sleeps.
It was in the early throes of a Saturday morning in late June. We were terribly dehydrated, hungry, and on the Bowery. I pulled out Google Maps, scanning for the closest restaurant still open at this hour that I had saved and starred. And there it was, the answer to my growling stomach: Great NY Noodletown. Closing time: 4 a.m., and a 17-minute walk from where the night had landed us. It was 3:46 a.m. I ran.
I darted past closed-up shops and still-buzzing bars, racing with yellow cabs quietly making their Lower East Side rounds. It became more of a risible jog towards the end, but I had made it to my brightly lit destination, visibly out of breath: A corner shop with hooked birds and roast meats dripping cloying strings of fat in the window, and nearly eclipsed by a glaring yellow sign with red Chinese characters and hunter green letters spelling out its anglicized name. I pushed through the door.
“Are you still open?”
It was just past 4 a.m. Chairs had already been overturned on the large round tables, but a couple of two-tops were still picking at their plates. A gruff-looking waiter sized me up — silently debating whether or not to let me in — then jerked his head in the direction of an empty table. I hastily plopped into my seat, my friend trailing behind me. A waiter threw down a boiling teapot, two cups and plates, plastic chopsticks, and paper napkins in a clatter and clang. As I poured our complimentary tea (black, piping hot, exactly what our parched bodies needed), our food arrived within minutes of us ordering. I’ll never forget my first meal: A couldn’t-be-beat $6.75 combo of sliced roast duck and chicken with a gingery scallion mash, draped over a mound of steaming rice. I chowed down. I was in heaven.
Great NY Noodletown became my absolute late-night go-to after that morning. It has been my cash-only Cantonese canteen, consistently delicious, forever reliable. And over my countless visits (always past midnight), the restaurant — with its glass-covered tables, harsh chandelier lights, unhip tile floor, and brusque waiters — played the unexpected, yet seamless backdrop for some of my most memorable meals.
Like the time a group of us ordered a lavish after-hours feast, hoping the crisp suckling pig, sautéed pea shoots, and overflowing pie plate of eggy e-fu noodles would nurse us back to sobriety (the green bottles of Tsingtao dotting our table told a different story).
Or when I rekindled with a long-lost childhood friend over glazed strips of ruby-pink char siu, as a whole pig dangled from its feet in the back of the visible kitchen and the chop-chop-chop sound of roast meat getting hacked to precise pieces playing in the background.
Or that one balmy summer evening, when I convinced coworkers to follow me all the way into Chinatown from Red Hook, with the enticing promise of sweet and shatteringly crisp salt-baked soft shell crabs (they were in season, we had to go).
Over multiple bowls of silky wonton soup, I even fell in love with a chef there, whose industry (read: nocturnal) schedule made me appreciate Noodletown’s night owl hours on a whole new level.
But before I claimed it as mine, it was many others’.
Great NY Noodletown opened on the corner of Bowery and Bayard in 1981, where it’s stayed put ever since. It actually didn’t start off as “Great,” one of the many owners added that part. The restaurant came amid a huge wave of Hong Kong immigration, as the territory’s looming 1997 handover to China after a century and a half of British rule persuaded many to leave their home in search of a new life. And from the get-go, the restaurant emulated the bargain noodle shops and roast meat kiosks Hong Kongers had always relied on.
Not much else is known about Noodletown’s history and origins. But that isn’t really the point of a place like this. The point is that despite its less-than-stellar service, Ruth Reichl gave it a rhapsodizing two-star review for the New York Times in 1994. The point is that it’s splashy enough to have held its spot in the 2020 Michelin guide, and adequately grungy enough that it has been shut down by the New York health department not once, but twice. The thing that’s so special about Great NY Noodletown is that it’s for everyone. And as I took in the clientèle, night after night, I came to realize it was a microcosm of New York itself.
As diners in the city disappear at an alarming rate, Great NY Noodletown feels like a roaring middle finger that refuses to go quietly into the night. What other place in the city will serve you fried frog legs with scallions at 3:55 a.m.? It’s a 39-year-old stalwart and a cherished community anchor whose regulars frankly don’t care that there are “better,” or “more authentic” tastes of various Chinese cuisines nowadays, at glitzy-new, design-savvy spots. In that sense, Great NY Noodletown is part of the canon of New York’s great dining icons, alongside the Katzes and the Peter Lugers. Because at the end of the day, you’re not going there solely for the food, but for the whirlwind of it all.
On any given night, you could find bleached blonde babes in flashy dresses sharing elbow space with gossiping Chinatown regulars. Or a table of partied-out NYU kids back-to-back with off-duty police officers. I have seen musicians, fashionistas, and night shift hospital workers in scrubs, and even a renowned sushi chef sitting in a corner alone, taking in the chaos of Noodletown over a bowl of noodle soup. (I never saw David Chang, though his tribute to the restaurant’s ginger scallion noodles is testament enough.)
I have platefuls of memories of Great NY Noodletown, and not nearly enough. When Chinatown devastatingly emptied out in the wake of COVID-19, my visits became more frequent, every meal a badge of love and support against a cruel, racist, and baseless backlash. Even then it prevailed, and it was the last restaurant I set foot in before indoor dining was banned on March 16.
Noodletown went eerily quiet after that. The fogged-up windows and displays of roast duck and pork were no more, hidden by a pair of ominous metal shutters. I’d frantically drop by and check in on the restaurant — as my chef boyfriend’s Nolita apartment became my pandemic home base, this was quite easy and safe to do — scanning the doors for any sign of news. Because what would be New York without Noodletown?
Needless to say, when a sheet of paper taped to the corner of the shop announced the return of Great NY Noodletown for takeout in early May, I beamed.
I waited in a line of Chinatown locals, as social distancing signs plotted our way. Inside, the chairs were overturned on tables, there was no complimentary tea, but the chandeliers still emitted their harsh and familiar glow. I placed my regular order, and by the time I walked out with my quart of wonton soup and container full of char siu, the line had doubled in size. But it wasn’t only the long string of masked locals that made me smile. It was also the non-Asian grandma, the hip millennial, and the yoga mom that had newly flocked to the line. Because what would be Great NY Noodletown without its NY.
Great NY Noodletown is open for takeout seven days a week from 10 a.m to 7 p.m. Call (212) 349-0923 to place your order. 28 Bowery (at Bayard), New York.
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