It’s the height of autumn in Sunset Park. We’re on a sunny strip of concrete on the edge of 8th Avenue and 49th Street, and a woman wearing a plastic face shield is wondering what in the world we’re doing here.
“What is this even for?” she asks our group of four in Mandarin, eyeing our photographer’s imposing Sony A7R3 camera. We’re seated just outside of Roast 28, a classic Cantonese roast meat stall, and halfway through a container of the most tender soy sauce chicken. Artist Stephanie H. Shih is sipping a cup of pork broth, while her friend who drove her here, Jasper Lin (“Juber,” she jokes), is picking at pieces of rice and bok choy drenched in the salty chicken fat renderings.
We’re here to shoot a food tour of the neighborhood, Shih replies, in Mandarin.
The Roast 28 lady is baffled, and understandably so: Food obsessives who might’ve travelled far and wide to the heart of Brooklyn’s Chinatown for dim sum, Cantonese staples, and Sichuanese specialties, have become scarce or non-existent these past few months. Chinatowns throughout New York City had already faced mounting racism and xenophobia for months before the city’s COVID shutdown in mid-March. And as the home to one of New York’s largest Chinese populations — especially from Fuzhou — Sunset Park felt its ravages first and foremost.
Still, it’s a sunny Thursday afternoon, and Sunset Park’s Chinatown is bustling. It’s prime grocery shopping time: Street food vendors are out, everything from plump pomelos to buckets of blue crabs are on display, and locals are pushing carts of all shapes and sizes along 8th Avenue.
Shih is not a resident — she lives in Carroll Gardens — but she’s been a fervent Sunset Park patron since she moved to New York in 2008. A Taiwanese American artist who grew up in a predominantly white New Jersey suburb, Shih feels at home in the city’s Chinatowns, sometimes wishing she lived closer by one. “It’s so homey,” she says. And her body of work, which consists of near-perfect ceramic renditions of Asian American pantry items, speaks directly to these communities.
By “replicating these kitchen staples,” she explores “how shared nostalgia can connect a diaspora across geography, nationality, and class,” Shih explains in her artist statement. And her work has not only resonated with Asian Americans (her most frequent commission requests are for bottles of Lao Gan Ma and yakult) but the art elite, too: The Lower East Side’s Perrotin Gallery just exhibited a collection of her ceramic soy sauce bottles, featuring brands from all corners of the Asian diaspora.
But Shih’s attachment to Sunset Park runs deep, and though it’s a trek from her apartment, she tries to drop by every two to three weeks for groceries. “The grocery shopping in Chinatown is good,” she says, “so much better than what you get at American grocery stores … The produce is so fresh, the meat is so fresh. You get yelled at a little bit, but you know …” she trails off, smiling. She also comes for takeout when she’s hosting her monthly mahjong night. (She jokes that she and Lin started the first and only white Brooklyn mahjong league.)
Roast 28 is the first of 11 places Shih picked to represent what she loves most about Sunset Park. Everywhere we go, she greets the staff with a warm and booming “Ni hao!” before rapidly firing her order in Mandarin, sometimes shoving an English word in the mix — like the “watercress” that makes a sudden appearance in her rice noodle roll order — when the immediate translation fails to compute. She happily chats with shopkeepers and servers, jokes with bystanders, and throws a loud “Xiè xie!” everytime we set off for our next stop.
Her selections turned out to be an object lesson in one of the great privileges that come with living in New York City: That great food can be found anywhere. More than that, the Chinese community is only a fraction of Sunset Park’s diverse makeup. Two avenues over, on 5th and 4th, immigrants from Latin America and beyond offer pieces of their homeland: veal head tacos on double-stacked corn tortillas, Malaysian chicken curry, Guatemalan tamales, Yemeni coffee, Salvadoran pupusas, and more.
The following are Shih’s go-to Chinatown haunts and regular spots. If you live close by, you’re in for a treat. And if you don’t, remember that traveling for great food is one of New York City’s greatest pleasures.
Going Down 8th Avenue
Soy sauce chicken at Roast 28
The offshoot of Flushing’s popular Corner 28, Roast 28 (also known as the Roast) is the area’s destination for Cantonese-style meats. Dangling suckling pigs and whole roasted ducks line the window, yet Shih is partial to the roast pork and soy sauce chicken over rice, which comes with a complimentary cup of pork broth. Before we leave, the face shield-protected employee who’d quizzed us gives us each complimentary water bottles. She waves as we leave: “Stay healthy!” 5124 8th Avenue.
Crossing-the-bridge noodles at Yun Nan Flavour Garden
Right across the street from Roast 28 stands the restaurant that began Shih’s love affair with Sunset Park. Yun Nan Flavour Garden was the first and remains the most frequent place she patronizes, specifically for their guoqiao mixian, or crossing-the-bridge noodles — a hard-to-find Yunnanese specialty: rice noodles, pork, black Silkie chicken, vegetables, and a raw quail egg in a simmering soup. Shih also praises the cold rice noodles. 5121 8th Avenue.
Hotpot at LaoJie
For any and all hotpot cravings, Shih likes LaoJie best, famous for its premium ingredients and AYCE (All You Can Eat) ways. The restaurant is currently open for outdoor dining — just be sure to stock up on the sauce station at the entrance. Reservations recommended. 811 53rd Street.
Tofu pudding from the Tofu Pudding Lady
By the time we arrive at this unnamed street cart, the tofu pudding lady is out of Shih’s favorite. Her douhua, a classic Chinese snack-cum-dessert, is made from very soft silken tofu, and topped with ginger syrup. Shih orders a homemade zongzi instead: stuffed sticky rice tightly wrapped in a bamboo leaf. “I call them rice tamales,” she smiles. She opens it up, and takes a bite. “I have no idea what this is.” She turns to her friend. “Jasper, Facetime your mom!” This one’s inexplicably sweet, and Shih acknowledges she’s picky and prefers the savory Shanghainese style with pork. Still, it’s good. The stand is usually posted in front of 5521 8th Avenue, at the NE corner of 56th Street and 8th Avenue.
Bubble tea at Yi Fang Taiwan Fruit Tea
When it comes to Taiwan’s national drink, Shih goes to this popular Taiwanese chain for its pineapple green tea and the brown sugar pearl tea latte. As we wait for our order, she gleefully recounts how her and Lin’s mutual friend thought that the boba pearls naturally grew on tapioca plants (that is not the case). Also, Shih reminds us, many people are unclear on this, but bubble tea comes from Taiwan. 774 58th Street.
Rice noodle rolls at Lai Cheong Fun Cart
The last stop on our 8th Avenue stretch is a rice noodle roll cart that’s stood firmly on the southwest corner of 61st Street and 8th Avenue for the past 10 years. Sitting cross-legged on one of the two stools the cart provides, Shih explains that the owner, who arrived from Guangdong 15 years ago, wakes up every morning at 4 a.m. to make the rice slurry, before setting up his cart everyday from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. Today, he and his daughter are helming the stand, quickly spreading thin layers of rice slurry in a tray before loading it with whatever the customers desire. Shih fires off her order: pork, corn, and watercress. The “watercress” is the only bit I understand in their cheery Mandarin chatter. The cart is located at the SW corner of 61st Street and 8th Avenue.
Back Up 7th Avenue
Egg tarts at Lucky Jade Bakery
“When Jasper first had one, he asked, ‘It is possible to be too flaky?’” Shih recalls. We’ve walked over to 7th Avenue, where Shih gets her favorite egg tarts from Lucky Jade Bakery. “I like their crust the best,” she explains, which is indeed extremely flaky. Unfortunately, we arrive too late: Lucky Jade is all sold out. Pro tip: Get there before 2 p.m. 6104 7th Avenue.
Banh mi at Thanh Da
“Hands down, the best banh mi in the city,” Shih raves. “By far.” At this Vietnamese shop, Shih always orders the #1 House Special, a combination sandwich on a baguette, which arrives cut in two down the middle. She picks up a piece of dislodged pork and stuffs it back into the sandwich before taking a resoundingly crackly bite. She looks up: “I’m so full.” 6008 7th Avenue.
Popcorn chicken at Taiwan Station
For a taste of one of Taiwan’s most popular night-market foods, head to Taiwan Station for popcorn chicken. Shih likes hers simple, with the salt and pepper seasoning, and every deep-fried nugget is a bite to behold. 5510 7th Avenue.
Sichuan dishes at Chuan Tian Xia
It’s the end of the tour, and there’s outdoor seating at our final stop. Shih is a fan of Chuan Tian Xia — which translates to “Under the Sichuan sky” — for its niche Sichuan specialties. As we pick at the complimentary roasted chili-dusted peanuts, she beckons the waiter and orders for the table: We’re getting thin slivers of pork and cucumber in a cold chili garlic sauce, and griddled shredded cabbage and okra. When the food arrives, she fills and refills everyone’s plate, “It’s so good, right?” If you’re not too full, she also recommends the Chongqing sour fish, too. 5502 7th Avenue.
Bonus: Frozen wontons at Mama’s Noodle House
Though not technically in Sunset Park, Shih is willing to travel even further for this Bensonhurst noodle and dumpling shop, run by a husband-and-wife team. The couple fold up to 1,000 dumplings a night, and Shih is adamant, “[They’re] the ONLY frozen dumplings I buy, and very dear to me.” A bag of 40 will run you $10. 1782 Bay Ridge Avenue.