New York City’s first Chinatown does not kid around.
The oldest of nine, it was established in the 1870s when Chinese immigrants from the West Coast fled vehement Sinophobia in the aftermath of the Gold Rush and the completion of the first transcontinental railroad. They set out east and settled in what was then the Five Points enclave, and what has become the beating heart of Chinatown today: Mott, Pell, and Doyers Streets. Over the next 150 years, Manhattan’s Chinatown was shaped by the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act; the gang violence of the early 20th century; and a constant flow of immigrants from Hong Kong, Taiwan, and China, once restrictions loosened up in the 1960s. Throughout it all, food was a constant.
Manhattan’s Chinatown was already brimming with restaurants by the turn of the 20th century, servicing its Cantonese population with familiar flavors, while also peddling chop suey and other Chinese American dishes that appealed to Western tastes. As immigration blossomed, so did the culinary landscape. Chinatowns outside of the island would later be established, in Flushing and Sunset Park — and other nascent ones, like those in Bensonhurst and the East Village, are still taking form. They became known for offering regional fare as diverse as the incoming residents — rivaling and sometimes outshining their elder sibling downtown.
And yet: While many think of Manhattan’s Chinatown as a tourist attraction, it is home to the largest population of people from the Chinese diaspora outside of Asia. It is also home to nearly 300 restaurants that have long shaped the city’s dining scene. And according to the following chefs, community leaders, and other luminaries, it is still very much relevant.
From dim sum parlors and cha chaan tengs (Hong Kong-style cafés), to noodle shops and barbecue stalls, here are the can’t-miss spots to eat in the city’s OG.
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- The Wonder of Chinese American Food, In Five Dishes
- The Resy Guide to Flushing Chinatown
- Five Regulars on Why Wo Hop Still Matters
- Sleeper Hits: The Chinatown Edition
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Grace Young, Author of Stir-Frying to the Sky’s Edge and Producer of Coronavirus: Chinatown Stories
“My mouth waters just thinking about Hop Kee’s perfectly caramelized barbecued spare ribs or delectable lobster Chinese-style, famed old-timey dishes served by grey-blue-jacketed waiters at a restaurant in business since 1968. My friend George Chew, born in Chinatown and a fantastic home cook swears by Hop Kee’s three sauce noodle (sam jup mein), in which the secret ingredient, ketchup!, gives the dish its hot-but-not-spicy Chinese-American spin.” // 21 Mott St.
Stephanie H. Shih, Artist
“I come here for the best char siu in the city — the fact that it’s only $5.50 for a meal is just an added bonus. It’s the type of no-nonsense place that’s perfected its craft (Cantonese roast meats) and seems uninterested in complicating things any further.” // 79 Chrystie St., (212) 925-5175.
“My grandma fled Shanghai for Taiwan during Mao’s rise, and this is my go-to spot for some of the Shanghainese dishes I grew up with. Soup dumplings are an obvious choice, but you shouldn’t miss the shredded pork and preserved cabbage with rice cakes, sticky rice in bamboo leaf, or cold pig ears.” // 100 Mott St., (212) 966-3988.
Lucas Sin, Former Chef at Junzi Kitchen
“Probably the best proof in Chinatown that Cantonese cuisine is elegant and creative and extraordinary. I go there every single time I need a spark of creativity. They have an amazing grilled squid, a really good roasted duck with dried plum sauce, and a really interesting tofu soup that’s sliced — like a very soft silken tofu sliced into ribbons — it’s just an incredible amount of technique that you don’t see all the time. The one dish that really blows me out of the water, though, is the wild octopus and bone marrow fusilli. It’s so ballsy and gutsy, like real, hardcore Cantonese cooking.” // 266 Canal St.
“I think hospitality is next-level at Ping. I go there regularly for their stir-fry. The number one dish is this hikuma stir-fry — it’s hikuma, chives, and baby anchovies. It’s got an incredibly crispy texture, I don’t know anybody else that does that combination. According to the owner’s daughter, Patricia, they invented this soft and crispy fried rice. It’s like 50-50 crispy, deep-fried rice and soft, fragrant jasmine rice with dried scallops. I have an affinity for Cantonese food, and these places do it better than anyone else.” // 22 Mott St.
“Ok, it’s called YunShang Rice Noodle House, but that’s not why I like it. The reason why I like it is because of these chicken wings on the menu. Hong Kong McDonald’s has a chicken wing that is absolutely legendary; it’s by far the best chicken wing I’ve ever had in my whole life. That fat-to-meat ratio is insane. And YunShang Rice Noodle House makes a chicken wing that is exactly like that. I don’t know how they do it, I don’t know where they got it from, but it’s so good.” // 53 Bayard St.
“Kam Hing is a sponge cake place. The first time I took my girlfriend there, who’s from Michigan and never had this type of sponge cake before, she took a bite out of a warm one (go in the morning and get a warm one) and she literally teared up because it’s just so freakin’ good. The CEO of my company [Yong Zhao of Junzi Kitchen] calls it the elderly kindergarten, because it’s filled with old grannies and uncles, drinking their $1 tea with one or two sponge cakes. It’s such a tranquil and chill place, and I really love them.” // 118 Baxter St.
Note: You can also get Kam Hing’s famous sponge cakes at Tonii’s Fresh Rice Noodle, located at 83 Bayard St.
Jennifer Tam + Victoria Lee, Founders of Welcome to Chinatown
“No one forgets their first time at Bo Ky. The meat cleaver coming down heavy to chops of various protein; the quick service; and the layers of flavor of Teochew, Chinese, and Vietnamese influence makes Bo Ky so memorable. Their curry chicken flat rice noodle soup is a must. You’ll be full half way through the bowl, and yet the curry soup keeps you slurping ‘til you’ve reached the bottom of the bowl. The accompanying fresh lemon half to squeeze on top brings out the brightness of the dish. This is the dish you never knew you wanted, and now you’re not sure how you ever lived without it.” // 80 Bayard St.
Wilson Tang, Owner of Nom Wah
“The topic of how Cantonese immigrants have left Manhattan’s Chinatown over the last two decades has been coming up a lot, and has gotten me thinking about my Cantonese heritage. From what I’ve observed, the feeling of having “made it” for my parents and other immigrant families seems to have been to move out to the outer boroughs, raise the kids out there, and watch them assimilate into American culture. So to celebrate my heritage, I’ve opted to highlight three Chinatown places that are still serving Cantonese and/or Hong Kong-style fare.
Kong Sihk Tong (65 Bayard St.) is my go-to spot for traditional rice dishes, as well as this simple order of HK-style spam and egg over instant noodles with a refreshing red bean ice to sip. Mei Lai Wah (64 Bayard St.) is most celebrated for their baked pork buns — but don’t miss out on their rice rolls and congee bowls. NB Wing Wong (42 Bowery) truly held it down during quarantine for me — they were one of the first places to open back up while New York City was on pause. They have some of the best roast meats (served over rice or noodles), stir fries, and dumplings.”
“Chef Chintan and I love to go to Chinatown Ice Cream Factory to find flavors that bring us back home. Growing up in India, tropical fruits like lychee, mango, and coconut were big parts of our childhood. At this Chinatown Ice Cream Factory, we find the flavors that we always crave in a style of ice cream that has a similar flavor profile as India. The flavors are simple yet pronounced, the quality of ingredients are great and the ice cream is just the perfect texture. There is always an argument between chef Chintan and myself as to which are better flavors, but in hindsight, they are all equally exciting as the other.” // 65 Bayard St.
Ning Amelie Kang, Co-Founder and Owner of Málà Project
“This is a Malaysian restaurant serving nyonya cuisine. The cuisine is a lost art and chef Kyo Pang practices it so well. My favorite dish here is the classic nasi lemak and their Hainanese chicken rice. They serve great Malaysian coffee too.” // 151 East Broadway.
Eric Sze, Chef and Owner of 886
“A hidden gem. They’ve been around for forever, but they execute stir-fry dishes like I’ve never tasted before. They have a hikuma silver fish stir-fry that I sometimes wake up thinking about. And their crystal chicken is honestly mind-blowing. The food is f***ing awesome and it’s always a good time.” // 22 Mott St..
Joe’s Steam Rice Roll
“I still like their rice roll the best, out of everyone else that has opened. I think their soy sauce seasoning is saucy perfection. It’s sweet enough, it’s acidic enough, it’s savory enough, it’s the most balanced. And [Joe’s] rice to water ratio, he nails every time.” // 265 Canal St., inside the Canal Street Market.
Joanne Kwong, President of Pearl River Mart
“Like many Chinese American kids, I grew up in Queens but my family came to Chinatown every weekend. We shopped for the week ahead at the grocery, meat market, and bakery; watched double-features at the Chinese movie theater; and patiently waited for Grandma to finish playing mahjong at the family association. Errands were boring but eating never was — dim sum, congee, Hong Kong cakes, buns and baos, tofu pudding, ice cream, candies — the possibilities were endless!
Fast forward decades later and what I love about Chinatown is that many of my favorite places and dishes from childhood are still around. They still hit the spot each and every time. But Chinatown itself also always keeps surprising. Every spirited debate about “the best [fill in the blank] in Chinatown” leads to three new places that I need to try. It’s almost too difficult to choose among the new places, so here are a few of my favorites from childhood.”
“I’m a soup gal, and congee or jook a.k.a. rice porridge is definitely something I never get tired of eating. It’s traditionally a breakfast food but I think it’s perfect anytime, especially on a cold day in the dead of winter. Try the lean pork and thousand year egg congee at Big Wong (or Dai Wong), a quintessential Chinatown coffee shop. There’s a lot of yelling and clanging of dishes and the heat and aroma of carb-y, comfort foods, which hits you the minute you walk in. The jook is the perfect thickness, with lots of pork flavor. The thousand year eggs are not really a thousand years old. Also known as century eggs or peidan, they’re eggs that are preserved until the yolk is a creamy gray color and the whites turn a translucent black jelly. The method dates back to the Ming Dynasty and allows eggs to be stored without refrigeration. I don’t like to think too much about how they’re made or whether they’re good for you; all I know is that they are super delicious. Any jook without a healthy amount of peidan makes me super angry. Big Wong’s is perfect, especially coupled with a deep-fried youtiao (cruller) and side of char siu (roast pork). Pork on pork and carbs on carbs!” // 67 Mott St.
“One of the last stops my family always made each week was to Fong In Too, the tofu shop. We would stock up on daufu fa (tofu pudding), soy milk, and my personal favorite, the steamed rice cakes. The steamed rice cakes came in two versions – brown sugar and white sugar. The white sugar rice cake was moister and stickier on the fingers; the brown version was dryer and denser but still quite light and fluffy. I think the white sugar cake is universally regarded as tastier but as a kid I used to prefer the brown version because it didn’t leave residue on the hands, which meant I didn’t have to wash my hands! The store, open since the 1930s, closed in 2017 but was resurrected and modernized by the original owners’ son Paul Eng last year. This resurrection and modernization story is similar to Pearl River’s and I’m certainly rooting for Paul’s success. He’s kept the core traditional classics but added some modern flavors too like ginger and matcha. There’s nothing like fresh tofu and soy milk.” // 81 Division St., (917) 261-7222.
“Dim sum in Chinese means to “touch the heart.” Small dishes to let one taste a bit of this and that, as opposed to a big, heavy meal. There are so many good ones and my opinion is that you should try and frequent all of them. Jing Fong (202 Centre St.) for big celebratory group gatherings; Nom Wah (13 Doyers St.) for a hip Doyers Street experience; Dim Sum Go Go (5 East Broadway) for a really great view of Chatham Square from the second floor; Hop Lee (16 Mott St.) on Mott for the teasing, boisterous waiters. Everyone has their own dish that they judge a place on. Mine is the classic har gow, or shrimp dumpling. The skin has to be thin yet stay intact when gently pulled from the steamer. The shrimp should be ample and fresh such that you get that satisfying snap when you bite in. Usually a perfectly made har gow will lead to other yumminess.”
Jennifer 8. Lee, Author of The Fortune Cookie Chronicles and Producer of The Search for General Tso
“Though perched on a street corner arguably at the edge of Chinatown, King Dumplings draws a following with its rich, reasonably priced menu of assorted dumplings (fried and boiled), noodle soups, and savory stuffed sesame pancakes. One of the best deals on the menu is the simple $2 yellow egg noodles doused with a nutty sauce — a comfort dish for the Fuzhou immigrants. Cash only, but the prices are so low you can walk out with a feast for $20.” // 74 Hester St., (917) 251-1249.
“Seek out this cozy Chongqing-style snack shop located at the edge of where Chinatown and Little Italy bleed into each other. In addition to a long list of noodle soups, which come with everything from peppercorns and beef intestines, Yiwanmen sells a strong variety of jianbing — folded crepes stuffed with everything from duck to egg to pickled vegetables. Also worth sampling are their cold dish appetizers, including the lotus root and the cucumber with garlic sauce.” // 150 Mott St.
“When Xi’an Famous Foods opened its first Chinatown outpost a decade ago, it was a cramped standing room-only shop tucked under the Manhattan Bridge. The long lines were paired with patrons slurping their cold skin noodles out on the street. So loyal fans breathed a sigh of relief when the OG “Muslim Chinese American” chain opened up its expansive Bayard Street location with plenty of seating and more freedom to linger. It’s worth sampling the lamb pao-mo soup, which features ripped flatbread doused in hot simmering liquid. The dish is actually a variation of one that is commonly found in the Middle East, a byproduct of the Silk Road cultural cross currents.” // 45 Bayard St.
Paul Donnelly, Chef at Chinese Tuxedo
“I remember the first time I went there, when I was making the move to New York City from Sydney, Australia back in 2016. Edward Buckingham and Jeff Lam, who are the two owner-operators of Chinese Tuxedo, were doing a bit of schmoozing, and they were like, “We’d really like you to take this position, why don’t you come out?” I remember on the very first night, it was Ping’s that really stood out. They had live frogs on the table, sea snails, lobster, crab, I think they even had parrot fish with ginger and scallion. And it was absolutely next level. And after that meal, I was pretty much like, ‘Think I might take this job.’” // 22 Mott St.
“The banh mi is absolutely incredible. Number 1 is traditional, and number 2’s got all of this sweet, shredded Vietnamese jerky inside. And it is absolutely insane. But if you’re going to go, I recommend getting number 1 with chili. Get it extra spicy.” // 369 Broome St.