Restaurants and shops representing all eras of Mahattan’s Chinatown can still be found in the neighborhood today. From the dim sum eatery that opened in the 1920s to a cafe serving Western-Chinese fusion food, here are some of the iconic places tracing Chinatown’s history.
Chinatown’s oldest dim sum eatery, Nom Wah, opened in 1920. Originally a tea parlor and bakery, Nom Wah served only a limited selection of dim sum — Cantonese small plates from Guangdong — meant to accompany tea. For decades, Nom Wah was run by the Choy family, who moved the restaurant to its current location at 13 Doyers Street. In 1974, the Choys sold the business to their longtime employee Wally Tang; he turned Nom Wah into a full-scale dim sum restaurant with a vast menu of mainstays such as har gao (shrimp dumplings) and pork or shrimp shumai. Though the restaurant lagged by the turn of the 21st century, in 2010, Tang’s nephew Wilson took over.
The younger Tang updated the kitchen and did away with pre-cooked plates served on metal carts; now, each dim sum dish is cooked to order and served piping hot. He made few changes to the restaurant’s vintage aesthetic, however; the faded red and yellow awning, red vinyl booths, 1930s countertop, and antique stove harken back to an earlier era of Doyers Street, now often filled with crowds waiting in line for what is still one of Chinatown’s most popular destinations.
Try the eggplant stuffed with shrimp paste, the house special pan-fried dumplings, “The Original” egg roll, thick and fluffy roast pork buns, and the almond cookie that has survived since Nom Wah’s bakery days.
Cheung fun — often translated as rice noodle rolls or steamed noodle rolls — are a Cantonese dish frequently featured in dim sum. The noodles are steamed flat in metal trays, then folded in on themselves and topped with various condiments, including soy, peanut and hoisin sauces, sesame seeds, and Sriracha. Vendor Lai Zhang came to the United States from Kaiping, a city in Guangdong province. He says the cheung fun cart has been at its Grand Street location for 30 years; Zhang Lai has been operating it since 2015 and can be found catering to a steady stream of customers every day except Thursday.
Zhang sells two types of cheung fun; his specialty is the Guangdong version, filled with pork, beef, shrimp, or vegetables. The Hong Kong version, called chee cheung fun, is cooked plain and then topped with curry fish balls, oyster fish balls, beef tripe, or pig skin and radish.
Zhang is a member of the Street Vendor Project (SVP), a coalition working to improve conditions for the more than 10,000 street vendors working in NYC. Most street vendors are immigrants and people of color, and endure long hours and harsh conditions; many struggle to obtain a license, are forced off of streets under pressure from big businesses, and face oppressive fines for minor logistical violations. The SVP educates vendors about their rights and responsibilities, helps vendors with training and loans, and works to raise awareness of their struggles in the community and local government.
In both style and cuisine, Hop Lee represents a Cantonese eatery of an earlier era and is popular with longtime Chinatown residents. Its simple basement dining room, with red leather seats and large round tables, caters to families and groups. Although the menu features American Chinese standards like chop suey and egg foo young, Hop Lee also places the spotlight on Cantonese-style seafood and preparations reminiscent of simpler Taishanese fare.
Some of the first Chinese immigrants in the U.S. came from Taishan, a city in Guangdong province, and played an important role in the construction of the first Transcontinental Railroad before moving east in response to anti-Chinese agitation. Taishan cuisine, also romanized as Toisan, features stir-fried vegetables, fried meats, and steamed seafood, eaten over rice and seasoned with pungent salted fish flavors and fermented soy bean sauce. These flavors — as well as squab (or young pigeon), a Guangdong specialty — distinguish Hop Lee’s menu from the vast selection of snack-like noodle dishes at the more well-known Wo Hop across the street. Look for the dishes marked “Cantonese style” or dressed in fermented black bean sauce, a Cantonese condiment.
From the outside, Asia Market Corp. looks like any other neighborhood bodega, but inside is a treasure trove of Asian pantry staples. Its shelves and aisles are tightly packed with imported nonperishables including spices, sauces, condiments, and snacks from China and Southeast Asia. After the end of the Vietnam War in 1975, many Vietnamese migrated to the United States to escape persecution and poverty. Among them were ethnic Chinese from South China (the majority of whom were Cantonese) who had lived in Vietnam since around the 16th century. They brought distinctive new flavors to Chinatown with them, and restaurants and shops popped up to serve this community.
Asia Market Corp. was founded by a Cantonese family in 1988, and ever since has been a destination for Manhattan chefs and home cooks in search of hard-to-find ingredients like canned banana blossoms and frozen fish balls from China, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, the Philippines, and Indonesia.
Though people from Hong Kong share Cantonese language and cultural traditions with earlier immigrants from Guangdong, 156 years of British colonial rule on the island resulted in a distinctive hybrid cuisine. Locals had been largely excluded from high-priced Western restaurants until the second half of the 20th century, when cha chaan teng began popping up in Hong Kong, Macau, and parts of Guangdong. These modernized, affordable, no-frills cafes served an eclectic range of Hong Kong-style Western foods like curry fish balls, baked pork chops with rice, and toast with butter and condensed milk, alongside a selection of hot and cold black and milk teas, including yuanyang, a mix of coffee and milk tea.
After the passage of the Immigration Act of 1965, Hong Kong residents migrated to America in large numbers bringing cha chaan teng to their new neighborhoods. The clean and bright Cha Chan Tang near the meeting of Mott and Pell streets follows this tradition, serving a predominantly Cantonese-speaking clientele since 2010. The cafe is open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, offering an extensive number of classic hybrid dishes at every meal, including congee, pineapple buns, curries, baked spaghetti and rice dishes, toast, and an array of milk tea.
On a busy stretch of East Broadway, the main door to Yung Sun opens onto a steep staircase leading down past an imposing fish tank into a casual, low-ceilinged dining room. Yung Sun specializes in the cuisine of Fuzhou, the capital of Fujian province in southeast China. Drawn by the promise of economic opportunity in the U.S., tens of thousands of Fuzhounese migrated to New York City in the 1980s and 1990s — many of them brought over on ships by complex human smuggling networks.
The Fuzhounese now outnumber Chinatown’s Cantonese residents; however, due to differences in regional origins, language, economic resources, political inclination, and even legal status, the new immigrants have often been at odds with the early Cantonese settlers. The Fuzhounese therefore build homes and businesses on the edges of Chinatown, particularly on East Broadway — outside the Pell and Mott Street area where the Chinese immigrants of the 19th century built their community.
The Fuzhounese brought with them a cuisine that was previously unknown in Manhattan’s Chinatown. Fuzhou — formerly romanized as “Foochow” — dishes are considered the lightest among the four major styles of Fujianese cuisine, best known for its soups, seafood, and sweet and sour flavors. In addition to its “Foochow” section, Yung Sun’s extensive menu includes Westernized Chinese dishes as well as plenty of seafood specials. Try any of the Fuzhou specialities, including fish balls stuffed with pork, noodles with peanut sauce, and fried oyster cakes.
Ping’s Dried Beef is something of a mecca for dried meat enthusiasts. Don’t be thrown off by the lack of English signage or the hanging placard inside that reads “Jung’s” in English: This is the place. Ping’s sells bakkwa, a type of salty-sweet dried meat similar to jerky, thought to have originated in Fujian province. Owner John Louie literally grew up in the business, which his father founded around the corner at 85 Bayard Street when Louie was three years old. In 1980, Louie moved Ping’s to its current location, which he manages with the help of his wife and children.
Ping’s sells two types of meat —pork and beef, salty or sweet — displayed in large glass jars labeled “oinky” and “moo” in an eclectic apartment storefront. The spicy moo is the most popular, and consistently sells out despite relatively high prices; Louie uses beef short rib with a good balance of meat and fat, and processes all of the meat daily in his own shop. The result is exceptional: soft, delicate, well-seasoned strips with a tender, chewy consistency.