One of my favorite things to do, whether in San Francisco or New York, is to explore the wonders of Chinatown. Generally, I get off at the Canal Street subway station and begin my adventure through the streets of Chinatown with a few bakeries, sweet shops, and dim sum places in mind (dim sum is an awesome alternative to the traditional eggs and bacon boozy-brunch scene most New Yorkers flock to).
This area of Lower Manhattan is extremely diverse. It really does feel like you’re in a different country once you start strolling through the hustle, bustle, and energy of these oftentimes crowded streets.
Mott and Grand Streets are filled with a variety of stands and grocery shops selling all sorts of exotic fruits and veggies, as well as a large selection of different seafoods, meats, spices, and herbs that are rarely seen in other areas of the city. Think live blue crabs that are so active they’re falling out of their containers, live eels, tons of different dried clams, squids, shrimps, and more.
I have always been fascinated by the fresh, live creatures sold at Chinatowns, especially in New York City’s, since there is such a huge variety of Asian cultures represented. Plus, it’s home to the largest Chinese population on the East Coast. It’s always interesting finding out what exactly it is you’re looking at. I had to Google what those bumpy log looking things were — turns out they were sea cucumbers!
Though the majority of eateries in this area serve Chinese cuisine (which includes the cuisines of the many provinces of China), there are plenty of other types of foods offered, including Vietnamese, Thai, and Malaysian. Not to mention all the specialty noodle shops, tea parlors, and bubble tea spots to munch at as well.
When it comes to dim sum, Jing Fong is always dependable and satisfying. It’s a huge restaurant, so large in fact, that to get up to its banquet-like dining room you have to jump on a considerably long escalator ride.
Once you arrive, it can be a bit overwhelming. The restaurant gets packed at peak hours and the place is buzzing with numerous roving food carts, offering sweet, savory, steamed, fried, and weird (to me at least) types of dim sum to the crowds. Also offered is a selection of noodles, fried rice, Peking duck, and other traditional Chinese dishes you would more often see at your local Chinese food joint. But way better.Favorites include all the fried and/or steamed dumplings (pork and vegetable; shrimp and chive; crab claws… etc.); fried shrimp balls; siu mai; BBQ pork buns; and curry puff pastries, to name a few.
As a huge fan of Asian treats, my go-to desserts include warm egg custard tarts, rice flour mochi balls filled with a sugary coconut and ground peanut mix; black sesame mochi balls; and custard buns (more on dessert coming up…).
Another Chinatown gem is the Chinese Ice Cream Factory which has been around for almost 30 years. This shop has managed to combine an American favorite — ice cream — with a delicious, “exotic Chinese twist.” As one of Chinatown’s oldest businesses, it’s often referred to as an unofficial landmark. It offers a giant selection of flavors, both lesser known, though equally fantastic flavors with Asian origins, as well as more traditional flavors like Oreo cookie and rocky road.
Unique offerings you won’t find at most ice cream shops include: almond cookie, Chinese almond cookies from the Famous Fung Wong Bakery soaked and blended into an icy treat; black sesame ice cream with black sesame seeds (love!); don tot, a light creamy Chinese egg custard; durian, a fruit known for its pungent yet tasty flavor; red bean, a Chinese sweet bean; taro (root)/ ube (purple yam), which is one of my favorite flavors of all time!), and its very popular, Zen Butter, a peanut butter ice cream with toasted sesame seeds.
New flavors are always being created and range from chocolate lavender and caramel bacon swirl to green tea oreo, lychee rose, and the indulgent Filipino dessert-turned-ice cream flavor, Halo Halo. This place knows how to make innovative flavor combinations that are always surprisingly fantastic.
If you have room for more dessert or want to grab some baked treats on your way home, don’t forget to make a stop at one of the many bakeries in the area. Though chains with locations throughout NYC, Tai Pan and Fay Da are two well known bakeries in the area, and consistently offer fresh goods throughout the day.
With the variety of tarts, buns, cakes, and mochi balls to choose from, decisions are only made harder considering the modest prices of these goodies. Always make sure these sweets are fresh out the oven when you buy them! Trust me, it matters.
A few pastries you can’t go wrong with include: tang yuan, a rice flour dumpling filled with a warm black sesame paste that oozes out of the chewy rice dumpling with the first bite; Fay Da’s super sweet and dense puff pastry, that’s essentially a purple taro filling wrapped in a flaky, buttery pastry, creating a pretty lavender dessert bomb of creamy flavor; another purple favorite is the taro/ or ube buns, which are dense, sweet buns also filled with a sweet taro/ or ube paste; the custard bun, and the pineapple bun, a sweet baked bun topped with a sugary, crackly coating. Oh and every type of mochi offered is a home-run.