There are times when I forget how much I love New York. Despite the non-stop gentrification, the banks and drugstores on every corner and the loss of character in our once proud neighborhoods, there does remain a little bit of the Olde New York that I grew up with and grew to love. It hasn't completely become a Las Vegas version of itself (yet).
Hidden within the maze of new antiseptic glass towers, one can still find vestiges of the real Gotham. Some small places have managed to survive, fighting off greedy landlords and the temptation to become tourist traps, offering great experiences at good prices. And there's nothing I like more than finding hole-in-the-wall types of joints, as I did a few months ago in Brooklyn. These are family-run operations who try to remain true to their heritages.
Two of these places can be found in Chinatown (no surprise there) and offer excellent quality at great prices. And in these recessionary times, what more can one ask for?
-A Chau Deli
This small hole in the wall deli on Mulberry has been open for several years and has been written up in several foodie blogs. But I only discovered it in early January, when I visited it with a friend who also loves good food. They offer a wide selection of dishes, but my favorite has been the Banh Mi, the traditional Vietnamese sandwhich. The vegetables are crunchily fresh, the bread is crusty on the outside and soft and light on the inside, quite a fine rendition of the baguette, if I may say so myself. And lastly, the price of the Banh Mi is so ridiculously low that it's worth a trip from almost anywhere in Manhattan and even maybe the boroughs...
On my first visit, I tried the #6, the Bánh Mì Ðặc Biệt, full of porkalicious goodness: BBQ pork, steamed pork, pork pate, Vietnamese ham, crispy veggies and spicy chilies. WOW. THIS is #6? Should have been #1, frankly. But at the time, I couldn't judge, as I hadn't tasted any others. To be honest, I was hard-pressed to try the others considering how amazingly good this one was. The meats were well-cooked but not dry, neither the BBQ nor the pate overpowering the other tastes, and the ham and steamed porks flavorful but not fatty nor greasy. We sat in Columbus Park, or as I call it Ho-Chi-Minh Park, and enjoyed our sandwhiches despite the howling January wind.
My next visit entailed tasting the #3, the Bánh Mì Bì, or shredded pork sandwhich. This was (and still remains) my only disappointment there. The meat was well-cooked but rather flavorless, considering how much I loved pulled pork.
The next attempts were the #8, the grilled chicken Banh Mi (no translation, sorry). Delicious, thin slices of moist grilled chicken interplay with the crunchy vegetables. I have to admit I felt like I was cheating a bit on the #6, but that's because I'm insane.
I also had a chance to taste the vegetable Banh Mi, which was good but rather boring if well-made. Granted, I need meat in most of the foods I eat, so take that with a grain of salt.
I should mention two things if you go: their iced coffee is fantastic, made with condensed milk and quite buzz-worthy. Also, don't expect fancy decorations: this is as plain as it gets, with a small counter and three stools squeezed in if you try to eat there.
82A Mulberry Street
Chinatown, New York, NY (212) 766-3332
Banh Mi: $3.50 (yes, you read that right)
On my last trip to A Chau on a glorious Spring day, we wandered over to tiny Mosco Street, where we began smelling the lovely aroma of frying dumplings. Something was different, something was more beguiling than the usual fatty notes that cling to your nostrils and make you recoil in disgust. This actually smelled really good. And wouldn't you know it, there, hidden away in a tiny storefront, was a kitchen where three women were kneading meat and dough into dumplings and buns. Our palates tempted by the smell, we hesitantly wandered in, looking at the menu: $1 for 4 fresh pork dumplings.
Oh, man, how could we say no?
Crispy, slightly darkened pillows of pork were placed on a paper plate and we grabbed the plastic forks and sat at the counter. At the first and very hot bite, juicy moist pork and crispy chives tumbled out onto our eager tongues, making us look at each other in wonder. Whoa, this wasn't bad. Heck, this was positively delicious! My only quibble was that sometimes the dough was a bit thick, but when I say it's a quibble, I mean it. This was a great find, and one I'll have to return to.
106 Mosco St
New York, NY 10013-4321
Phone: (212) 693-1060
Dumplings: 4 for $1 (yep)
These are the types of places that remind me of the old New York I grew up in, the one where there were actual neighborhoods and not facscimile versions thereof (walk down Bowery near Houston and you'll see what I mean, it looks more like a Hollywood back-lot than an actual city, or check out where CBGB's used to be... **shudder**). This city has really sacrificed its soul to the gods of development and we've lost more than we realize.
Luckily, there are still joints like A Chau and Fried Dumpling to remind us of our past and keep us grounded.