Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Digesting NYC, part I: Chinese & Thai

New York City is the proverbial global smorgasbord of eating, and an absolute thrill for food geeks like myself.  You can find everything from mobile food carts and trucks, to Michelin-starred restaurants that are booked months in advance.  But let's be real, I came to New York to find a job and I still needed to act on a student budget.  Though I can't stand hot dogs, I am not above hounding $3 falafel from dingy shops outside subways.  To break up the review of where I ate during my 2-3ish days, this concerns the Chinese and Thai restaurants.

I knew I needed to take full advantage of my sole free day in the City.  I had a loose itinerary in mind, yet more than anything, I was desperate for Chinese food!  Once my stomach has decided what it craves and a restaurant is mapped out, there is nothing that can stop me.  I consulted my favorite food blog, Serious Eats, and poked through their NYC guide by neighborhood and discovered the prime restaurants for authentic cuisine in Chinatown.  Granted, anything would have tasted fantastic to me because it’s been months since I was in China, but I wanted to devour some of the best. 
Chinatown is marked by the immediate presence of Mandarin characters on all storefronts and signs, mainly in simplified forms.  The farther you explore the streets, the more locals you encounter that embody so much of the 'Mainland' culture: lingering, gossiping, card-playing, cooking, spitting, haggling, and living street-side.
 The walk was a straight hustle down from Times Square down Broadway, traversing across fourth, and eventually onto the Bowery.  Unsurprisingly, I circled the correct block and passed the hole-in-wall three times before I saw the sign for A-Wah.  Word to the wise: never pass up a Chinese restaurant because of outward appearances, because you may be rejecting one of the most well-valued meals you'll find.

Upon entering, there are glazed pigs and poultry hanging in the window, carved for flavoring and the starring protein of many dishes, three chefs zipping between sizzling woks, bamboo steamers, smoking grills, and boiling pots.  After squeezing by customers placing their orders to go, you can sit at one of the tables in the back.  The waiter (or perhaps laoban boss, I couldn't be sure) brings your chopsticks, a fresh cup of oolong tea, and an overwhelming menu with hundreds of dishes in Chinese and English.  I huddled around my tea cup to warm my hands and glanced over the offerings, but I knew what I had come for: bozaifan 波仔饭 or shaguofan 砂锅饭, known in English as clay pot rice.

When I was in Beijing this summer, during my lunch break at the internship office, my lady co-workers and I would stop eat this clay pot rice at least twice a week for $3 at a Korean restaurant.  Although there are slightly different variations for offerings, the concept is the same: rice is filled in a clay pot, the meat and/or vegetables are set on top, and the bowl is fired on the grill until the crisps and sizzles as you stir everything together.  It's textural madness, especially between the fine grains and soft toppings-- I always burned my tongue because I was so eager to eat!  At A-Wah, the clay pot rice bowls (listed as casseroles) are $7-$12 and I ordered the vegetarian Buddha's Delight.  It arrived too hot to touch, filled with baby corn, snow peas, mushrooms, water chestnuts, and ribbon tofu; basically common vegetables of the Chinese variety, yet I never learned their specific names.  I doused a lot of chili powder (我很喜欢啦味道的菜!), soy sauce, stirred, and went after it.   From other reviews I have since read, it seems that their pork bowls are also delicious, and I would be curious to taste the seafood.

In another decision of nostalgia, I ordered wonton and noodle soup 馄饨面, harking back to my host mom in Shanghai who woo'ed me with her incredible homemade Shanghainese wontons (the noodle is distinctly different from Fuzhou or other wontons... more noodle and larger).  The soup came with six boiled wontons filled with pork and a piece of shrimp, along with ramen noodles and white cabbage.  This was nothing spectacular; the fillings were not bursting with taste and needed lots of chili and vinegar.  Nonetheless, at $4.50 a bowl, I was pleased and finally warmed up.  Between that and the clay pot rice, I looked like a happy Buddha who has just rediscovered her dumplings (oh wait--!).  And yeesh, I couldn't even finish it all!  I had the rest of the rice packed to-go, and devoured it the next day post-interview.  I heard that if you order the clay pot rice to-go initially, they actually send you along with the clay dish!
I miss Chinese food SO MUCH, and this was a divine fix.  They're good at what they do, and they know it!  I had quite a convivial conversation with the waiter/laoban, even in broken Mandarin.
The crispiest rice is stuck to the side of the bowl, so scrape and enjoy!
Wonton soup is the Chinese counterpart to chicken noodle soup: comfort in a bowl.
Basically, do yourself a favor and visit the heart of Chinatown for A-Wah! It's across from the bubble tea shop.
A-Wah on Urbanspoon

For my final night in New York, I met up with my friend Caroline who I met while studying in Shanghai last spring.  She is a beautiful lady inside and out, a women's rights activist, a gifted writer, and was gracious enough to take a train from Jersey to meet me for dinner!  Due to a suggestion from one of her friends, we ate at Pure Thai Cookhouse in Hell's Kitchen, which is the next neighborhood northwest of Times Square.

Pure Thai Cookhouse on UrbanspoonIt took me a few minutes to find PTC because it's wedged between many other eclectic restaurants.  It's only a few meters wide with seating for maximum twenty patrons, yet the ambiance is unbeatable.  The walls are full of festive flowers, instruments, vintage photos of Thai celebrities, while Thai pop music blares in the background.  It's run by a pleasant, efficient staff all wearing floral aprons, including two female chefs in the front soup bar.  Despite the constant line, they were polite enough to allow my friend and I enjoy our drinks during the dinner rush. And most importantly, the food is delicious. It tastes authentically like what I ate in Thailand while vacationing there last year, with it's subtle spices, Thai basil, sweet curries, and punching chili-- you can even order Chang or Singha beer!

For my meal, I ordered a Coney Island pilsner and the [insert Thai name that I don't recall here] seafood soup with thin rice noodles-- sometime I would like to try their homemade egg noodles.  I wish the broth was a bit spicier (rated 2 out of 3) and saltier, but the fillings were substantial.  I also followed up with a Chang beer.  Everything on the menu costs twice as much as it should, but then again, this is New York.  I felt fortunate to enjoy food at what turned out to be a very popular restaurant in the area!  Between two beers for each of us and an entree, the meal was $52 (tip included).  I highly recommend going their with a friend and enjoying their food because it's worth the whole ambiance.

Apologies for the terrible exposure; iPhone flash.
Dinner with sweet Caroline!  She ordered the spicy, dry curried beef and vegetables, which was a generous serving along with jasmine rice.  You could also order brown jasmine or sticky rice.

If you're looking for a certain taste or food-induced memory in New York, you will surely find it.

Listening: "Lost" by Frank Ocean

1 comment:

Olivia Fuller said...

Your posts always have a way of making me hungry Nicole! It's been more than a year since my last visit to NYC, I'm definitely missing it. I read your last post too, and I find myself torn between the liveliness and vibrancy of the city, and the calm majesty of the rolling country. Despite my ties to farming and open space, I want to put myself out there while I'm young too, there's so much to experience, especially abroad!
Back to this post, A-Wah sounds, and looks amazing! I can't believe they'd pack those clay bowls to-go! I guess they want to ensure you get the true experience wherever you eat it :). So glad you enjoyed your time in the city, even if a majority had to be spent "professionally," at least you made some time for friends and fun!

♥ Olive