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Eating Chinatown NYC’s Cellar Restaurants

Eating Chinatown NYC's Cellar Restaurants

I had never heard the term cellar restaurant until Liz of Ahoy New York mentioned it during our walking tour of Little Italy and Chinatown a few weekends ago.

Cellar restaurants are located in the basement of a building. There are two in Manhattan’s Chinatown – Hop Kee at 21 Mott Street and Wo Hop at 17 Mott Street.

Neither was a stop on our tour but I was curious to find out whether there was more to them than their location. After the tour, my friend Joan and I returned to Chinatown. Walking from Canal Street, we arrived first at Hop Kee and decided to try it.

As we descended the steps and entered the restaurant, my eyes landed on a photo of chef and television personality, Anthony Bourdain. Good enough for Bourdain, good enough for me, I thought. My eyes barely scanned the other celebrity photos.

Eating Chinatown NYC's Cellar Restaurants

Entrance to Hop Kee

A handful of people occupied a few of the twenty or so tables and the waiter pointed us in the direction of several empty ones. Vinyl covered chairs matched honey-colored laminate wall panels that likely have been there since the restaurant opened in 1962.

I selected a beef with noodle dish. Joan wasn’t very hungry so she ordered a bowl of soup. That’s when our waiter pointed out the required $8 minimum order per diner and we realized we had overlooked the note on the menu.

It wouldn’t have been a problem but like a lot of restaurants in Chinatown, Hop Kee is a cash-only operation and the closest ATM was at least a ten-minute walk away.

Our waiter didn’t look too happy when we decided on one entree but we couldn’t be sure as he wore the same pained expression the entire time he served us. An older guy, he looked as if he’s been working at the restaurant since it opened.

Even with the minimum, when the entrée was ready, he brought two plates. I wasn’t very impressed with the noodles but the portion was so generous, I took most of it home.

As we left Hop Kee, we noticed a line of people leading from street level down to the entrance to Wo Hop, the other cellar restaurant. One couple we talked with said of the two restaurants, the food at Wo Hop was better.

Wo Hop actually has two restaurants on Mott Street, the cellar restaurant and another one at street level. The female of the couple stressed that the upstairs restaurant was for visitors, the downstairs for those in the know.

After our experience at Hop Kee and the couple’s glowing review of Wo Hop, I jumped at the chance to try Wo Hop the following day when I returned for the Lunar Parade.

There were more wait staff than diners in the restaurant when I arrived. One diner, a female NYC police officer, looked like a regular. She sat in a corner with a good view of the door as well as the other diners, which included a party of six who was carrying on a lively discussion at two tables in the back.

The waiter showed me to a table and quickly brought me a menu. I ordered a small hot and sour soup and beef and broccoli entrée.

Wo Hop has been around for 74 years. A small restaurant, it holds about ten tables. The ceiling is low and most of the walls are covered in photos. Like Hop Kee, you wouldn’t find it on the cover of a restaurant décor magazine. But therein lies their charm.

It certainly wasn’t the food although it could have been my selection so I’m willing to give both another try. Wo Hop did not have a posted per diner minimum and they had an ATM machine.

Both Hop Kee and Wo Hop open late on the weekends and, as Liz mentioned, are favorites of college students and late night crowds. It isn’t difficult to see why with such healthy portions and attractive prices.

Wo Hop, at 17 Mott Street is open weekdays from 10:00 a.m. to 1:00 a.m., and to 7 a.m. on weekends. Hop Kee is open till 1:00 a.m. during the week, to 4:00 a.m. Friday and Saturday.

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Valentine’s Day Stories About How They Met

Valentine's Day

A few days ago, my best friend mentioned that her parents met on a blind date on Valentine’s Day. There were married for forty years until death separated them.

I remember thinking what a sweet love story then immediately it occurred to me how easily we forget that our parents were once young.

I thought I had filed the story away. But as I started outlining the post I originally wanted to write, a new idea popped into my head. Why not interview my friends and relatives about how they met?

I made a list of eight couples and texted each to get their stories. Four of them agreed.

I asked each how they met, how long they’ve been together, how they knew they had found the one, their secret to keeping their love going and how they planned to spend Valentine’s Day. Here are their stories:

When Anna Met Errol

Anna and Errol met in school. Her best friend took classes with Errol and asked him to introduce her to his friend. Errol told her that he wanted to meet her friend.

Anna and Errol started dating casually, sometimes they’d double date with her friend and his. When another of Errol’s friends told him he wanted to date Anna, Errol called Anna right away and they became exclusive.

The two couples married within a week of each other. Almost forty years and two children later, Anna and Errol still hold hands together.

Asked how they plan to spend Valentine’s Day, Anna said they didn’t need a special day to remind them of their love.

A Rasta Luv

Jenniffer: I was twenty-two when Lexie and I met. I was living in the same apartment complex as a friend of his and he

Valentine's Day

Jenniffer & Lexie

would say hello whenever we saw each other.

We were finally introduced at a neighbor’s birthday party and shared a dance. Later, my neighbor invited me to attend a concert with him and his girlfriend. I told him the only way I’d go is if he found me a date, a cute guy, not one of his ugly friends.

Lexie was the date my neighbor found. He was the youngest of his friends, and he looked young even though we are only two years apart.

We didn’t date, really, as I got pregnant shortly after. Lexie is the most attentive man I’ve met. I guess that’s when I really fell in love with him. We were both working low-paying jobs, plus he was going to school but he’d give me all his money so I could take a taxi to work.

And if I took the bus to work, he’d accompany me and make sure I got there okay. He took over the cooking, he even cleaned my shoes in the mornings. He made sure I was taken care of. The boy I met thirty-three years ago turned out to be more of a man than I expected and he still makes me feel like his queen.

How do we keep our love going? Lexie, you should answer this one.

Lexie: You’ve got to love the one you’re with.

Jenniffer: And being honest with each other. I always tell him when he does something I don’t like. I’ve never tried to change him and he’s never tried to change me.

Lexie: Openness and honesty about our feelings. Valentine’s Day? We don’t set aside a day to show each other how we feel.

Jenniffer: Lexie gets up at 5:00am everyday, makes my coffee and puts it on my bedside table. Then he kisses me goodbye and leaves for work. On weekends, if I’m tired he makes our coffee which we have in bed, sometimes makes me breakfast too as after 31 years, I no longer make weekend breakfast.

Lexie: We’re each others’ Valentines.

A Facebook Match Made in Heaven

Valentine's Day

Judith and Winston

On September 24, 2010, I received a friend request from a guy on Facebook. He had the same family name as mine – I thought he might have been a relative so I checked. He wasn’t and I accepted his request.

We had a very good conversation online but I was a bit nervous that this wouldn’t be the case when we would actually meet in person.

It was absolutely extraordinary that our conversation continued seamlessly when we met for dinner a week later. Coincidentally, as well as having the same last name, his previous wife and I share the same first name. His sister and my sister share the same name as well.

We met around 7 pm and didn’t leave the restaurant until 11:30 pm. It was easy just being ourselves. We both have a strong love for reggae music and he wanted to hear the music on my iPod. This started a music sound clash with our iPods.. he would play a song and I would say I can do better than that. We went back and forth until I won. It was a blast!

I drove to work that day and turns out he was also heading back to Brooklyn to see his uncle. I offered to drop him off all the while thinking I must be insane driving this man in my car. When we got to his uncle’s house, we stayed in my car just talking and continued playing music.

I thought to myself, and he did as well, that this must be fate. Gosh, I looked at my watch and realized it was 3:30 a.m. Yes, 3:30 a.m. Work the next morning. Remember those days?

Four years later, we still remember that sound clash and still clash over music. And he’s always making me laugh. I think I fell in love with him when I saw the care he showed his uncle, who’s like a father to him, and the warmth of their relationship.

How do we keep the sparks alive? (Laughs) We argue! No, we don’t need Valentine’s Day to appreciate each other.

A Wrong Number Leads to Love

Bev: I dialed my uncle’s number and a voice I didn’t recognize answered the phone. Excuse me, I said, I think I have the wrong number.

Delroy: And I said, well you called so you can’t hang up now, you have to talk to me.

Bev: We talked for over an hour. And he started calling.

Delroy: I knew from her voice on that first call that she was the one. But two hours drive separated us so I decided to pay her a visit. I would have recognized her in a crowd.

Bev: He asked me to marry him soon after we met. I said no.

Delroy: And I kept asking.

Bev: When he asked for the millionth time on Valentine’s Day, I threw out the first date that came to mind (10/10/10). He smiled from ear to ear and kept smiling like a Cheshire cat.

Delroy (laughing): She didn’t know that the date she said was actually my birthday.

Bev: We couldn’t get that date but we were married a few days later. We’ll be together four years this year.

Delroy: And no, we don’t need a day to recognize how lucky we are to have found each other.

How did you meet your Valentine?

The Italian American Museum in Manhattan’s Little Italy

The Italian American Museum in Manhattan's Little Italy

Anchoring the corner of Mulberry and Grand Streets in New York City’s Little Italy is an attractive 19-century brick building that is the home of the Italian American Museum.

The Italian American Museum in Manhattan's Little Italy

Exterior of the museum

The idea for a museum to document the history of the Italian community in New York came about after the highly acclaimed exhibition, The Italians of New York: Five Centuries of Struggle and Achievement, which opened at the New York Historical Society in October 1999.

The museum founder, Dr. Joseph Scelsa received its charter in 2001. It operated initially on W44 Street before moving in 2008 to its permanent home, 155 Mulberry Street, after museum officials bought the Banca Stabile building from Dr. Jerome Stabile III. Dr. Stabile’s family started the bank in 1882.

Banca Stabile, which was founded by Francesco Rosario Stabile, was a fixture in Little Italy at a time when Mulberry Street was described as the Italian Wall Street, for the number of banks that were there.

The bank became a one-stop community center, providing financial, translation, insurance, travel and money transfer services. It was a link between the immigrants in New York and their relatives and friends back home.

When Banca Stabile closed in 1932, the family kept the building, including its vault, tin ceiling, marble floor and counters, bronze grilles, and teller cages intact. They also retained items such as steam ship tickets, safe deposit boxes, bank books, passports, and deeds.

The 1,000 square foot museum is bursting at the seams with memorabilia from the bank and those that families have donated. Among the items on exhibit is the gun that retired NYPD police officer, Francesco “Frank” Serpico owned. Serpico was the cop who blew the whistle on police corruption in the 1960s and 70s.

There are also several marionettes from Miguel “Papa” Manteo, photos and other information about Luigi del Bianco, chief carver at Mount Rushmore, and assorted other items that illustrate the history of Italians in New York.

The Italian American Museum, at 155 Mulberry Street, is opened on Saturdays 11:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m., on Sundays from noon to 6:00 p.m., and by appointment during the week. For a $5.00 suggested donation, visitors to the small storefront museum are shown a short film and are able to see these memorabilia up close.

 

Linking to Travel Photo Thursday, which Nancie at Budget Travelers Sandbox organizes. Be sure to head over and check out more photos from locations around the world.

Food and History in New York City’s Chinatown

Food and History in NYC's Chinatown

One of the perks of living in a city the size of New York is the diversity it offers, not only in things to do but also in culinary offerings. Food from almost every nation is represented here.

Last weekend, my friend Joan and I joined Ahoy New York for their Food Tasting and Cultural Walking Tour of Chinatown and Little Italy. We started in Little Italy and ended the tour in Chinatown. 

New York City’s Chinatown is a bustling neighborhood that is home to the largest population of Chinese outside of China – approximately 100,000. The neighborhood now occupies an area of about 2 miles stretching south roughly to Chambers Street, east to the Lower East Side, north to Little Italy and west to Broadway/Tribeca.

A Short History of Chinatown

In the mid-1800s, Chinese immigrants, men mostly, headed west to California, Gold Mountain as they called it, lured by dreams of striking it rich. Instead of gold, they found limited opportunities for work. Their dreams evaporated and with no money to return home or to send for their families their dreams they moved east.

Arriving in New York City, these former residents of Canton, settled in the area around Mott, Pell and Doyers Streets and worked as cooks and launderers, jobs usually done by women. They brought their language, culture and culinary traditions like dim sum, bite-sized foods served steamed or fried. Dim Sum has its origins in the famous Silk Road when tea houses opened to accommodate weary travelers.

Food and History in NYC's Chinatown

Liz pointing out pastries in a store on Mott Street

Our first stop was Pongrsi Thai Restaurant on Bayard Street, the oldest family-run and operated Thai restaurant in New York City. Started by Khun Pongrsi and her husband Khun Prasit Tangchakkrachai, Pongrsi has been serving authentic Thai food in the same place since 1972. It is credited with popularizing Thai food in the city.

After walking around for the better part of the morning, the chance to sit and enjoy the meal was quite welcome. We sampled Orange Chicken, Chicken Pra Ramm (peanut sauce/curry dish) and a Pad See Ew.

My favorite, the Orange Chicken, was unlike any I’ve had. The orange was subtle enough to provide a delicious balance to the chicken. By the time the plate got to me, though, only a few pieces were left – it was that good. I really love Thai food so you can bet I’ll be back to Pongsri very soon.

Leaving Pongsri, we walked through Columbus Park, and made a brief stop on Mulberry in the Five Points section of Lower Manhattan. You might remember Five Points, that notorious section of the city that was the setting for the movie, Gangs Of New York.

Five Points got its name from the five-pointed intersection created by Orange now Baxter Street, Cross now Mosco Street, Anthony now Worth Street and Little Water Street, which or no longer exists. Today, that part of Mulberry Street is lined with funeral homes that serve the community.

Soon we arrive at Tasty Dumpling, 54 Mulberry, for our first Chinese tasting. Can you guess what we sampled at Tasty Dumpling? Why, dumplings, of course!

Tasty Dumpling’s dumplings get rated consistently as the best dumplings in Chinatown – and at 5 for $1.25, are a tasty bargain. That probably explains why nearly all the tables in this small eatery were occupied when we arrived so we crowded into the only free space – at the left of the counter.

A woman was at the stove loading freshly made dumplings into a huge steamer while in the back two others were adding the filling to the dough.

Our dumplings were still warm when they arrived. Liz added a soy-white vinegar sauce and passed them around. The wrapper was nice and firm and so translucent I could see the filling, and when I took a bite, it was moist and tasty, the dipping sauce adding a nice kick.

Leaving Tasty Dumpling, we crossed over to Mott Street then to Doyers to Nom Wah Tea Parlor, our last stop on the tour. Nom Wah, the oldest dim sum restaurant in Chinatown has been around and on the same block of Doyers Street since the 1920s.

The Choy family owned the restaurant until they sold it in 1974 to Wally Tang, a longtime employee. Mr. Tang started working at Nom Wah in the 1950s when he was 16 and began managing it when he was 20.

Little has changed to the exterior of Nom Wah but Wilson Tang, the new manager and the next generation of Tangs, has upgraded the interior. Wally and his team of dim sum experts still keep an eye on things though.

It was about 1:00 pm when we arrived and diners were clustered outside in groups of twos and threes waiting for tables. Someone from the restaurant would come to the door and call the next name on the list as tables became free. Good thing Liz had placed our order ahead of time so we didn’t have to wait.

Nom Wah’s original egg rolls are round and fat. Stuffed with chicken and vegetables, they are rolled in egg crêpe then fried in homemade batter which makes them crisp and flaky. Despite being fried, they aren’t greasy. Each egg roll was cut in two and each of us got half but after all the food we’d sampled, one piece of this delicious treat was enough.

We had come to the end of our three hour tour and it was time to say goodbye to Liz, our very enthusiastic tour guide. I’m sure all of Ahoy New York’s tour guides are knowledgeable, warm and sociable but Liz makes you feel like she’s giving a tour with long time friends.

To recap, we visited Alleva Diary, DiPalo’s Fine Foods, Grand Appetito and Ferrara Bakery & Cafe in Little Italy, and Pongsri Thai Restaurant, Tasty Dumpling and Nom Wah Tea Parlor in Chinatown. We did a quick stop at the Italian American Museum, which I’ll cover in another post.

Joan and I spent the rest of the afternoon and evening in Chinatown. We had dinner at one of the cellar restaurants on Mott Street that Liz had pointed out then ended up at a wine tasting at Enoteca DiPalo’s. (More about these later.)

One thing I forgot to mention: my friend Joan has severe allergies to shellfish and Ahoy was able to arrange other dishes for her to sample on the Chinatown part of the tour.

Please note: I found this recipe for Thai Orange Chicken at Allrecipes.com.

Thai Orange Chicken
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Prep Time
15 min
Cook Time
25 min
Total Time
40 min
Prep Time
15 min
Cook Time
25 min
Total Time
40 min
Ingredients
  1. 2 tablespoons olive oil
  2. 3 carrots, cut into matchsticks
  3. 1/2 teaspoon minced fresh ginger root
  4. 1 clove garlic, minced
  5. 2 tablespoons olive oil
  6. 2 skinless, boneless chicken breast halves, cut into small pieces
  7. 1/2 cup water
  8. 1/2 cup peanuts
  9. 1/3 cup orange juice
  10. 1/3 cup soy sauce
  11. 1/3 cup brown sugar
  12. 2 tablespoons ketchup
  13. 1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
  14. 2 tablespoons cornstarch
Instructions
  1. Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat; cook and stir carrots, ginger, and garlic until carrots are slightly softened, about 5 minutes. Transfer carrot mixture to a bowl. Add remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil to the same skillet.
  2. Cook and stir chicken in the hot olive oil until no longer pink in the center, about 10 minutes. Add carrot mixture, water, peanuts, orange juice, soy sauce, brown sugar, ketchup, and red pepper flakes to chicken; stir to combine. Cover and simmer until sugar has dissolved, about 5 minutes.
  3. Remove about 1/4 cup sauce from the skillet; whisk in cornstarch until dissolved and sauce is smooth. Pour cornstarch mixture back into chicken and sauce; cook until sauce is slightly thickened, about 5 more minutes.
InsideJourneys http://insidejourneys.com/
Disclosure: We were guests of Ahoy New York on this Chinatown and Little Italy Food Tasting and Cultural Walking Tour, but as usual, the opinions expressed here are our own. Thanks to Ray and Alana, and Liz, our very knowledgeable, very entertaining and very enthusiastic tour guide. 

Recommended Reading

New York City’s Chinese Community (Images of America: New York), Josephine Tsui Yueh Lee

Can you name one popular Chinese dish that you won’t find in China?

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