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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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Food and History in New York City’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, [simpleazon-link asin=”B004SIP7TE” locale=”us”]Gangs Of New York[/simpleazon-link].

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

[simpleazon-link asin=”0738550183″ locale=”us”]New York City’s Chinese Community (Images of America: New York)[/simpleazon-link], Josephine Tsui Yueh Lee

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

How to join the #FoodieTuesday linkup –

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Chinese New Year Parade in New York’s Chinatown

If the temperature here in New York had remained as cold as it was during the week, I would not have gone to the Chinese New Year Parade in Chinatown on Sunday.

As it turned out, it was a welcome 53 degrees around the 1:00 p.m. start time for the parade, and a still balmy 43 degrees – warmer that it was in Denver (21) and Seattle (41) – when Super Bowl 48 kicked off in the evening. (Snow started late Sunday night and continued into Monday and we got snow overnight last night. As one of my friends said, God is a Super Bowl fan! That was her explanation for the wacky weather we’ve had.)

But before I show you those, let’s take a look at some of the ones I took the day before.

We were in Chinatown for a morning food tour  and after the tour, we followed the sounds of firecrackers to a side street off Mott. About a block long, it was so crowded with people that drivers took other streets. At one point, a police car cruised through, the officer using his loudspeaker to tell everyone that the street was not closed. Some minutes later, someone put up yellow tape, effectively creating a pedestrian-only block.

Almost everyone was setting off these long, colorful cardboard tubes that you see. They pop when you twist them and shoot confetti. It looked like too much fun not to get involved. So we bought 4 for $10 and joined in. Soon we had confetti in our hair, on our clothes. I’m still cleaning up bits of it at home.

Chinese New Year Parade Day

I arrived at the intersection of Canal and Mott Street around 11:30 a.m. and was surprised to see this group had already assembled there. My first thought was to watch the Parade from here but eventually it got crowded and the police officers put up barricades. You can’t move once you get behind the barricade, so I continued on Mott and looked for a spot that had fewer people. It was also near to one of the restaurants I wanted to try.

Chinese New Year Parade in New York's Chinatown

Assembling before the Parade

There were still lots of empty places at that end of Mott to watch the Parade after I had lunch. My timing was perfect – the 15th Chinatown New Year Parade started about ten minutes after I found my spot. I took a lot of photos – over 200 – and it was really difficult to decide which ones to use for this post. Hope you like the ones I selected.

Everyone loves a parade…especially politicians.

 

Enter the dragon.

 

 

The Year of the Horse began on January 31 and will end on February 18, 2015. It is thought to bring prosperity and wealth. People who are born in 1906, 1918, 1930, 1942, 1954, 1966, 1978, 1990, 2002 and 2014 are born in the Year of the Horse.

 

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