The magic slip with the red bar code came via mail two weeks ago, and that can mean only thing: jury duty. The mere words strike anxiety and panic into the busiest metropolitans, and excuses are prepared in advance as if lining up for a confession.
Crisis in Chinese also means opportunity, the chance to seize the day or go down with the ship. For me, it means several well-timed meals in Chinatown, a foodie neighborhood I have been researching for years. Over a two day stint, that means four breakfast spots, four lunches and a couple of early dinners.
In the mornings I headed to Mei Lai Wah, that bastion of a coffee shop known for their pork buns. They come baked or steamed and are exquisite, fluffy, a bit sweet and savory. Only great discipline can prevent you from ordering more. Several other bakeries provide arrays of eggs with croissants, pork bun variations, coconut pastries and shumai. The quality is fairly even, so form your own alliances according to service. The excellent dumpling house is a sure-fire way to unload your Washingtons, testing economic theory that there is no more bang for your buck. One dollar yields five pan fried dumplings or four juicy buns. What a bargain! There’s no time for dim sum, otherwise I would be firmly planted at Tai Hong Lau (70 Mott St.).
For lunch, the sky is the limit. Though Chinatown holds its perils, and the wrong turn can yield an unforgettably bad meal. Understand also that chefs come and go as quickly as the moon tides. Some family run businesses will actually close if they can’t keep a chef from within the family.
I headed over to Big Wong on Mott street for a roast meat sampler. Roast duck, roast pork, and chicken with ginger usually does the trick. I follow this up with fresh shrimp crepes and barbecued spare ribs. Big Wong stands for the tremendously phallic donuts they serve which are more novelty than nutrition.
I love to top off lunch with a bowl of soup, not the run of the mill wonton, egg drop, or sweet and sour kind either. Several shops are dedicated to soups with choice of noodle, dumpling, won ton, and roast meat which can adorn a healthy bowl of Chinese goodness. Judge a soup by its broth first. It should be translucent like a consommé, full of chicken stock flavor ready to be slurped from the bowl. The rest of the ingredients are up to you, as I have rarely not enjoyed the dumplings, or the noodles, or the roast meats.
Later that day I was released early. Before my next appointment, I headed over to Grand Sichuan for a spicy double pork lunch special, sliced, tender pork and scallions heaped on top of fiery Szechuan peppercorns, easily one of my favorite dishes in all of Chinatown. I whet my appetite with the won tons in hot oil in preparation for a meal of true grit and ecstasy.
The next day I replicated my breakfast routine, except that I supplemented my regimen with a coconut banana chocolate croissant from nearby Bouley Bakery, just for stark contrast. At lunch I dined at Chan Noodle, and excellent soup shop on Mulberry known for the fried rice. The fried rice with two sausages is the real deal, and because they’re in season, the soft shell crab was light, crispy, and ethereal. I ordered some soup dumplings at Joe’s Shanghai just because, and of course had an encore of the baked pork bun at Mei Lai Wah.
When I was ultimately released from service and handed a letter for proof like some sort of empty diploma, I contemplated the Peking Duck House for some great duck-filled tortillas, but was running late and had to forgo one last Chinatown sup.
Between siestas for those two marvelous days, visions of dumplings pranced in my head, and a note of sadness came over me as I left 111 Centre Street. It will be another six years before I perform my civic duty again, the crisis with the great foodie perks.