If you walk down Elizabeth Street towards Hester Street in Chinatown (map), you could think, just for a minute, that you're seeing double. Or maybe there's a crack in the wall between parallel universes and you're getting a glimpse of the other side.* But yes, you are seeing straight. There's a rice roll cart (a lot like this) on the Northwest corner of the intersection—and a seemingly identical cart (down to the boxes and tarp that hold it together) on the Northeast corner.
* Okay, so I may have a teensy-weensy Fringe problem.
This is, in a way, the Chinese street food version of the famed Starbucks across the street from another Starbucks. Except the disputed ground is a crazy delicious, insanely cheap snack that I just can't stop eating: a rice flour batter that's steamed into a thin, delicate sheet, then scraped into a cup and topped with ground pork, scallions, and some sauce. These little numbers will run you about $1.25 in the city, and are basically the perfect snack: delicate but full of flavor, a little spicy, and just filling enough to knock hunger back a few hours. Last week, Robyn and I set out to see which cart should be crowned as the top rice roll on Elizabeth and Hester.
The Ground Rules
What makes a great rice roll? It's a simple snack, but a lot of care and technique should go into making it right. Here are the criteria we used:
- The rice noodle should be tender, very thin, and delicate, not heavy and starchy (think about the difference between good and bad risotto).
- The noodle should have a mild sweetness like freshly steamed rice (i.e., not bland).
- The toppings (be they meat, seafood, egg, or herbs) should be sparsely applied nuggets of flavor.
- The sauces should complement, not overwhelm the flavor the rice noodle.
Basically, this is pasta (not unlike fazzoletti). It should be all about the fresh noodle, with the sauce and toppings as condiments to punch things up.
With this in mind, we set to tasting. Rice rolls don't last at their peak for very long, so our samples were ordered and tasted within three minutes of each other. The only toppings we requested were ground pork, scallions, and a blanket "yes" to whatever sauces were offered. Do note, though, that everything from mushrooms to shrimp to fish balls are available, should you want them.
It's also worth knowing that both of these carts, which look alike in every way, also speak the same amount of English—basically none. But if you ask for a rice roll while pointing towards the steamer next to the vendor (right hand side for the West side cart; left hand side for the East side cart), and feel okay winging it the rest of the way (announce your desired number of rolls and say yes to everything else), you'll be fine. The vendors are plenty nice and will help you figure things out. Just make sure they don't give you those smaller rolled noodles in the warming tray. They're not the same dish at all, and they're nowhere near as good.
The West Side Cart
The cart on the West side of Elizabeth didn't make our roll to order; they have a few sitting in styrofoam ready to go. But it's warm (not re-warmed), fresh, and a solid rice roll, though the noodle is thicker and sturdier than most I've encountered. The folds it develops from sitting in the small styrofoam dish become ridges to carve at with a fork. But it does taste genuinely of freshly steamed rice.
The ground pork topping is soft, very tender, and pretty demure. I'd say it adds texture more than flavor—not a bad thing, but not too noticeable either. Saying "yes" to all the sauces will get you soy sauce, chili paste, and a thin sesame-based sauce. They're applied in good proportion to the noodle and are all pretty well balanced. The sesame sauce is a nice touch; it brings out the sweetness and creaminess of the rice noodle.
This cart also wins bonus points for the adorable elderly lady/possible relative of the vendors slurping her rice roll under the tarp that blankets the back of the cart.
The East Side Cart
This cart primarily serves a breakfast crowd, so it tends to close up shop by noon. And yes, rice rolls make a killer breakfast. It also makes all its rice rolls fresh to order. We immediately noticed that this version looked more delicate; the folds are finer and the noodle feels more supple to the fork. Tasting confirmed it: this is definitely a more tender, almost creamy noodle, and it tastes a hair more like a bowl of fresh rice. It's hard to get this ethereal texture, but this cart nailed it.
The toppings are also a lot more flavorful: the firmer nuggets of pork actually taste porky, and the chili paste is especially bright and fresh. There's no sesame sauce here, only soy and chili, but the sweeter, more delicate rice noodle doesn't need any help.
These are both good rice noodles, and they're amazing for the price ($1.25!). But if we had to pick a winner, it's a clear choice: the East side cart nails it.
The Plot (and Noodle) Thickens
Confident in our verdict, we brought the leftover rolls back to SE HQ, all of a five minute walk away. Ready to present our champion to the rest of the crew, I took another bite of the winning rice roll.
Something was wrong. What was a wobbly, ethereal noodle had hardened into an immovable starchy gel. You couldn't cut it with a fork. You couldn't lift up a fold without taking the rest of the roll with it. It crossed the texture Rubicon from perfect to overcooked, and was, in effect, dead on arrival.
On the other hand, the West side rice roll was pretty alright. It firmed up a bit, but since it was firmer already, it didn't become a starchy mess, and the deeper ridges made cutting the noodle into discrete sections easy. Was it as good as the fresh bite we had ten minutes earlier? No, but it wasn't much worse.
So there you have it: in the war between the rice rolls, we have what amounts to a tie. If you can visit before noon and plan to eat your snack right away, go for the East side cart. But if you need your rice roll to travel any significant distance before you chow down, the West side cart is your best bet.
Where Do You Rice Roll?
This is just the beginning in a series of investigative reports on the Chinatown rice roll. Do you have a favorite spot? If so, share it in the comments—we're looking for more!