Chinese Food, Christmas Day, and the Jews: Where Can We Go for Old-School Chinese?

Four years ago Alex Witchel took a stab at explaining the phenomenon of Jews in New York eating Chinese food on Christmas Day.

Somewhere, Christmas will look like this: cheerful children opening presents that don't break by noon; a glazed ham taking pride of place on the heirloom cherrywood sideboard as the heady aroma of gingerbread wafts through the house, which is itself set upon snow-covered hills where the leafy pine boughs are filigreed in ice.

On the Upper West Side of Manhattan, Christmas will look like this: long lines of people scanning the sold-out signs at the Lincoln Square and Lincoln Plaza Cinemas, each person dressed in boots, vest, scarf, hat, earmuffs and overcoat, all of which they will pile on their laps, once seated. There they will stay, buried beneath their haberdashery, for one movie, maybe two, before heading straight for 43 West 65th Street (Shun Lee West--ed.), where they will devour barbecue spare ribs, Peking duck, lobster with black bean sauce, and espresso and tiramis├╣ for dessert (yep, that's right) -- if they don't just order it in.

Welcome to the conundrum that is Christmas New York style: while most restaurants close for the holiday, or in a few cases, stay open and serve a prix fixe meal laden with froufrou, thousands of diners, most of them Jewish, are faced with a dilemma. There's nothing to celebrate at home and no place to eat out, at least if they want a regular dinner.

In her story, Witchel sings the praises of Shun Lee West and Shun Lee Palace, which can both be terrific Chinese restaurants when they are on their game. When they are not, which is fairly often in my experience, they can both put out overpriced, indifferently and sloppily prepared food.

So where can we go for good Cantonese or Chinese-American food today? Sichuan restaurants somehow don't cut it (eating twice-cooked pork on Christmas Day doesn't seem right), so it would seem as if our options are limited. Shanghainese food is terrific, but eating soup dumplings and Lion's Head on December 25 just isn't the same. So what are we left with?

Pig Heaven serves solid Cantonese and Chinese-American on the Upper East Side. The barbecued meats are especially good. 1540 Second Ave. (80th St.) New York, NY 10028 Ph: 212-744-4333

Greater New York Noodletown is a fine choice for wonton soup, barbecued meats, and noodle dishes. Greater NY Noodletown 28 1/2 Bowery (Bayard) New York, NY 10003 Ph: 212-349-0923

If wonton soup is your thing, head to New Chao Chow, where the wonton soup is a lovely golden color and tastes of fresh coriander and scallions. 111 Mott St (bet. Canal and Hester) New York 10013 Ph: 212-226-2590

Chinatown Brasserie has the best dim sum in New York, fine Chinese barbecue, and fresh if unexciting noodle dishes. 380 Lafayette St. (at Great Jones) New York, NY 10013 Ph: 212-533-7000

Upper West Siders who either don't want to spend the money or wait on line at Shun Lee West can have the excellent egg foo young at either La Dinastia (72nd between Columbus and Amsterdam) or La Caridad 78 (Broadway and 78th Street).

I am on my way to my lovely mother-in-law's apartment for lunch. She will be serving ham, corn bread, green beans, and chocolate log today. Next year, I'm hoping to convince her to get her Christmas Day feast delivered by Pig Heaven.

Oh, yes, I have one more question this Christmas Day. Do Jews in other cities eat Chinese food on Christmas Day? I really want to know.