Manhattan's Chinatown is seemingly overwhelming, with a nearly endless number of eateries. Where do you go on an empty stomach? What do you order?
As part of our ongoing exploration of the neighborhood, we're pleased to present a guide to cheap meals in Chinatown. As in our guide to Chinatown bakeries and soup noodles in Chinatown, this post will cover what's available between the Canal Street and Grand Street subway stations.
Recommended Food Carts
When I was walking around Chinatown trying out food carts, it surprised me that there were fewer food carts than I had thought or remembered from when I was younger. Still, there's quite a number of carts scattered around the neighborhood offering a variety of food. There are the breakfast carts on Canal Street near Broadway, fried-food carts, steamed-food carts, Chinese mini-cake carts, and roasted-nut carts. I recommend the fried-food and steamed-food carts. I usually avoid Canal Street near the Broadway area because of the heavy foot traffic, so I don't usually get food from the food carts around there. Street tip: If you want to avoid all the people and the people asking if you want bootleg goods, walk parallel to Canal Street on either Walker Street or Howard Street. As for the mini-cake and roasted-nut carts, I'll cover those in a future post.
Fried Food Cart on Centre Street
Fried Food Cart on Canal Street
If you don't mind braving the crowds, there is another similar cart on Canal Street and Mott, in front of the Chase Bank. The prices are pretty much the same except the chicken wings and spring rolls are 25¢ less. Some days they're there and other days they're not. They only speak Mandarin, but the pointing-to-what-you-want method of ordering should do the trick.
Steamed Food Cart on Grand Street
Most steamed carts offer various churng fun (the rice noodle rolls and crepes seen above), pig skin, fish balls, beef tripe, lo mein, and chow mei fun. Each one of these dishes can be topped with any combination of soy sauce, oyster sauce, peanut sauce, and a spicy sauce. This cart on Grand Street near the corner of Bowery is my favorite. As you can see from the menu, there is a wide range of size options that will determine the price. Usually a small order is enough for one person so for $1.25 to $1.75 you can get the rice rolls with or without fish balls. It's important to note that there are different rice rolls besides the plain ones. Choose between little dried shrimp in them, scallions, or the combo of little dried shrimp and scallions.
So, technically this isn't a food cart—but it used to be. Formerly parked on the corner of Hester Street and Bowery, in front of what used to be Sanky Bakery, this guy always served the best food from a cart. Now that he has a storefront, the lines are out the door with people waiting for his famous $2.25 roast pork over rice. The jerky like texture, all caramelized and fatty is what makes this dish so amazingly good. The guy also packs in the food, so much so that it's on the verge of exploding out of the tin container. I also recommend the churng fun, lo mein, and the fried taro, yams, and tofu. They're only $1.25 each and make up the menu of dishes he was known for when he was a street cart vendor. 79 Chrystie Street, New York NY 10002
Is there a better cheap snack in Chinatown than a plate of dumplings? These are my favorites.
This is one of the few places that still sells 5 dumplings for only a dollar. The dumplings here I've found are a bit smaller but have plentiful juicy innards with a slightly crispy skin. 46 Eldridge Street, New York NY 10002
If Prosperity Dumpling is a bit out of the way for you or if you want other places to compare it to I recommend Dumpling House (4 dumplings for $1), Tasty Dumpling (5 dumplings for $1.25), and Fried Dumpling (5 dumplings for a $1). Those are the other worthwhile dumpling shops to get good dumplings. Also they sell frozen dumplings so you can bring them home and heat them up when you want to eat them! Dumpling House, 118 Eldridge Street, New York NY 10002; Tasty Dumpling, 54 Mulberry Street, New York NY 10013; Fried Dumpling, 106 Mosco Street, New York NY 10013
Here are a few more cheap snacks, that don't fit into the categories above.
$1 Hot Dogs
Conveniently located at the boarding area for the Fung Wah bus, this is the place where you can get a huge hot dog for only a dollar. That's pretty much it, a huge hot dog that tastes good for a dollar. If you want onions, sauerkraut, or relish, it's an additional 25¢ each. And if you want it in a styrofoam container, that's another 25¢. Only in Chinatown! 149 Canal Street, New York NY 10002.
Rice Dishes from Bakeries
As mentioned in the Guide to Chinatown Bakeries, there are cheap rice dishes available at many of the bakeries in Chinatown. Century Cafe is my favorite for salted fish with meat on rice ($2.95). It's not for everyone, and there are bones in the salted fish (they're edible). If you're not into it, go with the mushroom and chicken on rice. After you order, they add a lot of vegetables and an egg. You can also get a jun gee gai or joong (or zhongzi). Both are lotus-wrapped sticky rice with salty meat or chicken bits but are made differently. You'll probably recognize the jun gee gai from dim sum places. The sticky rice is cooked first then wrapped up while the for joong, raw rice is wrapped up and cooked. They're also sweet joong and salty joong, and the salty ones will often come topped with peanuts or green beans. In addition to being sold in bakeries, you will also see them sold from a few of the steamed-food carts and from random vendors, like the old lady on Grand and Chrystie near the subway station. 123 Bowery, New York NY 10002
Lunch Box Buffet
And for the person who can't choose just one snack, there is the Lunch Box Buffet. There you can choose five different items from a gigantic steam table for $4.50 ($4 if you take it to go). I suggest getting the different tofu options, the meatballs, and vegetables, and generally try to avoid anything that is too fried or covered in too much gravy. Sure, it's more of a meal than a snack, but we had to include it. Conveniently located near the Canal Street subway station. 195 Centre Street, New York NY 10013