“We really shouldn’t have left Manhattan,” says my editor. We are standing by the curb watching the frenzied traffic under the Brooklyn Queens Expressway. It’s just after 10am on a Saturday morning, we are lost and we are on the verge of caving in before the adventure has even begun. We have been trying to make our way to Flushing’s New World Mall, which is not the conspiracy theory it sounds like but a shopping centre in New York’s other Chinatown. The New World Mall also houses the Grand restaurant where we are about to embark on what rather grandiosely has been dubbed the 12-hour New York dim sum challenge; a gluttonous marathon where we explore the city’s dim sum scene while testing the capacity of our mid-30s gourmand bellies.
Why, you ask? Because dim sum is one of life’s greatest joy and a fantastically intricate culinary craft (plus doing a 12-hour pizza or burger marathon would have been suicidal at best and apocalyptic at worst.) The rules are simple. Start in Queens and finish in downtown Manhattan 12 hours later with as many pit stops along the way as possible. The good people of San Francisco or Toronto may claim there is better dim sum to be had in North America, but the selection in New York is impressive and diverse. And, as we are about to find out, it ranges from the sublime to the slimey; from brilliance to bonkers.
Back at the Brooklyn Queens Expressway a yellow cab comes to our rescue and whisks us off to the mall. It opened last May and claims to be New York’s largest indoor Asian shopping centre. There is a karaoke bar, more than 100 shops and a well-stocked supermarket which stretches over two floors and promises to cater for both Chinese, Korean and Filipino taste buds. Especially its fishmonger is a sight to behold with crates of turtles, jellyfish (separated into heads, skins and sides although it’s hard to tell the difference), and geoduck clams. The latter is quite simply the ugliest animal on the planet, looking like a hairy boned-out old pig’s trotter conjured up in a gen-modification clinic. Apparently it’s delicious when served as sashimi, says our photographer Eric, who proves to be a man of such impeccable taste and knowledge that I don’t doubt him for a second.
The escalator to the third floor takes you straight into the Grand restaurant. The name is an understatement when describing the interior. Try ‘Liberace goes to China’. There are shiny purple pillars, a grand piano, palm trees, a wine display the size of a billboard and an impressive square chandelier constructions that looks like it belongs in a P. Diddy video. At the back of the restaurant there is a series of fish tanks, which are individually adjusted for temperature and salt levels, and contain live fish, lobsters and king crabs. One of the tanks carries a warning sign: “Frorida (sic) turtle – danger, please keep away from it.” Rather disappointingly (and perhaps alarmingly) the tank is empty.
“Thirteen hundred!” says our waiter captain firmly when we ask him about the capacity in the huge dining room. We are not anywhere that number this morning but there is a buzz about the place as the dim sum carts zip in between the round tables draped with salmon-coloured tablecloths. One of the great debates among dim sum aficionados is cart service versus food made to order. As long as the cart service comes as piping hot and fresh as it does at the Grand then I quite like the spectacle, but the dishes here don’t come with much explanation in English so you have to stay alert and not be afraid to politely decline when the women ferrying the trolleys come around. We start out the only way one should tackle a full day of dim sum: unctuous, blubbery tripe with chilies. It steadies the system before we sample the shu mai made with pork, chopped shrimp and a pinch of black fish roe on top. Steamed rice wrapped in lotus leaf with chicken and Chinese sausage (lo mai gai) is another dim sum classic, but it can sometimes be as claggy as glue when the rice has been overcooked and too densely packed. This, however, is flavoursome, delicate and almost light in its texture. We finish off with braised pork in a crispy puff-pastry roll and stick to tea drinking as the restaurant doesn’t have a liquor licence (and, Christ, it’s not even noon yet.)
One down, way too many to go. Next on deck is Jade restaurant, which is only a few blocks away from the New World mall. Jade doesn’t have the kitsch or glitz of the Grand, but as soon as you enter the lobby you sense that the maitre’d is running a tight ship, constantly dispatching diners and staff with the precision of an air traffic controller. We sit down to share a large round table with a young couple; he is from New Jersey, she is from Queens. They go out for dim sum once a month and today they are having jellyfish.
The cart service at Jade is perhaps even more disorientating than at Grand with the eager stewards shouting over each other like desperate stock traders. As soon as you agree on a plate the waiters grab their stamp (each with their own design) hanging from the apron and mark the card. The shellfish looks intriguing so we go for both mussels and scallops served in their shell with a grilled cheese topping. Although the chopped scallop underneath has a nice texture and chives add freshness, the custard-like blanket on top is too sickly sweet and overpowering. Much more successful is a pot of stir-fried clams drenched in a rich, sticky black bean sauce. Well, we presume it is black bean sauce, because all the waiter is prepared to reveal is that this is ‘sauce’. After such morsels of joy it is tempting to have another bite at the cherry (the crispy octopus is waving its seducing tentacles at us from a nearby trolley) but restraint and discipline are of the essence.
We leave Flushing and make our next stop in Midtown where we have been tipped off about a restaurant that serves foie gras dim sum. It seems an esoteric deviance from the age-old Cantonese dining tradition but also a culture clash not to be missed. And at Lychee House they are not afraid to mix things up with a menu that straddles both Malaysian, Shanghai and Hong Kong cuisine. The restaurant interior is smart and simple with bright orange walls. When we order a bottle of pinot grigio, the waiter cools the bottle in a floor stand and serves the wine in chilled glasses as if it was Bud Light in a sports bar. Pure brilliance. On the wall next to the entrance is a picture of Hillary Clinton flanked by two men. “Was she eating at the restaurant,” I ask the maitre d’ slumped behind reception. “No, it was another restaurant.”
Foreign secretary or not, the pinot grigio is flowing and the excellent soup dumplings arrive steaming hot in a rich porky broth. And then to the foie gras. It’s not great, it’s not disgusting, it’s not exciting. It’s just a big sorry Larry David-esque ‘meh’ shrug of a dish. Despite the wrapper being thin and essentially unobtrusive, there is nothing that warrants abducting the fatty goose liver from its natural surroundings. It just seems confused in this fusion disguise.
We finish up the grigio and conjure up a plan for the next move. Our waiter, Steve Lee, who has worked here since the restaurant was known as the Shanghai Tea House, brings us a basket of fortune cookies. I normally don’t bother with this kind of pastry philosophy but for once the prophecy is arresting and apt: “Our duty, as men and women, is to proceed as if limits to our ability did not exist.”
But even if we think we are men of true grit and determination limits do exist, and the first bout of fatigue starts to kick in when we reach Congee Village on Bowery in the Lower East Side. It’s 3:34pm and we are only halfway. Our ordering is getting confused and haphazard. We end up with a bottle of geography-defying California Champagne and a plate of fried bread with a sticky white sauce. It reminds me of glazed doughnuts, but to be fair to Congee the dim sum is also a mere afterthought on a menu where the rice porridge is the star.
As we reach Chinatown, things take a turn for the worse. We try to find the entrance to the much lauded Jing Fong restaurant and end up in a stairway with a sleeping bum. When we eventually reach the front door we are told there is no more dim sum. We ask if it’s ok to have a look anyway, but we are refused entry with a stern ‘no’. Around the corner at Ping’s on Mott St we try their steamed crab dumpling, which is pretty as a picture and full of gorgeous white meat, but we are starting to lose focus. We are past dim sum hour for most of these restaurants and our conversation slowly veers towards nonsensical stuff like the golden age of hip hop (was Flavour Flav integral to the success of Public Enemy?). We are starting to buckle and we need a livener; an epiphany to kick the mission back into gear.
Our saving grace is Nom Wah tea parlour in Doyers Street, right by the ‘bloody angle’ bend where Chinatown’s gangs used to slug it out. It’s New York’s oldest dim sum restaurant and has been in business since 1920. And age has been kind to Nom Wah. The interior, the red vinyl booths, the formica chairs, the tin tea canisters and the red shopfront sign have all been kept intact. Yet Nom Wah is probably the one place in Chinatown which has managed to move with the times and is now trying to adapt dim sum for a wider audience and introduce it as a dinner option. A lot of this can be credited to its current owner, 33-year-old Wilson Tang, who really shouldn’t be doing this. Like so many other second-generation Chinese children his parents had him destined for a career in business. Wilson duly obliged when he took up a job with Morgan Stanley after college, and despite a spell setting up a bakery he returned to the corporate world. That was until he found his ‘calling’ at Nom Wah two years ago when his uncle Wally decided to retire. “My parents hated me for a long time,” says Wilson. “‘What are you doing? You should be wearing a suit to work.’”
Despite changing the service from carts to menus, and placing chequered tablecloths on the old art deco tables, Wilson’s main idea was to leave things as they were and rely on the quality of its dim sum. “I can honestly tell you that there is nothing innovative in what we do. What I have in my kitchen is a chef who is been with my family for as long as I have been alive. I think the element Fresh made on demand that’s really the selling point that I try to put out there.”
Among the chef’s recipes is Nom Wah’s original egg roll, which, unlike many modern interpretations made with flour-base wrappers, has actual egg in it. It’s a dish that Wilson’s uncle introduced back in the 50s. Every morning they make the crepes for the roll by ladling a spoonful of egg mixture on a skillet. When cool, the crepes are rolled with a filling of vegetables and chicken and then battered and fried. The result is a crispy golden roll that’s surprisingly light and without the oily aftertaste that can mar fried dim sum. Same goes for the fried crab claw that protrudes from a pillow of minced shrimp meat like a bird’s beak. The food is delicious and I love the dining room with all its history and strange touches of US diner (there is something as un-Cantonese as mustard on the tables) and French brasserie. And you can eat dim sum at 5pm on a Saturday!
“I was really pushing hard for this Dim Sum for dinner campaign,” says Wilson. “It has worked out for us. It’s almost unheard of in any traditional sense to serve dim sum for dinner. In any old school Chinese guy’s eye I’m a dummy. So who’s got the last laugh now?”
The approach has helped earn Nom Wah a new non-Chinese fanbase but on weekend mornings Wilson still sees the same old families who have come to the restaurant for decade. He says dim sum (or yumcha or ‘drink tea’) means a lot to Chinese people because of the social element. “It’s an opportunity for the family to get together to talk about anything and everything. It’s very important you share these meals.”
We leave Nom Wah elated but also walloped by our indulgence of all things fried (the salt and pepper squid was another joyful encounter), so we decide to medicate ourselves and roll up to the pharmacy two doors down. Well, not quite a pharmacy but rather a trendy cocktail lounge called Apotheke with old medicinal bottles behind the counter and bespectacled bartenders wearing lab coats. They are playing some ghastly new jazz drivel that belongs in Guantanamo Bay, but the drinks are of the highest complexity and quality: Kale juice, Aylesbury duck vodka and sea bean is just what the doctor ordered. It seems that Doyers Street, where once the blood flowed, is undergoing a remarkable gentrification for the gastronomically inclined.
Wilson from Nom Wah has told us about a hole-in-the-wall joint in Baxter street that serves dim sum for dinner. We struggle to find this amid Chinatown’s increasingly rumbustious evening crowds, but a small place called China Village advertises ‘dim sum made to order’ so we give that a go. Unfortunately, the beef cheung fun is the most disgusting bit of Chinese cooking I have encountered. The beef has the consistency and charm of a sloppy wiener and the wheat wrapper, which should be thin, slippery and delicate, looks more like chewed up pizza dough reshaped into a condom.
We are in for further disappointment when we hit east Broadway to try the otherwise excellent Dim Sum Go Go. Originally conjured up by French food writer Collette Rossant and the chef Guy Leiu from Hong Kong, Go Go looks as bright and baffling as the name suggests, with its fast-food inspired logo and stark red colour. The dim sum deserves all the praise heaped on it, including the Bib Gourmand awarded by the Michelin guide. However, the big flaw in our 12-hour challenge is evident as even Go Go which serves dim sum all day is emptying out and starting to shut down its kitchen. This means we have to settle for the steamed section of the menu. The shredded duck with slivers of carrot in a paper-thin wrapper is as dainty and delicious as any steamed dumpling we’ve had all day, but it’s heartbreaking to miss out on Go Go’s famous crispy roasted pork buns.
Across the road on East Broadway a sign draws us closer. G.O.L.D.E.N. U.N.I.C.O.R.N. The letters flash up one by one and scroll across the digital light display. A last chance saloon? When you have been drinking and dining for 10 hours there is nothing to fear, so despite a note in the lobby informing us that it’s “fully booked” we jump in the lift and follow the sound of thumping Eurodance. As the doors open to the second floor we land slap bang in the middle of a wedding party about to reach peak level. The MC, dressed in a purple suit and swinging a microphone, is moving between the guests in some sort of Gangman style while asking them questions in a frantically loud voice while the hyperactive house beat is pumping away.
On the third floor there is another wedding party, but half of the restaurant is still open so we grab a table, order the cheapest bottle of white on the menu and ask for the dim sum. That poses two problems. Firstly, they don’t have any dim sum, and secondly, the cheap white wine has sold out. However, we discover a dim sum platter among the starters and the waiter suggests we try the Louis Jadot Pouilly Fuisse, which at $30 is a snip (could this be the lowest markup in Manhattan?). The startled waiter, Michael, reckons we are being underfed and points to the menu page with live seafood. We stick to the platter and especially the water chestnut and pork dumplings suggest it’s worth coming back to Golden Unicorn on weekend morning for the full cart service.
We have one destination left on the map before time’s up on the mission, but as we reach 88 Place under the Manhattan Bridge, the shutters have been pulled down and the lights are out. All that’s left is the roaring noise from the trains above us. Downbeat but not quite out we hail a yellow cap. The two passengers leaving the car warn of us a surprise inside and I expect the worse. Flatulent souvenirs, bloodied drug paraphernalia? The surprise is sweet. More specifically, a mountain of candy lying behind our headrests at the back. This is New York’s Candy Cab and in the driver’s seat is Mansoor Khalid. When his 2-year-old son died earlier this year after a long battle with heart disease, Khalid decided life was too short for sitting around being depressed so he wanted to offer his passengers the generous gift of free candy. Khalid hands us a bag of Hershey’s Kisses. “I just wanted people to be happy,” he says as we dig out some more Twizzlers from the back.
High on happiness and corn syrup we arrive at Mission Chinese Food in the Lower East Side. It’s got nothing to do with dim sum, but since the dumpling steamers and friers of Chinatown have all finished working, we want to finish off in style at Danny Bowien’s celebrated tribute to Szechuan cuisine. Turns out Bowien is well versed in dim sum. Earlier this morning he was eating at Nom Wah. When I meet him a couple of days later he is full of praise for their cooking. “It’s just a very clean approach to dim sum, because a lot of dim sum you get is way too oily,” says Bowien. “You know that place Yauatcha in London? I love that. There is something about dim sum, it’s delicious and it’s amazing, but sometimes you just want something that’s clean and that’s light.”
Light is probably not the first adjective you would apply to Bowien’s own food. Mission Chinese delivers a flavoursome firestarter for the soul and the palate, and despite 12 hours of gastro-gluttony we happily brush off plates off mouth-watering chicken and confit duck egg custard, and wash it all down with clam juice micheladas. It’s tongue-piercing stuff full of imagination.
The photographer, the editor and me part ways; ridiculously full, definitely drunk and mouths still on fire. The challenge has been completed – Twizzlers, Schezuan hipsters and all the other diversions thrown in – and yet it seems we have only scratched the surface of the city’s bountiful dim sum scene. Hey, what about Brooklyn?
One of these days we’ll once again have to brave the Expressway.
Since the article was published, Mission Chinese and Lychee House have closed permanently.
Lars Hinnerskov Eriksen lives in Copenhagen where he writes about food and football for the Guardian newspaper. Prior to that he spent 10 years in London where he studied journalism, worked on the Guardian’s newsdesk and enjoyed a passionate love affair with British food culture (stop sniggering at the back) and the pub.