21 May 2007

Trillin's Chinatown

Maybe I've been reading too much Calvin Trillin, but lately I've been overcome by the culinary urges he desribes so well in the books of his "Tummy Trilogy." Trillin makes you want to pick up and pursue that hidden delicacy nestled in a small hill town halfway across the world.

Since I can't afford to do that, I settled for Chinatown. Trillin writes about New York's Chinatown more than any other food destination in the world, with the exception of possibly Greenwich Village (where he lives) and Kansas City (his hometown). When two friends who had recently moved from Los Angeles to New York expressed a desire to dine in Chinatown, I decided to let Trillin be my guide. He mentioned a restaurant called New Chao Chow in at least three of his food essays. I did some research and found it was still in business. (Some others he had mentioned have since closed.) So I told my friend to meet me and the wife there.

New Chao Chow is located on Mott Street just above Canal. The signage was encouraging: old style and simple without being garish. I don't know how old the place is, but, since Trillin mentioned it in an essay from the mid-70s, it's at least 30 years old. He harped upon the Seafood Noodle Soup and other reviews recommended the duck, so I ordered both. On reflection, the place might not have been the ideal choice for my guests, who, I had forgotten, are both vegetarian. So is Wifey. And New Chao Chow didn't have much to speak of in the vegetarian column. Just Buddha's Delight and other standards. However, they said their dishes were fine, if not spectacular.

New Seafood Noodle Soup was not just fine, but truly spectacular. Shrimp, fish balls and heaps of fine vermicelli noodles in a flavorsome broth. Every spoonful was a symphony of intermingled tastes. The duck was a surprise, in that it was served cold. However, it was wonderfully savory and subtley flavorful. On the side, some pickled ginger was a nice accompaniment.

The restaurant is small and does not try to impress with decor: in my mind a sure sign of a serious Chinese eatery. The help is speedy and courteous and kind to children. The food comes up in a metal dumb waiter. I'd recommend it if you eat seafood and meat, not so much if you don't.

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