My latest "Who Goes There?" column took me to Chinatown to one of the great cheap-good-eats joints in the City, Big Wong. No lack of business there.
Who Goes There? Big Wong
People walk into Big Wong King holding up fingers, showing how many they are. The maitre d'—if such a high title can be used in this circumstance—then leads them into one of the two big, bare-bones rooms, which are separated by a large circular cut in the wall. "Four—THERE!" he barks, pointing at one communal table. "Two—THERE!" You're almost always going to sit with someone you don't know at this Mott Street Cantonese mainstay, because the tables are so large, and the joint is always crowded, lunchtime and dinner (which ends on the early side).
I was placed at a round table with an extended family of four—husband and wife, their son-in-law and his newborn—and a lone middle-aged man who ordered off-menu, sipped Sprite like it was whiskey and looked like the Chinatown version of Benny Southstreet. The couple said they been coming for thirty years, almost as long at Big Wong has been around. "It's amazing how consistently popular it's been," said the man. "I remember the bathrooms at the beginning," recalled the woman. "They were terrible." The food, however, has always been good, they said. And the prices always ridiculously cheap. "Five dollars?" wondered the woman about one item. "Things are getting expensive."
I ordered congee because everyone at my table was eating congee. Big Wong makes about a dozen different kinds. The husband steered me to one with beef, pork and seafood. (I appreciated more than liked it; porridge is not my thing.) He also spoke to the waitress—he was Chinese—and made sure she brought me a dish of "traditional hot sauce" to accompany my wonderful roasted pork. If he hadn't intervened, I would have been stuck with the Trappey's on the table. The housemade hot sauce made all the difference, and gave me the feeling of inner triumph that is often expressed by writer Calvin Trillin, the Chinatown devotee who always frets he's not getting the best the kitchen's got going.
Around the room was a cross-section of the city. About half the diners were Chinatown natives, who kept quiet and bent over their food. Brokers who hoofed it up from Wall Street and tucked their ties in their shirt, meanwhile, yakked it up. A foursome of college students took up one table. A couple New York City sheriffs were at another. A man immaculately dressed in a gray, pin-stripe suit and a yellow silk tie ate alone. Up near the front door, the line for take-out was impressive. The cash register was operated by a sixtysomething gentlemen with shaggy white hair who identified himself as the owner. (Officially, according to City records, the proprietor is one Judy Chan.) The married couple stated that the family that ran Big Wong wasn't necessarily the founding family, but a relation of some sort.
Big Wong bustles. The bell in the kitchen that announces the readiness of dishes never stops ringing. "Ping! Ping! Ping!" Carts of hot sweet crullers are wheeled out and carts of dirty dishes are wheeled in. "Ping!" Glasses are filled at the huge tea dispenser and slammed down on the table as patrons sit down. "Ping!" Near the front window, chefs yank down duck after duck, place the browned fowl on a cutting board that looks like a slice of oak trunk, and hack speedily away with a giant butcher knife. They can assemble an order of roast duck in sixty seconds, and not lose a finger.
—Brooks of Sheffield