09 July 2010

Lost City Asks "Who Goes to Wo Hop?"

As stated before, I'm still doing the "Who Goes There?" columns for Eater. Here's the latest:

Who Goes There? Wo Hop
The first time I ever went to Wo Hop, the 72-year-old Chinatown restaurant, I was chastised by readers as having gone to the "wrong" Wo Hop. There are two spaces on Mott Street, you see, a roomy ground-level restaurant at 15 Mott, visible from the street, and a harder-to-spot basement place down a long flight of stairs at 17 Mott. (Chinatown must have more mysterious subterranean eateries and businesses than any other neighborhood in New York.) The upstairs joint is for tourists and suckers, and the food stinks, I was told. Go downstairs for the real experience.

This time I went to the "right" Wo Hop, a cramped, harshly lit rectangle with low ceilings, ten tables and booths and about the same number of busy, blue-jacketed waiters. And let me tell you—the food is no different. It's bland, hastily prepared and gloppy with sauce. There are huge amounts of it and you suspect a lot of it began life frozen. It's unreformed, Americanized Cantonese cuisine from the World War II era. Many a foodie will tell you that this is some of the worst food in Chinatown. The devoted, however, tend to find the dishes that please and bring them comfort and stick to them. And they are not unhappy as that eat the small part of the serving that they can fit into their stomach.
Many of the people who dine at Wo Hop go there just to be reassured. Reassured that the restaurant that they long ago decided was the best in Chinatown is still there, and that the staff still remembers them. For such a small dining room, a high number of people recognized fellow eaters from previous visits. Many a cop loves this place for its prices (cheap) and its hours (it only closes for three hours each morning), as is evidenced by the great number of law-enforcement arm patches affixed to the wall— every county in Long Island, upstate New York and New Jersey, it seemed. Other regulars just look like cops, beefy, bull-headed men who ate their chicken chow mein in silence and with gusto. Wo Hop is also a well-known fueling stop for drunken downtown revelers who need a late-night food fix. And, if the wallpaper of signed pictures is any measure, a great many unsuccessful actors and musicians have made this their haunt.
Those gourmands who judge the quality of a Chinese restaurant by how many Asians dine there will be disappointed in Wo Hop. The clientele is made up almost entirely of Westerners, and Wo Hop seems to want it that way. The menu is entirely in English (this is apparently a change from 1971, when the New York Times reported there was a separate Chinese menu), and knifes and forks are the go-to utensils. I was given chopsticks only after repeated requests. Like Calvin Trillin, I'm always suspicious under such circumstances that I'm not being given the best the house can offer. So when a waiter sat down near me to take his dinner break, eating a toothsome-looking bowl of meat and vegetables that I did not recognize from the menu, I asked him what it was. "It's something the kitchen makes for us," he said. "It's not for the customers." He then went and sat at a different table.
According to a more talkative waiter, Wo Hop is run by the son of the man who founded the place in 1938. I couldn't get the name of the family, but I suspect they own the building, since a sign indicates the upstairs tenants can find the superintendent at Wo Hop. That, and the prices, and its reputation as a standby, keep the place going. I wouldn't go here for the best food in the area, unless it was 2 AM, at which time I wouldn't want to be anywhere else. It still retains a certain romance of a bygone Chinatown, when such food and surroundings would have seemed exotic. Everyone knows about Wo Hop. But it still feels like a secret.
—Brooks of Sheffield


Michael said...

I still go to wo hop. I know the food isn't the best as its much too salty. My parents took me there in the 70s when I was a child and the same guys still work there and recognize me.

I feel like the food tastes like all Chinese food used to taste before various trends hit the other Amero-Chinese restaurants... You know like no msg or less grease or even the vague attempts at health eating (See the diet menu now present on all Chinese menus, its just steamed frozen vegetables). Granted, all Chinese food didn't taste very good.

I think its a good representation of the Lost City though. Reef Restaurant at City Island isn't terribly good either but I go there for the same reason.

Also most Chinese food places have a second menu for people who can read Chinese. Its not just Wo-Hop. They don't like what they serve to customers! I'll never forget when I went to Taiwan and went to an American restaurant expecting Burgerss and Hot Dogs but only finding Lo-Mein and Crab Rangoon.

Upstate Johnny G said...

Funny that the NY Times' Sam Sifton would publish his own review of Wo Hop on July 7. I like Brooks' review better than I do Sifton's. Brooks gives me a much more complete idea of what the place is like, including food, decor, and the diner demographic. I score this one Brooks 1, Sifton 0. Batter up!

Lou Garu said...

I go to Wo Hop regularly, I rotate them with Curry in a Hurry.

I think the reviewer misses the point of Wo Hop entirely. First of all he didn't have the common sense to go downstairs. Second of all he had some very pious, haughty-taughty and blowhard expectations.

Wo Hop is take-out Chinese fare, never intended to be a taste of Kowloon Bay or anything authentic to the "old country". If you compare their food to any other take-out place, Wo Hop is supreme. Their wonton soup makes me cry its so good, I've been there at 8am and seen them sit around and roll their own wontons and dumplings for an hour or so. Wo Hop can best be appreciated by people living in the other four boroughs who are used to going to the takeout place by their house.

Raff said...

Wo Hop is where I went when I lived in NY back in the '80s. If I lived there still, I would probably go back.
Anthony in Fla.

upstate Johnny G said...

After reading some of the comments here and scanning a few dozen reviews on yelp, tripadvisor, and NYmag it seems to me that many of the people who love Wo Hop began going there as children when their family lived in NYC. These folks see Wo Hop in a special way: to them it is a link with their past, it awakens their memories of how exotic and exciting it was to go there, and these give comfort and a sense of stability today. Then there are the tourists for whom Wo Hop was their first and only Chinese dining experience in NYC. For them Wo Hop perfectly fit their idea of what a real NYC Chinese restaurant should be. A third group that loves Wo Hop is the after-hours crowd that goes there for early morning grub after a night of dancing and partying.

Most of the negative reviews I read can be broken down into two groups: one group comprises people who live in NYC and have previously dined at other Chinese restaurants; the other group is tourists who are Chinese food "foodies" either through cultural heritage or because they're simply into Chinese food.

So what is Wo Hop? It's a museum piece of a restaurant with blast from the past food. If you're not looking to undertake culinary time-travel Wo Hop is probably not for you. On the other hand, folks looking for old skool original sorta-Chinese cooking will probably love Wo Hop.

You pays your money and you makes your choice.

Unknown said...

I remember this place!! When I was a senior in high school, we took a trip into Chinatown (from Suffolk Co.). My Art teacher/Fencing Instructor told a few of us to try this place. It was fantastic. When I was on my honeymoon, I took my wife there!

Sadly, I live in Atlanta now and cannot find food like we had in NYC.

Jason S said...

Wo Hop is my favorite Chinese restaurant. My dad took me there all the time growing up, and he himself went all the time when he was growing up. He loved the house special Lo Mein, I loved (and still do) the Egg Foo Yong. Their fried soup noodles are always fresh made too.
One of my earliest memories was eating there with my family then we would go to the bakery across Mott Street for cantonese pastries and then go see the construction progress of the Twin Towers. We did that a lot back then.
Those were great times, I'll never forget. Happily Wo Hop is still around and still great!

laura said...

wo hop means sad bunny in chinese. i know it well.