Wookiee Hut Cuisine presents:
Great New York Noodletown
28½ Bowery (at Bayard), Chinatown, NYC
Review by Mit, Bif, Zit
"Can we have snails?"
Well, sure! In garlic black bean sauce, please! And how about the salt-baked softshell crab? No? Oh, go on! Just because you're from Maryland doesn't mean you know bupkus about cooking crab. I mean, they do crabs in a mixture of beer and a spice mixture called "crab boil." Ugh! How .... ENGLISH! (To paraphrase Bob Blumer, the likes of 'poultry seasoning' and 'pickling spice' and 'crab boil' are like the "hotdogs of the spice world," where floor sweepings at the spice factory are stuck in a metal can and labelled for sale. Eeek!)
One of our Dads said this place was like the meals shown in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and he felt like he was taking his life in his hands every time he stepped in. Slander! They passed their Health Department inspections easily, and they don't hang the whole pigs out back like they used to, much to our disappointment.
But it more than makes up for it. This place is Cantonese to the core, with smoked and roasted whole ducks and chickens (with head and feet) hanging up against the windows (this is traditional, and a new Health Code had to be created for Chinese restaurants in this city to accommodate), cutting boatds made from a cross section of tree (seriously ... still has the bark on it and all), HUGE cleavers (always wondered why these are called 'cleavers' since "to cleave" means "to join") which were weilded with wild abandon. Some friends could not watch the "barbecue man" -- the job title for the guy who cut up orders of these delectable meats -- pull that big knife over his head and swing down on the animal with casual abandon. They don't fillet the meat, by the way ... when it's served you can see they chopped right through skin, meat, bone, gristle. The Chinese are really efficient in many ways.
Like in their seating. If you have a small party, you sat "family style" at a big round carved wooden banquet table along the center of the small restaurant. If you had two to four, you could sit at a small rectangular table on the sides of the room. But this place is ALWAYS packed, so though there were three of us, we pounced on a round table. We often order too much, too, so need the table space. And we don't mind playing with others. They mind, usually. But we have fun.
We tend to order pretty much the same thing everytime, since we don't come down here as often as we'd like or used to. The menu always includes:
There are many other dishes to recommend highly, and on other days, we get:
- Three Jewels -- A "combined plate" of reheated barbequed pork, roasted chicken, and peking duck, served with a ginger/scallion/oil condiment sauce -- each to die for, together to fight over; we ended up having to order a second round of this one!
- Snails in Black Bean Sauce -- There is a technique to getting the little critters out of their shell. They cut the tips off so you can put your finger over the hole and suck on the other end. When you build enough pressure, you release your finger, and the meat pops into your mouth. You suck and lick the sauce off the shell. Mmmm ... don't eat the trap door of the snail -- you can dump it before you suck, but it tends to be covered in sauce, so lick that too.
- Seafood Chow Fun -- Wide panfried noodles served with a mixture of decoratively sliced carrots, "long vegetable" (mustard green stems), reconstituted dried ("preserved") squid, fresh squid (with tentacles, yay!), sea scallops, jumbo shrimp, round brown Chinese mushrooms (don't know what they're called ... but they're slippery and fun!)
- Salt-Baked Softshell Crabs -- Of course, ordered in season only, but the very very best softshell crabs ever! We had tempura softshell crabs the next day and eschewed them as tough and greasy ... Zit said, "I would be a shame to sully the purity of Noodletown's crabs in my mouth, so take those lame things away!"
- "Green Vegetable" -- baby bok choy that day, wok-tossed with chicken stock till bright green and tender ... we fought over the cute little bunches.
Plus whatever the waiter tells us to order. They steer us away from anything they consider "not good" ("Frozen, no-good!" they whisper) and don't laugh or ignore us when we point to stuff on other tables we want to try. They like us, I think, because when we sit at the big banquet table, we slurp and laugh and consume noisily and scare the heck out of the people who sit with us. The other diners seem to avoid our enjoyment and smile nervously when we offer up a snail (not the plate, just a snail -- they can order their own damned plate), pay their check and get the heck out. One fellow looked ill when we contemplated the guy who had the job of lopping off the points of the snails so that the aforementioned sucking technique could be used. We forced six seating turnovers during our sitting. That's decent business! (We all know how to say "Thank You" in Mandarin; too bad these guys are Cantonese! But they think we're funny anyway when we say, "Sheh-Shienn!")
- "Casserole" -- A earthenware lidded crock fired over a hot wokstove flame, for instant cooking of vegetables and meat. We usually get the oyster and duck -- Chinese oysters, by the way, are huge -- like a cow's tongue. But it's tender and flavorsome and irresistable on a cold winter's day.
- Stuffed Sea Bass -- Served with the garlic black bean sauce, similar to that served with the snails. (By the way, the "Americano" menu features "baby clams in black bean sauce" but they don't taste as good as the snails. And we consider pulling meat out of an already opened clam a sport for wusses.) The stuffing is a fish paste interspersed with peppers and spices. It's like a fish sausage in a sea bass casing! Yummy!
- Singapore Mai Fun -- Curried panfried noodles, like a spicy fried rice with skinny vermicelli style Chinese noodles.
All that food and entertainment cost about $40 for all of us, complete with sodas, beers, seconds, tip, white rice, and harrassment. We were really full, but we waddled over the Chinatown Ice Cream Factory for dessert. One should never order dessert in a Chinese restaurant. Just accept the orange wedges and fortune cookies, served along with moist towlettes (all 'palate cleansers' in a way ...). The find some other way to stuff more food down your digestive tract (remember, ice cream melts around the sides, so get a cup instead of a cone to spare yourself the solids ... they won't fit!)
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