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Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Sheng Wang

(UPDATE 5/15:  Sheng Wang is as reliably excellent as ever, and the prices are unchanged. It's nice to know there are some things in this world one can count on.  Still my favorite Manhattan Chinatown spot.)

I have Robert Sietsema of the Village Voice to thank for putting me onto this little gem: Sheng Wang is now my favorite joint in Manhattan's Chinatown.

This Fujianese place specializes in noodles, but they make the best dumplings I've tried in Chinatown. On the menu they're called steamed dumplings (水餃 - shuǐ jiǎo - these characters mean "boiled dumplings" in Northern Chinese places, but if you actually boiled these, they would surely disintegrate).  Wrapped in skins much more delicate than their northern-style counterparts, the pork and chive filling is so tasty it seems like there must be some trick involved. (Really - I sit there eating them wondering the whole time, "how do they do it?") And at $3.00 for 10 huge dumplings... that's a trick worth experiencing.


Their Potato Ball in Soup (馬鈴薯丸 - mǎ ling shǔ wán) is equally wonderful: ten handmade balls of potato dough filled with seasoned ground pork in a light chicken broth. If you happen to go there late in the afternoon, you can often watch the staff sitting around forming them by hand.


Wonton Soup Fuzhou Style (福州扁肉湯 - fú zhōu biǎn ròu tāng) is a medium-sized bowl of at least 30 ultra-delicate "wontons" - 扁肉 (biǎn ròu) actually refers to a stuffed thin dumpling of Southern China - in Sheng Wang's equally delicate chicken broth. A minor miracle at $2.00.


But the bulk of the menu is noodles, and there are two types here: the hand-pulled, Lanzhou style, and "peel noodle". These are fun to watch being made--I have not yet been able to see them do it at Sheng Wang, but I happened to catch the episode of "Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern" where he visited a restaurant in China that served every imaginable kind of noodle, and Mr. Zimmern tried his hand at making these, holding a block of dough in one hand, shaving a knife along the top and flipping the noodle into a pot of boiling water. (Come to think of it, that episode the food wasn't so bizarre... there was only one thing he ate that I hadn't already tried--and he was in CHINA!). Anyway, both kinds are great, although I might give peel noodle the edge (boom-CHING!). I'm particularly partial to the soups with bones in them--the pork bone soup has five or six big hunks of pork bones with bits of meat still clinging to them, and the added bonus of often-intact marrow. The broth of the beef bone soup is richer and tastier, but the bones aren't quite as much fun. And all the meat soups come with greens, some minced sour cabbage, and a meat-filled potato ball. All for 5 bucks or less.

Sheng Wang
27 Eldridge St., New York 10002
212-925-0805

Monday, April 19, 2010

Yun Nan Flavor Snack

There's been a bit of buzz lately about a tiny noodle shop in Brooklyn's Chinatown that serves Yunnan-style fare--enough quality buzz that I was inspired to make the trek all the way down there this evening. It was worth it. Yun Nan Flavor Snack is wonderful.

Whatever you do, do not miss the dumplings in hot and sour sauce. "Sauce" is a bit of a misnomer--they (8 or 10 of them--I lost count), in fact, are served in broth. Spiced with at least three different peppers (red, black, and Sichuan) and sour with rice vinegar, it is at once strongly-flavored and subtle. All that is topped with some cilantro, and I could have sworn I tasted lemongrass in there somewhere, although I found no pieces of it in the bowl. Dumplings from the south of China really are different from their northern counterparts--these are made, I think, of shrimp and pork, enveloped in wrappers so delicate that they shrivel and wrinkle when cooked according to the contours of the filling (northern dumplings are far sturdier in construction!). A truly spectacular bowl of delights... for $4.25! In fact, I don't think anything here costs more than $4.50.

They do three kinds of noodle here, each available 5 or 6 different ways (with things like beef stew, spicy meat sauce, broth with crispy meat): rice noodle, wheat noodle, and rice stick, plus a couple of cold offerings. I opted for rice noodle with crispy meat. It was great--noodles in a broth (which they'll make spicy or not, according to your wishes) with a few slices of pork and lots of crispy unidentifiable pork bits. Well, not quite unidentifiable: I'm 99% sure there were several small, thin, round slices of pig bung in there (essentially, pig's anus). But don't you dare let that deter you--it's all part of the adventure.

The friendly proprietor, rightfully proud of his offerings, has already selected my order for the next time I'm there: cold rice noodle. I'm looking forward to it.

Yun Nan Flavor Snack
774 49th St., Brooklyn 11220
718-633-3090

(N train to 8th Ave., then 11 blocks north to 49th St.)

Ay Chung Steakhouse (CLOSED)

I've been finding great food in the most unprepossessing places lately. During a recent spin through the Flushing Mall food court, a busy stand near the center of things caught my eye: Ay Chung Steakhouse, adjacent to the Ay Chung Food stand which, by most accounts, serves pretty authentic simple Taiwanese fare.

Before that afternoon, I had no idea the genre "Taiwanese Steakhouse" even existed, but I'm now a believer! Almost everyone seems to order No. 1: the House Special Steak. It lives up to its moniker: a nice piece sirloin on a sizzling platter, smothered in a thick, peppery dark sauce with enough vinegar in it to keeps things really interesting, with a grilled whole scallion perched on top. No one asked me how I wanted my steak cooked; it emerged a perfect medium-rare. All grilled items seem to come with the same sides: a small salad, a cup of thick, light-colored soup, and some noodles that have been tossed with, of all things, corn kernels (those noodles go especially well with a bit of that sauce from the steak). If you don't feel like beef, they offer a wide variety of alternatives, including pork chop, lamb steak (I have to say I'm curious about that one), seafood, and even a vegetarian option. But that house special steak was so spectacular, I have feeling I won't ever find out how the other offerings are.

Ay Chung Steakhouse
Flushing Mall Food COurt
133-31 39th Ave., Flushing 11354
718-886-5814

(7 train to Main St.-Flushing, 1 block north on Main to 39th Ave., then turn left)