Welcome to BB’s first foodie field trip. Our tour guides are Tom Mylan, former whole animal butcher for the Marlow and Sons empire and Meat Sensei at The Brooklyn Kitchen, and BB senior editor Annaliese Griffin, aka the “A-Train” on Grocery Guy, where the two write about cutlery, cookbooks, recipes, and NYC food idiosyncrasies like “Bulletproof Chinese” — something they do not encounter on this tour. Their destination is Sunset Park’s auspicious 8th Ave. — Google mapped here — home of frogs, blue foot chickens, and the best Bahn Mi in the city.
Calling the section of 8th Ave. off the N train “Chinatown” is like calling The Wire “a TV show” or foie gras “food.” It doesn’t do it justice. Yes, you can get great dumplings and buy glazed tripe and chicken feet from street food vendors. There are the usual bins of tiny dried fish and tanks full of live frogs. Fried pig’s head? They have you covered. But what sets the Brooklyn Chinatown apart (and the Chinatown in Flushing, Queens but this isn’t called Queens Based, now is it?) from its Manhattan counterpart is the stuff that is not the missionary position Ten Ren bubble tea and Custard King.
When you exit the tree-ringed, falling-down station and reach the street, there is not just one of the best Chinese groceries in the city, Hong Kong Supermarket (where you can find blue foot chickens, whole fresh ducklings, cleavers, and cookware), but also a Turkish market with Lebanese olive oil and Durians, across from a cobbler on the street fixing shoes.
I’m often pitched into a swoon at the sight of exotic cooking implements and ugly, live, aquatic animals, and luckily the A-train knows this. She steered me away from the 3-gallon hammered woks and into Lan Zhou, a Blade Runner-esque hand-pulled noodle place where we ordered the best bowl of noodles I have ever eaten.
The crispy, bone-in duck was so good it made me want to slap not only my mama but your mama. The small, cramped tables were well stocked with all the condiment-hobby-kit I could hope for and the people behind the counter actually seemed happy to serve us their food, which they obviously knew was among the best in the city. I wanted to move in with these people and spend all day in the back weaving noodle dough like a human starch loom.
Before I could sell myself into indentured noodle servitude I was yanked out the door to search for a dumpling house that someone had told us about. Too bad they forgot to tell us that it had also been converted into one of those Pentecostal churches with all the horrible, out-of-tune singing.
With no dice on the dumplings we wandered aimlessly on the side streets between 8th and 7th until I stopped in mid-stride on 57th St. and hollered “Banh Mi! Banh Mi!” at the top of my lungs. Normally this type of behavior is not tolerated but the A-train makes an exception for random Vietnamese sandwich shop sightings.
Like any Banh Mi shop worth eating at, Thanh Da II‘s menu is small and narrow as a Yoga instructor’s ass. Five sandwiches. That’s it. We ordered the number one because we couldn’t read Vietnamese and stood around stacking stuff on the counter like fried taro chips (Avoid!) and spicy dried gooseberries (No, I haven’t tried them yet) while they made us what must be the BEST Banh Mi this side of Ho Chi Minh City. It consisted of roast pork, ham, pickled carrot shreds, fresh cilantro and jalapeÃ±os and I’ll damned if I can figure out how something so cheap with so few ingredients can taste better than almost any item of food I can think of. I’m not sure what kind of crazy drug dust they sprinkle on their sandwiches that makes this place so much better than A Chau Deli or anywhere else in the city, but it really is.
Despite heat, stink and 150% relative humidity, we soldiered on, passing Hong Kong Chinese places like Kokola, which featured iced Ovaltine and hot dogs with ramen and fish paste, to arrive at what must be the assed-outest looking restaurant I have ever seen: Rai Feng Du. In the corner was what I can only assume was a drunk Croatian pirate making terrible growling noises at everyone while we scanned the menu mounted to the grease-coated plexiglass wall that gave us a blurry view of the dirty kitchen.
Like UFC and lots of other good tasting destinations, when you visit this dumpling place, stick to the dumplings, as the hot and sour soup, scallion pancake and sesame pancake were not worth ordering. The leek and pork dumplings were the best and not of the frozen, buy-by-the-container-ship type. We also waited ten minutes for the next batch of “house special” dumpling, which I personally blame for one of the worst bouts of gas I have ever endured.
By the time we were forced out of our seats by a rude woman dressed like a Bratz doll, we were so full that it seemed as if we might never make the 14-block walk back to the train. Thankfully, when we did actually make it through the maze of live frogs, packets of vegetarian intestines and pork bungs, Quickly Tea was waiting to style us with an icy Longan milk tea (a weird Chinese fruit that loosely translates to “Dragon Eye”). I was going to order the wax gourd juice or maybe an avocado snow, but, you know, I’m just a fool for Longan.
A few travel tips:
- Arrive hungry. I mean don’t eat anything but water for 24 hours before you go because you will eat 25% of your weight in food.
- Bring that overachieving friend who did a nine-month internship in China. Besides the fact that they will own you someday, they can also help you dine at some of the places that we couldn’t because the menus contained zero English words.
- Bring one of those old lady carts to carry all the crap you’re going to buy, especially if you don’t already own a wok or a Chinese veggie cleaver.
- Broken shoes. The cobblers are very nice and everywhere.
- Gas-X. Trust me.
From Harry Rosenblum at The Brooklyn Kitchen: Not Brooklyn Chinatown, but the best dim sum, and in Brooklyn: