This is the latest edition of Who Goes There? a regular feature in which Lost City's Brooks of Sheffield cracks the doors on mysteriously enduring Gotham restaurants—unsung, curious neighborhood mainstays with the dusty, forgotten, determined look—to learn secrets of longevity and find out, who goes there.[Krieger, 7/8/10]
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