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.[Will Femia]
Great N.Y. Noodletown, the wonderfully and weirdly named Chinatown restaurant, has been open for 31 years. But it's only in the past 10, it seems, that it's become a deeply cherished urban legend. When it was briefly shut down by the DOH in 2010, foodies nearly went into seizures.
Noodletown—which began as simply New York Noodletown and added the "Great" later—was discovered by the New York Times in 1992, and the paper has never stopped praising it since. It's gotten vocal shout-outs in the past few years from celebrity chefs like Kurt Gutenbrunner, Jean-Georges Vongerichten and David Chang, who like to cite it as a sign of their street cred. If you haven't heard of it, you just don't pay that much attention to Chinatown as a food destination.
Because of all this attention, Noodletown is always crowded and is probably in little danger of closing. The crowd is heterogeneous—Asian-Americans, elderly couples, police officers, plenty of hipsters, same-sex couples, parents treating their teenage kids, and usually lots of singles who are either on their way to, or have just returned from, a night of Lower East Side barhopping. The waiters don't seem to notice who they're serving. They work with an unsmiling, glassy-eyed efficiency.
Who owns this celebrated place? Have no idea. It's a peculiarity of New York food journalism. When covering every other sort of restaurant, a food writer will mention the owner and chef and most likely quote them. When's the story's about a Chinatown eatery, it's about the place, not the people behind it. As if the food cooked itself. I've read dozens of articles on Noodletown and never seen a name attached to the business. Rumor has it it recently changed hands. But who can tell?
Whoever the owners are, the joint's fame hasn't led them to spruce up the joint. The furniture's still functional. The light still bears down with a merciless glass. The tile floor is depressing. And the tables remain communal. Interested in specials? They are written on pieces of paper and taped to the wall. The salt-baked soft-shelled crabs still make gastronomes' palms sweaty. Ruth Reichl raved about them 20 year ago. It's crab season right now, so I ordered them. Ruth wasn't wrong. I also had a delicious dish with squid and Chinese flowering chives. But then I've never had a bad meal as Noodletown. All the trendoids and Food Network employees are right. The place is great. Just like the sign says.
—Brooks of Sheffield