Chinese food in New York was born a fusion cuisine — less as a term of art, and more as a kind of assimilation, which is the story of immigrant food and cultural identity in 20th-century America, writ large. It's the means by which a society and its new inhabitants find each other in turn opaque, grotesque, thrilling, comforting, and banal; in other words, a lot more complicated than cheeseburger spring rolls.
It's pretty hard to pin down "classic Chinese-American food" in New York, because it's been in flux since the moment it was "discovered."
From that angle, it's pretty hard to pin down "classic Chinese-American food" in New York, because it's been in flux since the moment it was "discovered" in the 1870s in restaurants tucked away in a few alleys off the southernmost end of Mott Street. In those early days, eating Chinese was an adventure — a challenge to the senses and, for some (like the Greenwich Village bohemians who were the earliest fans of Chinese food in New York), to conventional mores. What we know about diners in the banquet halls and chop suey houses of Chinatown in the late 19th century suggests that these early adopters were still eating dishes Chinese laborers had brought with them from the western United States, adapted for regional ingredients from the cuisine of their homes in the Taishan region of China (This, in stark opposition to the food served in most restaurants run by Chinese immigrants in contemporary San Francisco, where menus ran more to steak and eggs, less to rice and noodles.)
Over the course of the next half-century — through the arrival of the first Hong Kong immigrants; the repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Act, which opened the gates to a flood of new Chinese immigrant workers (like my father and his family); and the post-war Polynesian restaurant boom — that cuisine would develop the tics and routines that characterize some of what we today consider stereotypical Chinese-American food: Fried rice, sweet and sour pork, lobster sauce (the rare sauce named for what it sauces, rather than for what it contains-in this case, pork and egg). So, rather than trying to identify a single "ultimate classic Chinese restaurant" — the starting-point from which I hoped to measure our progress — I picked a place that hits all those buttons: Hop Kee, est. 1968, in a basement on the corner of Mott and Mosco.
Hop Kee is the cornerstone of a legendary block of Mott Street. Some of the earliest popular restaurants in Chinatown — notably, the Chinese Tuxedo and Port Arthur restaurants — operated on this block before and through the turn of the 20th century. In fact, in that same basement at 21 Mott Street, Hop Kee had a notable predecessor, the Tingyatsak restaurant, which appeared in a 1941 New Yorker article as an example of a place you might want to eat if you were "in the mood for a good, old-fashioned jaunt to Chinatown." People, as it turns out, have been going to 21 Mott for not just Chinese, but for nostalgic Chinese meals, for as long as most New Yorkers can remember.
Certainly as long as I can remember, I've always known restaurants like Hop Kee, because I was raised in Chinese restaurants from its era. My great uncle owned and managed a few restaurants in Boston's Chinatown when I was a kid, and I have distinct memories of sidling up to the bar with my brother and drinking Shirley Temples (tiny umbrellas!) while we waited for a table to be set. At our family dinners, which blend together as one enormous multi-decade banquet, everybody shared a few common dishes: crisp-skinned chickens served with shrimp chips, dark-red sweet-and-pungent pork, Cantonese-style lobster in its eponymous sauce, ceramic bowls full of steamed rice. All classics of the form, or at least to me.
Entering Hop Kee, we walk down a dimly-lit stairwell into a better-lit atrium that opens —through a glass door decorated solely and permanently with a sign that reads WET FLOOR — into an dining room with astringent fluorescent light and a floor that is in fact totally dry. The walls are packed with pictures of the restaurant's owner in the company of various celebrities, each mounted on construction paper and dated neatly with the month and year. Even at 8 p.m., most of the tables are empty (not surprising, maybe, for a restaurant that stays open until 4 a.m. on weekends). The other parties who are already eating are mostly older couples who appear to have commuted down from the Upper West Side, eating dishes they seem as familiar with as they do each other.
Standard attire for waiters in Chinese restaurants generally runs to cherry-red canvas blazers, which by contrast makes the staff at Hop Kee, in their Bill-Cunningham-blue jackets, look vaguely like pharmacists. One of them brings us to our table, leaving us with a menu, a stainless steel pot of tea, and a full roster of condiments: Soy sauce, salt, sugar, and a bottle of Trappey's Red Devil. Another pharmacist arrives, and we order five dishes, almost all of which land simultaneously just a few minutes later.
Half the meal is really, really bad. There's no texture in the shrimp fried rice, which is soaked in soy sauce, the shrimp rubbery and pale. Worse, or stranger, is the sweet and pungent pork, a variation of sweet and sour pork whose menu description, to be fair, does mention pickles in non-specific ways. What I do not expect is that the pickles will turn out to be ridged dill pickle chips. My brother and I discuss the sauce at length and decide it is not exactly sweet and sour sauce, but that it is in fact a variation of the variation of sweet and sour we had expected. The pork, as we probably should have expected, is small, tough, and fried in corn-dog batter.
The rest of the dishes are considerably better. A pan-fried flounder with ginger and scallion, dressed lightly with soy sauce. Using a spoon, you eat half the fish down to the bones and peel them off like Heathcliff to unveil what is arguably the even better half of the fish, which you mix up with crunchy bits of fin; it's an event. A fried half-chicken, if lacking for shrimp chips, is a near-perfect facsimile of every chicken I have eaten at every Cantonese restaurant I can find that serves it: Savory and dense, the skin burnished and glassy and crisp. Crabs, Cantonese-style, swimming in that rich, eggy lobster sauce, which quickly becomes a mess of roe and shellfish and pork and scallions, all scooped up with rice and washed down with the last of the black tea.
In no particular rush, a bill for $93.05 arrives, along with a bowl of fortune cookies, two for each of us, the fortunes all some variation on the virtues of patience or wisdom.
Two days later, the booths along the walls of the main dining room at Red Farm in the Upper West Side are already occupied by older couples who look very similar to our fellow diners at Hop Kee, just closer to home. They're eating comfort food here, too, but of a newer vintage. Ed Schoenfeld (the man with the glasses by the door) and Joe Ng (the man making all the food) opened the original Red Farm in the West Village in 2010, and in late 2013 added the Upper West Side branch, which doesn't appear to have dramatically reduced the wait for a prime time table at either location. It's a good thing we have arrived at 6:30, then, because we are the first party to be seated at the central communal farm table, which is furnished with seats spaced to make it feel bustling without being jostled. It's clear that every detail has been given the same degree of attention: The filament bulbs, hanging above eye level, that cast just enough warm light to read the menu by; the perfect Manhattan restaurant noise level, where every conversation but yours blends into an urgent hum; the nori-infused Old Fashioned; the futuristic sink.
No pharmacist-blue jackets here, nor cherry-red. The servers are all dressed like me, or actually slightly more casually than me. Dark tee shirts, jeans. You'd only really know they're working there because they are standing up and you are sitting down, and because they are carrying unexpectedly and unconventionally tasty plates of food: Crispy beef with a tart salad of apples; perfect shrimp dim sum decorated to look like tiny arcade ghosts, pursued by a fried sweet potato Pac-man borne on an inexplicable (and unremarkable) cloud of guacamole; Shrimp-stuffed jalapeño poppers that my wife (a connoisseur of jalapeño poppers) forces us to order, but which are actually really, shatteringly good in a way I don't feel comfortable admitting at the table, or even now.
This food is very tasty, but it's not authentic, which at first gives me pause, because I'm really enjoying myself and totally unsure about how I am going to reconcile that with my original mission, which was to find the path of authentic Chinese-American food in New York.
The mark of an authentic Chinese-American restaurantis that it's not making a fuss about being authentic.
It's not until my second bite of the string beans and brussels sprouts (easily one of the best preparations of vegetables I have had in any Chinese restaurant) that I get it: this place is very much at the head of that path I'm trying to find, with Hop Kee in the middle, and the first chop suey houses on Pell Street at the source. Red Farm is serving food that Schoenfeld has very proudly described as "unabashedly inauthentic," but I don't think Chinatown restaurants were ever abashed in their presentation of dishes invented to make their American customers happy. That inventiveness characterizes Chinese-American food throughout the country. Springfield, Missouri, for example, is home to an entire ecosystem of "Springfield-style cashew chicken" that is a hallmark of the city, and dates back to the same time that Hop Kee opened here in New York. The mark of an authentic Chinese-American restaurant, in other words, is that it's not making a fuss about being authentic, that it adapts to local palates and produce, and that it's making tasty food (tasty, at least, for the neighbors).
The chicken arrives, caramel-skinned and perfectly cooked, the meat less dry and salty than at Hop Kee. But I give the point to Hop Kee's crisper skin and familiar smokiness (both lose face for the omission of shrimp chips). Finally, the lobster in lobster sauce, served with an omelette. This crustacean is more easily dismantled than the crabs, but no less riotous an experience. Our server asks if we want another cocktail. Ad-hoc, I order a boozy Shirley Temple, which makes my brother laugh, but reminds him immediately of being three years old in my uncle's restaurant, a suave little cocktail snob. The drink's not particularly good, but that's my fault, and I like it more for what it represents, anyhow: Punctuation for a great meal.
We're too full for dessert. The bill comes to $205. There are no fortune cookies, but we got doubles at Hop Kee, so I guess we're covered.
So, then: tasty or authentic? What do you pick? What does it mean to be a classic restaurant in New York, anyhow, and to whom? Picking Hop Kee was arbitrary and possibly controversial. There are plenty of people who would have picked Shun Lee Palace, or Nom Wah Tea Parlor, or Wo Hop (my old favorite, Sun Lok Kee, burned down just three doors from Hop Kee in 2002). By chronological standards, Hop Kee's a New York classic, but if you were a regular at Tingyatsak, Hop Kee symbolizes the moment that everything you once held dear began to vanish. "Classic" is a moving target. And what's classic Chinese-American food anyhow? There's nothing left of that, or almost nothing. Chop suey's still on the menu at Hop Kee, but you won't find it at Red Farm. It's a real dish, by the way — Taishanese peasant food. You probably wouldn't like it, but your grandparents did.