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Chinatown's King’s Kitchen Proves Cantonese Is Back in Fashion

Fifteen years ago the Fujianese swept into Chinatown and totally transformed the neighborhood. Old-guard Cantonese places disappeared in droves — especially the ducks-in-the window type of teahouse, an institution that had defined Chinatown for over a century. In its place appeared two new restaurant varieties, the first featuring hand-pulled noodles and dumplings, the second specializing in the regional cuisine of Fujian. Both types soon crowded East Broadway, with Eldridge Street another hotspot. While regional Fujianese menus often included a smattering of familiar Cantonese dishes, the balance was at once fascinating and partly inscrutable to outsiders, centered on tiny peanut dumplings in sweet soups, dishes tinted bright red with rice-wine lees, and seafood of such diversity that newbie diners were sent scurrying for their zoological reference works.

Well, the great Fujianese age may be gradually coming to a close, as evidenced by the reappearance of Cantonese teashops along East Broadway, most with a Hong Kong bent that re-prioritizes the old bill of fare. In the shadow of the Manhattan Bridge amidst queues of cheap Chinatown buses, the newest is King’s Kitchen. Yes, ducks are swinging again in its windows, along with steamed chickens, roast baby pigs, and giant yellow cuttlefish, which may alarm some customers. Watch your fingers! The interior is lined with gleaming tiles, white on top, black on the bottom. This waterproof wall treatment, which makes the place look a little like a medical laboratory, allows the proprietors to literally hose the place down at the end of the day — a spectacle worth witnessing.

Kings Kitchen Eel

Eel rice casseroled in a crock

This window display of Chinese charcuterie is served in the conventional style over a mountain of perfect white rice, priced from $4.75 (duck, soy sauce chicken, roast pork) to $7.95 (cuttlefish), or in combinations of two or three. The huge platters come sprinkled with sweet, soy-laced meat juices, but you should request the green scallion relish known as goeng jung; it doubles the pleasure of the preserved meats with its salty and gingery pungency. Go early in the day if you crave charcuterie, since it often runs out by early evening.

But there is also now a more Hong Kong-style alternative to these over-rice Cantonese barbecued meats called bo zai fan, designated on the menu as Rice Casseroles ($6.50 to $9.50). Cooked rice is shoveled into a porous clay crock that has been soaked in water, one or more ingredients are placed on top, and the lid firmly affixed. Then the whole thing is flung on a flaming brazier for 15 minutes or so, which sends steam swirling inside the crock and distributes the flavor of the added ingredients throughout the rice with great subtlety. Added ingredients can include frog, Japanese-style eel, and pork knuckle (these are highly recommended), in addition to quail, beef navel, salted chicken, and spare ribs with black bean sauce. The stickiest features swatches of braised beef and a runny egg.

Sure you can have them stuffed with beef navel or dried shrimp, but why not go wild and have the rice noodle wrapped around, say, a cruller and fish paste?

Other big feeds at budget prices (this is Cheap Eats Week, after all!) include the rice porridge known as congee (try the stomach-soothing sliced-fish version), the usual assortment of wonton and noodle soups (which you should skip as being fundamentally boring), and a catalog of noodle stir-fries, the best being beef chow fun (get the kind with the gravy) and soy sauce fried noodle — a rudimentary vegetarian conglomeration that’s a Hong Kong favorite. Some of the best dishes at King’s Kitchen are the soul of simplicity.

King's Kitchen Soup
King's Kitchen Soup

Frog congee and soy sauce fried noodles

But keep in mind this sort of urbane, shopper-friendly institution, with its odd British flourishes, is also a perfect place for snacking. So why not pull up to a summery glass of milk-based bubble tea or a fruit smoothie in a tulip glass, as if you were in a 50s soda fountain, only in China, and grab a few short dishes? Towering above the rest are the super-wonderful Steamed Rice Rolls, which arrive looking like a pair of maki rolls using noodle material rather than seaweed. Sure you can have them stuffed with beef navel (chewy brisket), bitter melon, shrimp, or dried shrimp — the latter for extra crunch. But why not go wild and have the rice noodle wrapped around, say, a cruller and fish paste? Or around a row of Japanese pork-and-shrimp shumai? Both show the fertile imaginations of Hong Kong chefs.

Then there are Thai style fried wontons, chicken wings stewed in a crock that arrives bubbling like a volcano, and plain plates of steamed bok choy or iceberg lettuce. On second thought, if you’ve never tried steamed iceberg lettuce before, this may not be the time to start, with so many really good things on the menu.

Cost: Lunch or dinner for two including a rice casserole, two steamed rice rolls, and plate of bok choy, plus mug of ovaltine and glass of bubble tea, $20

Sample dishes: beef chow fun with gravy, beef navel on rice, fried fritter rice with shumai, eel rice casserole

What to drink: Exercise your inner Brit with a glass of Horlicks, a hot and sweet malt beverage that many believe is sleep inducing; or a red bean smoothie; or the refreshing iced lemon and honey

Bonus tip: Congee makes about the world’s best breakfast, and King’s Kitchen opens at 6 a.m. every morning.

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