At long last, northern Chinese food has busted into Manhattan, hard on the heels of Hunan food. We’re not talking about thick-skinned dollar dumplings, hot and sour soup, and sesame bread in big wheels — northern notions that took downtown by storm at the turn of the last millennium at stalls like Fried Dumpling and Vanessa’s. We’re talking full bore northern Chinese cuisine: green bean sheet jelly; cumin-scented roast lamb; delicate pig parts in aspic, which might be mistaken for French food; and delicious pickled cabbage, often added to stir frys and casseroles.
The location of this new spot comes as something of a surprise: West 14th Street in Greenwich Village. Other cutting-edge regional Chinese establishments arriving in Manhattan tend to be in the East Village or Midtown. The rather quaint name of the place is Auntie Guan’s Kitchen 108, and it occupies a space that was formerly C Bao, a restaurant that specialized in sandwiches made from fluffy steamed buns. For some reason, nobody was buying them.
Now, the premises are opened up and spot-lit like an airplane hangar, with stucco on the wall in waves and dozens of thick ropes hanging from the ceiling, giving the room the feel of a wooden frigate. Booths and free-standing tables are covered by formal-looking white tablecloths, and a door to the kitchen swings open at the rear. The owners also operate an establishment on Kissena Boulevard in Flushing named Golden Palace. It too specializes in the food of northern China, specifically Shandong, Dongbei, Tianjin, and nearby cities and provinces.
If you're looking for northern fare and scan the wrong sections of Auntie’s menu, you might be disappointed. There’s lots of Cantonese and Chinese-American stuff, which is available everywhere. Nearly all of the lunch specials ($8.99) are in a Chinese-American vein, served with soup, rice, and an egg roll. Instead turn to Homemade Dumplings, a section that includes the sorts of pot stickers found at Vanessa’s and Prosperity, including ones stuffed with loofah, leeks and pork, Chinese cabbage and pork, and sour cabbage and pork.
The wonderful "pork or chicken Chinese cabbage cake" ($5.99), a sort of Asian stromboli stuffed with a scallion-scented ground pork patty, also appears in the dumplings portion of the menu. Cut into sections and oozing flavor, it’s incredibly tasty. Not all the dumplings were available at this early stage of the game, but we tried the leek, shrimp, and egg variety (6 for $6.99), which were wonderfully doughy and overstuffed.
Auntie Guan's offers an impressive appetizer section, including what might be the city’s best bowl of sesame noodles ($7.99), with real toasted tahini instead of the usual peanut butter, and a plate of spicy beef shank ($10.99), sliced thin and served cold like mutant luncheon meat, veined with fat and jelly. The beef comes sided with a powerful garlic/soy dipping sauce that will take your breath away. The most impressive app of all, and one frequently found in Flushing’s Dongbei restaurants, is a salad of translucent "sheet jelly" ($9.99), plus shredded carrots, kelp, cucumbers, and omelet. It's geometrically arranged and tossed at the table by the waiter, who applied a nose-clearing wasabi dressing. One entire side of the fold-out menu is dedicated to northern Chinese fare like this, and we stuck to that as we progressed with our meal.
My friends and I ordered the braised lion’s mane meatballs (here called lion’s head, $11.99), a Shanghai specialty often found on dim sum menus in a sweeter form flavored with orange rind. They were good in a plain-ish sort of way. Much better was a working-class classic of potatoes, green pepper, and eggplant ($11.99), which were stewed in a thick, sparse gravy. We also liked the sautéed sour cabbage and bean-thread vermicelli ($10.99), which defeated its vegetarian-sounding name by the inclusion of pork tendrils. More sour cabbage, reminiscent of German sauerkraut, could have been added to the dish. The only thing we didn’t like was the sweet-and-sour beef ($14.99) — a dish that originated in northern China, but migrated onto many Cantonese menus. Here, the beef was tough and over-breaded.
Small defects aside, a meal at Auntie Guan’s can be mind-boggling if you’re not familiar with the cuisines of the north, which have completely changed New York’s idea of Chinese food over the last decade. But I’m afraid the proprietors are finding northern Chinese food a hard sell in Manhattan. Looking around us, most diners were enjoying dishes like General Tso’s chicken, chow fun, and beef with broccoli. Only time will tell if real Chinese regional food enthusiasts will make their way to this out-of-the-way location. But why not? Sichuan restaurant Legends is only a block away.
Auntie Guan's Kitchen 108
108 W 14th St