New York’s Chinatown is home to some of the best affordable eats in the city — and it also happens to be an area rife with history. The neighborhood is ideal fodder for a walking tour with both fantastic food and NYC history. Start at the 15-foot bronze statue of Confucius by Taiwanese sculptor Liu Shih, installed in 1976 to commemorate the Bicentennial. It’s a perfect place to meet your friends and for a Chinatown cheap eats tour to begin. Follow along with this guide; a custom map will escort you.
Begin your journey at the corner of Bowery and Pell Street, where you’ll find a cart that sells Hong Kong cakes. They’re little eggy treats cooked in a waffle iron that break apart for easy sharing at 15 for $1.25. Snack on those to kick things off.
One block south is the start of Doyers Street. At only one block long, it is one of the shortest streets in the city, but also one of the few with a bend in the middle. Proceed along Doyers to the bend in the road. On your left is Nom Wah Tea Parlor, founded in 1920, making it the oldest eating establishments in Chinatown. It looks every year its age, even though it was extensively restored a couple of years ago and has become wildly popular. The dim sum (small snacks based on dumplings and noodles, taken with tea) is pretty good.
But the bend in Doyers directly in front of you has long been known as the Bloody Angle. During the Tong Wars around the turn of the 20th century, when two rival gangs called the On Leongs and Hip Sings struggled for supremacy, it was the site of many assassinations, often accomplished with small hatchets. A narrow passageway that went from this corner to Mott Street permitted the murderers to escape. Though the corner has been extensively altered since then, see if you can figure out where the entrance to the passageway was.
Emerge from Doyers and turn left onto Pell Street, one of the oldest thoroughfares in Chinatown, which began to assume a separate identity from the rest of the city in the 1860s, but still consisted mainly of four streets for over a century (Mott, Doyers, Pell, and Bayard). Proceed to Mott Street, turn left, and find yourself in the middle of the most ancient part of Chinatown.
As you proceed southward, on your right is tiny Mosco Street, a very short descending alleyway that was at the heart of the hardscrabble Five Points neighborhood — the area’s old name — prior to the Civil War. It still retains some of its 19th century feel. On the left at the top of the hill is a shed beloved of generations of kids that once dispensed the original Hong Kong cakes. On the right is the Church of the Transfiguration, the oldest Catholic church building in New York City, dating to 1801.
As you descend the hill on Mosco, you’ll see a store called Fried Dumpling, really just a rough hewn stall. It was the second, and now only, remaining branch of Fried Dumpling, which revolutionized cheap eats when it opened in 1999 on the Lower East Side, selling five pork pot stickers for a dollar, an amazing bargain. The menu remains slim, with only five items, and you can watch the dumplings being made. Stop for a serving of five, now $1.25.
Labor back up the hill and turn right on Mott. Directly on your right is Hop Kee at 21 Mott and then the basement original of Wo Hop at 17 Mott. The latter, down a steep red flight of stairs, is the second oldest restaurant in Chinatown, founded in 1938. It also serves one of the city’s best evocations of early Chinese-American cuisine, first developed during the days of the Gold Rush and later during the building of the first Transcontinental Railroad, when immigrant Chinese cooks were faced with recreating classic dishes from back home using the limited materials at hand.
Later, it evolved into a cuisine made to appeal to contemporary American tastes, spawning neighborhood Chinese restaurants in every corner of the country, many of which still exist. At Wo Hop you can thrill to such antique dishes as chow mein, egg foo yung, pepper steak, and chop suey — said to be the original Chinese-American dish. Eating a meal at Wo Hop would not be a bad idea. When you’re done, dart across the street to Wing On Wo & Co., which, according to the metal awning, sells “Oriental Gifts.” It has been run by the Lum family since the 1890s, making it the oldest retail establishment in Chinatown. Inside, find a framed photo of what the place looked like when it opened.
Indeed, Chinatown has always been a tourist destination, and Mott Street is still filled with establishments that sell paper fans, silk pajamas, bamboo back scratchers, and other old-fashioned souvenirs aimed at the tourist trade, things that symbolized China long ago for customers that had never been there and couldn’t imagine going.
Now turn around and walk north up Mott Street toward Canal Street. On the left at 41 Mott find Golden Fung Wong Bakery, one of the oldest bakeries in Chinatown. The timeworn interior alone is worth a visit, but it’s also worth sampling its specialty, hopia — little round pastries that are flaky on the outside and gooey on the inside. They originated in China and spread to the Philippines, a testament to the Chinese diaspora across Southeast Asia.
A further testament is found at the corner of Bayard and Mott, where the long-running Bo Ky restaurant serves what is known as Teochew cuisine, a form of Chinese food heavily influenced by the cooking of Vietnam, Malaysia, and Thailand. It’s another great place for a meal, especially if you get the Teochew duck, fried shrimp rolls, or fish ball noodles. On the other side of the intersection, you can spot the venerable Chinatown Ice Cream Factory, where the flavors run to lychee, green tea, and mango.
Now, continue north on Mott till you reach Canal Street, admiring the mix of shops and restaurants along the way. On the southwest corner at Canal and Mott is the stunning On Leong Tong Building. It’s named after the gang that fought in the Tong Wars — the one mentioned above that was active on Doyers — and its pagoda roof, broad balconies, and red pillars are representative of a style of architecture known as Chinese Modern, promulgated by Poy Gum Lee. He was born in Chinatown in 1900, immigrated to Shanghai in his youth, and returned to New York City just after World War II, merging Art Deco and Chinese temple architecture in his revolutionary designs.
Head west on Canal until you reach Baxter Street, two blocks distant, passing another Hong Kong cakes cart. Once known as the poorest blocks in the Five Points district before the Civil War, Baxter Street is home to the Tombs, Manhattan’s most notorious jail, but also to a string of Vietnamese cafes that began appearing in the ’70s after the United States lost the Vietnam War. They are run by Chinese-Vietnamese immigrants who had mainly lived in the Mekong Delta southwest of Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City). Stop for a steaming bowl of pho, and then proceed south to Bayard Street, turn left, and head over to Mulberry Street.
Mulberry, too, eventually became a Chinatown street, but remains one of those least visited by tourists. It also boasts a few Vietnamese restaurants, and some small groceries, butchers, and fish markets.
The penultimate stop on our Chinatown tour is two lines of outdoor fruit vendors on either side of Mulberry Street running south from Canal Street. There find discounts on such exotica as dragon fruit, fresh lychees and longans, and furry red rambutans. Stock up!
The last stop makes a nice conclusion to our tour: the Museum of Chinese in America at 215 Centre St. will fill in more details of Chinatown’s development, and how it was contingent on the repugnant behavior of the American government, which strangled Chinese immigration during much of the 19th and 20th centuries via such legislation as the Chinese Exclusion Act (1882).
With the repeal of that act and other restrictions, Chinatown began to grow, ballooning over ten times by the end of the 20th century, so that now it extends through much of the original Lower East Side and parts of Little Italy, almost to Houston Street. But that is a tour best left for another day.