One of the East Village’s most exciting new restaurants opened in January at 11 East 7th Street just east of Third Avenue, and received almost no attention. A stone’s throw from McSorley’s, Le Sia once advertised skewers — the sort once sold from Beijing-style carts in Flushing. Yet the early Yelp listing described the place as Cajun-Creole (it still does, but “Chinese” has been added). The restaurant was slow to gain traction, remaining nearly empty in its early weeks. But when it finally blew up, it was mobbed, mainly with Chinese students from local universities who’d seen a promotion on the China-based social media network WeChat, according to a server at the restaurant.
Two colleagues and I arrived on a recent weekday evening to find the single dining room packed. A window at the end of the room looks into a kitchen where white-coated cooks are visible from the shoulders up. The room itself has colored lights on a stamped tin ceiling, brick walls, wood floors, and hanging fixtures that create hot spots of light, like a cross between an East Village bistro and one of Flushing’s flashy modern Chinese restaurants.
True to its name, Le Sia (“the shrimp”) specializes in crustaceans sold by the pound, boiled in a pot of herbal soup and then wok-fried with sauce. Front and center is the crayfish (also spelled as crawfish), a freshwater creature often associated with Louisiana that has caught on in a big way in China over the last decade, especially among millennials as a street food. Once a pest that plagued rice farmers, it came to be seen as a delicacy, and has spawned an industry that employs five million people, mainly in the provinces of Jiangsu, Hubei, Jiangxi, and Anhui.
Now, young Chinese people eat the crustacean by ripping the heads off, sucking out the roe, knocking back the tail, and then washing it down with beer, much the way people in New Orleans do in a sort of messy communal celebration. There are now nearly 18,000 restaurants in China specializing in crayfish, and, according to a friend who has spent a lot of time there, the crayfish boils are often very spicy. Chinese-style crayfish hasn’t spread quite as much in New York, though since 2012, Sunset Park has had its own Chinese crayfish restaurant, called Boat Haus (formerly Boat House).
Indeed, chef and co-owner Zac Zhang — a Beijing native who used to work in fine dining spots like roast duck restaurant Da Dong — tells Eater that he, along with partners Tina Chen and Yang Liu, wanted to open Le Sia specifically because of their love for Chinese-style crayfish and the lack of it in New York. The three of them met at East Village restaurant Hot Pot Central, and after it shuttered, Zhang wanted to open his own restaurant. Chen and Liu also happened to miss the food, among their favorite from their hometowns. “The most unforgettable meals in China for all of us is the spicy crawfish,” Chen says.
The last two panels of Le Sia’s menu, called Main Dish, is where the crustacean action happens, comprising of lobster, shrimp, and two kinds of crab, in addition to the crayfish. The creatures can be served singly or in pairs, with a choice of eight flavor combinations (including garlic, kimchi lime, and soy sauce), and four levels of spiciness, running from “mild” to “fire.”
We ordered the crayfish, a pound for $15, with “thirteen special flavor herbal spices.” This nuanced barrage of flavors deliciously infused the shelled creatures, which we dutifully tore limb from limb. Even though we ordered the second hottest level of heat (“spicy”), the dish was as fiery as we could stand it, especially the fats and juices inside the head. Here was a real Cajun-meets-Chinese experience, though the flavors were pretty exclusively Chinese.
Beyond the seafood, the menu also offers robust menu of other Chinese dishes — many of them offered here for the first time outside Queens. It’s a bold move; many of the newer Chinese restaurants in neighborhoods outside of immigrant enclaves like Sunset Park or Flushing either come from restaurateurs with experience in Western-style restaurants (like Little Tong) or offer water-downed versions of traditional Chinese fare (like Han Dynasty).
Hunan and Sichuan restaurants nearby already stir fry fresh green chiles with sliced pork or pork belly, for example, but here, fiery peppers are instead tossed with gluey cubes of pig trotter, with a texture something like melting gummy bears. Called “wok-fried hog hoof jelly with pepper” ($16.95), it’s one of four chef’s specials. Another less-known dish available here is a “dough drop and assorted vegetable soup” ($12.95), a comforting tomato broth with free-form dumplings.
In a section of the menu devoted to noodles and rice dishes, find Chinese jambalaya ($12.95), another of the small touches that connects the Chinese crayfish tradition to the Cajun. In spite of the name, and the dish’s component of crayfish tails and green onions, it mainly tastes Chinese. Still, the Chinese jambalaya, laced with sweet soy sauce, is one of the best plates of fried rice you’ve ever tasted.
And yes, there are kebabs to be eaten, small skewers of meat, seafood, or vegetables dusted with spices and cooked over open flame. The list runs to around 25, most priced at $2 to $3. The wooden sticks typically deliver two chicken wings, a handful of pork kidney fragments, beef tendon, “squid feet,” bacon-wrapped green beans, or chicken hearts; the selection favors offal. But these snacky tidbits are only the beginning of a fascinating menu, which offers lots of vegetable and variety meat sides. We also picked a so-so saucer of lotus root ($6.95) featuring giant fibrous specimens that failed in the crunch department, but there was also mung bean jelly, “tasty fungus,” and a Chinese salad, which provoked our curiosity, though we didn’t order it.
Beverages run from green tea to homemade plum juice to the usual light coconut milk. But the best beverage with food of this pungency is beer, in line with the way crayfish is eaten in China. For now Le Sia is BYOB, making it one of the better restaurant deals in the neighborhood, and also one of the most exciting. With a restaurant right in the East Village, the owners clearly have faith that people other than first generation Chinese immigrants will dig the foods of their hometowns — it’s pure genius that may pay off in a big way.