In the East Village, you can now get Hunan-inspired mifen rice noodles, Cajun-Chinese spicy crawfish boils at $15 per pound, Hong Kong-style clay pot rice, and homey bowls of Taiwanese beef noodles — all within the same half-mile radius. And most of these restaurants weren’t even here just two years ago.
Their owners are part of a growing group of Chinese chefs who have set up shop in the East Village over the last eight years or so, a phenomenon that has accelerated dramatically in recent years. Since 2017, five Chinese rice noodle shops alone have opened between Greenwich Village and Tompkins Square Park; since January, nearly a dozen Sinosphere restaurants (defined here as Chinese, Taiwanese, Hong Kongese, or otherwise Chinese adjacent) have opened or are slated to open around the East Village.
What sets these new restaurants apart is that they bear little resemblance to the hole-in-the-wall neighborhood takeout spots, or even the old-fashioned dim sum parlors, that are more ubiquitous around town. Some pump American pop hits and EDM through the speakers, and others pair exposed brick walls with industrial metal chairs. Several sport neon signs, while others feature painted murals and striking decor.
They are, in a word, cool — but unlike other “trendy” Chinese restaurants, like Chinese Tuxedo or Tao, the selling point here isn’t fusion food adapted to the Western palate. Instead, they hone in on specific regions or genres of Chinese cuisine, from the northwestern Chinese cumin-spiced noodles of the pioneering Xi’an Famous Foods to the Yunnan-inspired mixian dishes from Little Tong Noodle Shop. Restaurants from Flushing, like Szechuan Mountain House and Dunhuang, are also coming to the neighborhood, mingling with international imports like Taiwanese dessert chain Meet Fresh and dim sum darling Tim Ho Wan. Together, they bring to the East Village hyper-specific cuisines that previously required trips to Flushing or Sunset Park.
This surge is no accident: Trendy Chinese restaurants in the East Village have proliferated due to a few different forces — from the mainstreaming of Chinese cuisine to restaurateurs’ increasing sense of a cultural mission.
Chinese restaurants have been around in the U.S. for a century, but for decades, many in New York and the rest of the country still primarily knew Chinese cuisine via westernized adaptations of Cantonese flavors — chop suey, General Tso’s chicken — and, more recently, certain Sichuan and Shanghainese dishes.
While cuisines like Japanese have been able to enter the American mainstream and command higher prices, Chinese cuisine — much like Indian, Mexican, and other “ethnic” cuisines in the U.S. — has long been held back by what Krishnendu Ray, an associate professor at New York University and the author of the book The Ethnic Restaurateur, calls a “global hierarchy of taste,” shaped by a simple rule: The more powerful the nation and the richer the emigrants, the more money their cuisine can charge in the States.
Now, with China’s economy the second largest in the world, and with an increasing number of wealthy, educated immigrants coming from China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong, the socioeconomic conditions appear primed to allow for the upward mobility of Chinese cuisine in America. Pop culture and media, too, play a role — David Chang with his Asian-inspired Momofuku menus and his Ugly Delicious episodes spotlighting Chinese fried rice, dumplings, and Peking duck; GQ profiles of hip chefs like Danny Bowien of Mission Chinese; Vogue writing about “how authentic regional Chinese food became the culinary world’s newest obsession.”
This shift primes restaurants like Little Tong to cluster with other trendy Chinese restaurants in finding an audience, charging $24 (pre-tax; tip included) for a bowl of mixian and a starter.
Dramatic changes in dining culture in China itself play a role as well. A growing number of people in China are showing an interest in dining out — according to a report by the China Cuisine Association via the GB Times, last year there were more than 8 million restaurants in the country, compared to fewer than 120,000 in 1978. (For reference, in 2017 there were 647,288 restaurants in the U.S., according to a census conducted by the NPD Group.) Quartz writes that China spent an estimated 3.5 trillion yuan ($507 billion) dining out in 2016.
One result: Going into the restaurant business is more and more appealing to young Chinese people, and they’re coming to the U.S. to do it.
Indeed, many of the new East Village restaurants are owned and operated by young people of Chinese heritage who came to the U.S. in their teens or 20s for school, bearing a sharp grasp of branding, ambience, and social media in the same ways that neighbors and hip-Asian-food predecessors like Momofuku Noodle Bar understood.
In China, many of the contemporary restaurant and coffee shop owners are part of the post-’90s generation, who — similar to young people here in Brooklyn — are often seen as urban, middle-class or wealthy, self-focused job hoppers who want more from a career than just a salary. “Any friends I talk to, they want to open their own restaurant,” says Amelie Kang, a 26-year-old Tangshan native who’s behind hit Sichuan dry pot restaurant MáLà Project. “It’s concrete, it’s brick and mortar. You walk in, it’s your own space, you’re eating your own food.” Like her friends, Kang came to New York to pursue restaurants, arriving to go to culinary school and opening MáLà shortly after.
Some of them end up opening here instead of China partly for financial reasons. Despite NYC’s density, the market is even more saturated in mainland China than in New York, making it difficult to operate a small business there, says Tang co-founder and owner Yu Li, who was born in Beijing. “The market is huge, but more for big chains like Starbucks,” he says. As a result, lots of Chinese investors are looking to spend their money overseas and will put cash in restaurants; some of the Tang’s own backers even come from China. “It’s competitive, but still less competitive than owning a restaurant in China,” he says.
The East Village makes sense as a neighborhood to plant because of its demographics. Young Chinese people in New York increasingly flock there, due in part to the huge influx of Chinese international students attending New York University and other nearby schools. In recent years, the international student population at NYU has steadily increased, and few populations more so than people from China. Between 2012 and 2016, the number of Chinese students at NYU more than doubled — going from just over 2,200 in 2012 to more than 6,500 in 2016, by far the biggest group compared to any other nationality.
“[The East Village is] definitely a place where Chinese students gather,” says Shiqin Cao, a recent NYU grad from Shanghai who now lives in the neighborhood. “Whenever I go there, I run into at least 10 people from school. It’s kind of catered to wealthy college students who are missing home.”
It also helps that even before the latest wave of new Chinese restaurants, the East Village was already a dining and nightlife hotspot known for its Asian restaurants, with a reputation as Manhattan’s “Little Tokyo” for the plethora of Japanese restaurants and bars in the area. That history means a lot of structures in the East Village — from landlords to food suppliers to the kind of diners it attracts — are open to new restaurants that serve Asian food and understand what the businesses need.
East Village landlords know that Asian fare works in the neighborhood and are welcoming to it, says Ho Foods chef and owner Richard Ho. In fact, counterintuitively, Chinatown often proves to be a much harder space for younger Chinese restaurateurs to break into, compared to the East Village, according to Ho. “We went to places, and there are landlords who are like, ‘You’re not going to open a busy bar here because there are old people living upstairs, and they won’t like it,’” he says, adding later: “Ultimately, what [landlords] want is a person that will pay their rent on time and be clean. What people see work in certain neighborhoods definitely affects their decision process.”
Customers, too, are more open to trying new cuisines, the owners say. Restaurants have the chance to reach both Chinese expats who are already acquainted with the cuisine and people who are less familiar but eager to try something new.
Ho, for instance, opened his Taiwanese noodle shop for Taiwanese people, but like other restaurants in the East Village, he gets a mix of students and working professionals, Chinese and non-Chinese; customers who are reminded of home; and people who aren’t at all familiar with the food.
Alex Yip, who grew up in Manhattan’s Chinatown after his family immigrated from Hong Kong, specifically chose the East Village for his new restaurant Clay Pot to reach entirely new audiences — he says he was unlikely to ever open in the neighborhood where he grew up. “My target was actually people who didn’t know Chinese restaurants,” he says. “The goal of the restaurant was to bridge cultures and generations together.”
Success also begets success: Once one business excels, others are drawn to the same area, trying similar tactics. In the case of Chinese restaurants in the East Village, the success story that led the most recent wave of new restaurants may be MáLà Project, multiple restaurateurs tell Eater. The dry hot pot restaurant, which opened in December 2015, reached both commercial and critical success with a New York Times Critic’s Pick, a Midtown expansion, and a more recent two-star review by Eater’s Ryan Sutton.
“She was the first to have a real dining atmosphere in the East Village,” says the Tang’s owner Li, pointing to how Kang’s restaurant pairs true-to-China flavors with attentive service in a nice setting — creating a more atmospheric dining experience. “People are no longer just looking for the flavors, but they’re also looking for the culture and the story and the experience. So we thought maybe [the Tang’s] concept could work in the East Village.”
Plus, having a new community helps with the actual cost of running business, owners say. Chao Wang, the Chinese-born owner of newly opened mifen restaurant Hunan Slurp, cites MáLà Project and Szechuan Mountain House as examples of thriving Chinese restaurants whose mere proximity would be good for his restaurant.
For example, Wang can use the same food supplier as Szechuan Mountain House, allowing the supplier to conveniently drop by Hunan Slurp and make deliveries for both places. It’s not necessarily a big reason newer restaurateurs choose the East Village, but it’s certainly a perk. “If you open a Korean restaurant in K-Town, you can have resources because [suppliers] are delivering there anyway,” he says.
With the spurt of Chinese restaurants, is the East Village slowly becoming a modern, hipper version of Chinatown? Restaurateurs’ responses to the question are mixed. Some, like Yip, say that the East Village is a natural destination as Chinatown becomes more gentrified and new generations of Chinese restaurant owners shift uptown. Others, like Li, point to the supermarkets, retail spaces, and other local businesses that make Chinatown Chinatown, in addition to its Chinese inhabitants and long history.
But one thing the East Village does offer is more opportunity for even bigger growth: The neighborhood’s foot traffic and diverse crowds make it a prime gateway to further expansion. Danielle Lacko, a senior licensed sales associate specializing in hospitality at real estate agency Tower Brokerage, says that rents may be expensive there, but it’s worth it for the opportunity to develop a brand in such a hip, high-foot-traffic area.
Already, restaurateurs like Kang are leveraging that foot traffic and brand exposure to build presences in other, potentially more profitable areas that cater to different clienteles, like her Midtown location of MáLà Project or her Chinese diner, Tomorrow, in FiDi. Tong, too, is planting another branch of her noodle shop in Midtown East to capture the office-worker market, and the founders of Chinese-Cajun seafood restaurant Le Sia are planning to expand from the East Village to Midtown and near Columbia University in Morningside Heights, another locale with lots of Chinese international students.
Kang hopes that more Chinese restaurateurs follow suit. “The Japanese restaurants are spread out and more established than Chinese restaurants and Korean restaurants — they already left St. Mark’s,” she says.
The wish for expansion is about more than just finances: The restaurants are deeply personal. Many of the owners have a desire to preserve or spread their culture in New York, to show Americans the varied dimensions and styles and flavors of Chinese food — and to not just showcase, but to update and lift up how the cuisine is seen, they say.
“Chinese and Taiwanese culture in general are very underrepresented in America,” says Eric Sze, one of the founders of noodle bar the Tang, and co-owner of upcoming Taiwanese restaurant Eight Eight Six. “All of these people, including myself, grew up in a whole other country, came here, and are trying to rep the culture.” Food, the Taipei native points out, is still the best way to do that.
And unlike many of the Chinese restaurants that have proliferated across the city and country over the last century, these new owners aren’t doing it solely to make a living. “Most people from the olden days, like my parents’ generation, they opened Chinese restaurants because they needed to survive,” says Tong.
Ho concurs: “Our generation, we’re doing this not out of necessity, but out of choice.”
“Americans have already been eating Chinese food for over a century,” says Eric Guo, general manager of the East Village location of the Flushing restaurant Szechuan Mountain House. “But we want to spread the knowledge of what contemporary people are eating in China right now.”
Ho, for his part, celebrates this new wave of restaurants but recognizes that the current trend is in its infancy. “I think we’re still on the way there; we’re still figuring it out,” he says. “Hopefully we can carry this wave and bring it to a place where these are sustainable and growing businesses that will be around for a long time.”