There must be over two dozen stalls, shops, and small cafes that specialize in Chinese dumplings south of 14th Street — so many that one could feast on them in several neighborhoods heading south from Union Square. Now, joining this plethora in a couple of blank spots on the map, is a pair of fast-casual cafes called Three Times. One settled down right on Broadway a stone’s throw south of 12th Street, while the other is north of Delancey Street on Clinton, very close to the Williamsburg Bridge.
On a visit to the location closer to Union Square, I was surprised to discover a dining room way more comfortable than most fast-casual restaurants, featuring banquettes, chairs with backs, and lots of wood and brick in subtle shades of brown and gray. Bruno Mars dominated the sound system. Past the counter, a gleaming kitchen seemed oddly empty.
Three Times comes from owner Jason Zhu, a former travel agent, and chef Jennifer Yang, who has had Big Apple stints in Flushing at Yu Garden and Nan Xiang Xiao Long Bao, both places renowned for their Shanghai soup dumplings.
But on my initial visit, the menu was short and doctrinaire, not much different from the usually bare-bones dumpling stall, including dumplings fried and steamed, noodles, buns, bubble tea, and a rice bowl or two. Atypically, Three Times also offers espresso beverages. The pot stickers ($6.75 for six) were appropriately thick-skinned, a little rounder than others around town and stuffed with flavorful ground pork. While some Chinatown stalls still vend them freshly made at four for a dollar, this price didn’t seem excessive given the location. The dumplings are all made in the larger kitchen of the Lower East Side branch.
The thing a companion and I enjoyed the most was a beef bowl ($12.50) featuring sweet, soy-braised chunks of meat poured over a generous quantity of rice, with pickled greens and yellow pickled daikon sharing the top of the bowl. It was an unexpected take on the Taiwanese classic lu rou fan, since the menu’s marquee item is advertised as shi bing tong, a roll-up of sweet potato noodles, pork, squid, tofu, and multiple vegetables in a thin pancake said to be festival food in Taizhou in the Zhejiang Province, due south of Shanghai. Despite the hype, this bing ($9.75) was almost all noodles.
But a shock was in store for me. When I revisited the Union Square branch a few days later, the menu was vastly expanded. Suddenly, the new emphasis was on noodles, over-rice dishes, and soups, several in a Taiwanese vein. Many of the new dishes were tastier and more ambitious than the previous menu had been. Pork chop rice ($11.25) featured a massive breaded chop dampened with sauce, while jaja noodles ($9.25) showcased pork and tofu in a sweet-sauced mince with optional peanuts strewn across the top, a thoroughly enjoyable bowl of noodles. Three cup chicken, a signature dish of Taiwanese cuisine, is also available, and I’m itching to try it.
There were duds, too, including a tomato egg soup ($3.75) that was thin and lacking in flavor despite being bright red, and a Shanghai wonton soup with dumplings that were profuse in number but looked like pale goldfish swimming in the broth. At $4.95 though, it was one of the best deals on the menu.
The next day I paid a third visit, this time to the Lower East Side outpost. The decor was identical, so that if you were dropped from the sky into either, you wouldn’t be able to tell which one you were in. The menu, too, was the expanded version with Taiwanese dishes, and employees who were neither cooks nor counter workers were bustling around and conferring with each other at a table as I entered. Apparently three more Three Times locations in Manhattan are planned, with out of town branches contemplated.
I asked one of the employees what the name Three Times means. He replied with a smile, “You know, three times a day. You have to eat three times a day.”