With shelves of succulents and a glossy red logo, Hak Box looks like any other fast-casual newcomer in Manhattan Chinatown’s crowded dining scene. But the 200-square-foot restaurant, tucked under Manhattan Bridge at 88 East Broadway, is attracting an audience of people nostalgic for what they term old Chinatown — with some even traveling from out of state to eat Hak Box’s scallion- and pork-covered rice rolls, part of a cuisine that’s rarely found in the city.
The restaurant is technically the creation of Warren Wan, a 33-year-old who grew up in the neighborhood. The recipes, though, pull from his memory of South Wind, a Chinatown restaurant that closed nearly a decade ago after close to 30 years in business. The diner, which shuttered when the main chef retired, served its own version of Hakka food, a highly specific strain of Cantonese cooking that’s difficult to find in New York or even in mainland China.
According to people from the community, there are few establishments left in Chinatown like South Wind — inexpensive, no-frills restaurants that make comfort food for the community; many from the old days have shut down. Hak Box doesn’t make rice rolls exactly like South Wind, but for devotees, it’s comparable.
“I couldn’t believe my ears that an establishment serving the same food that South Wind once served was open,” says Chris Eng, a 36-year-old New Yorker who frequented Chinatown as an adolescent. “In terms of flavor, was it exactly like South Wind? No, but it was the closest thing to it that I have tasted since.”
Wan, too, was a longtime South Wind fan. He grew up across the street and was close to the restaurant’s previous owner, who was like an uncle figure to him, Wan says. A few years ago, he asked for the recipes behind South Wind’s most popular snacks. To his surprise, the previous owner handed them over, and after some experimentation, Wan opened his own restaurant this year.
There are three essential items at Hak Box that represent the best-selling snacks of South Wind: Hak rolls, which are giant, scallion-filled, pink salted meat-covered rice noodle rolls; saucy, ground pork and salted fish-stuffed tofu; and tightly wrapped mixed-meat dumplings, featuring pork, salted fish, and other ingredients.
Part of the appeal is the huge portion sizes. The dumplings at Hak Box are larger than the Chinese dumplings or wontons seen elsewhere in town, and the skin is thicker, too. Unlike the silky and soft Cantonese-style rice rolls, or cheung fun, Hak rolls use premade rice noodles with more of a texture, resulting in a filling and on-the-go meal. They’re also doused with small pieces of salted pork and dried shrimp for a strong flavor alongside the bland noodles. A $2.50 roll can easily be a lunch or breakfast on its own.
“Back then, it was more for the working men,” Wan says of the portion sizes. “They had to fill their stomach, you know, so everything was bigger and more flavorful.”
Hakka food is specific to the Hakkas, who speak the language of Hakka and whose ancestral homes are primarily in Hakka-speaking areas in the southern Chinese provinces of Guangdong, Fujian, Jiangxi, and Guangxi, though they’re now also around the world. Known for its braised dishes and stews, the cuisine also uses preserved meats, imparting a strong flavor to the dishes. The tofu dish that Hak Box serves is another typical specialty.
Unlike other styles of cooking, Hakka food is barely known to many mainlanders in China. In New York, Hak Box is one of few places that serve something resembling traditional Hakka food. But here, it’s presented with a New York twist; Wan considers his cuisine to be a New York food invented by the Chinese immigrants who opened South Wind.
“When you eat rice rolls at other places, it’s not as flavorful,” says Josephine Gum, a regular at Hak Box who also grew up eating at South Wind and who now works in Chinatown. “I think this one, they put a little more ingredients in it. There’s just more flavor to it.”
Indeed, Wan wanted to serve Hakka food in part because of how unique it is. “Hakka food is almost not represented in New York. No one’s doing it. So I was like, ‘Why not? I’ll try it,’” he says. “If I was a bubble tea, I’m fighting against the whole world right now.”
But Hak Box is also about keeping a part of Manhattan’s old Chinatown community alive, he says. “All the stores that we know are retiring, or they’re going out of business because of the rent, or because there are no next people in line,” he says.
The legacy Chinatown community has made up the bulk of his restaurant’s audience. The day it opened, some 50 people lined up — many of them, like Wan, American-born Chinese people who grew up with South Wind. For many in the community, going to South Wind was part of their daily routine. The rice rolls, dumplings, and tofu were their comfort food, a place to hang out with people in the neighborhood. Customers have come in from Connecticut and New Jersey due to word of mouth, Wan says.
David Woo, a 69-year-old who used to frequent South Wind, says he used to go for breakfast and was “extremely happy” to hear that some version of the food was back in Chinatown.
“It was part of the community,” he says of South Wind. “It was kind of sad when they closed, so it was like you were missing a part of your body because you were so used to going there.”
Though Hak Box is essentially a takeout counter, which results in a different dining experience than the diner format of South Wind, former South Wind regulars say it’s great to have the food back. And just as at South Wind, they bump into old family friends and fellow fans ordering large portions of takeout food for their families at Hak Box.
“For as long as I can remember, my parents would always talk about South Wind when it came to getting something from Chinatown to eat,” Eng says. “It was our go-to quick snack spot. Every time they mentioned it, even if I was not hungry, I would immediately get cravings.”
But Eng says he wasn’t sure what impression Hak Box would have on the younger generation, which has no previous connection to South Wind, especially at a time when the restaurant industry is fiercely competitive.
“I love it because it brings back those childhood memories with my parents ... [it’s] something I truly enjoyed eating, and still do,” he says.
Shen Lu is an English-Chinese bilingual journalist based in New York. She writes about the Chinese diaspora, immigration, gender, and money.