Just last week a new food court quietly opened in Chinatown. Called Mott Street Eatery, it’s located at 98 Mott Street just north of Canal. Though we’ve seen similar food courts of this type in Flushing, Sunset Park, and Elmhurst, this is perhaps the first devoted entirely to food in Manhattan’s Chinatown, though we’ve had shopping malls before that featured a smattering of food businesses.
Mott Street Eatery replaces Joy Luck Palace — one of the city’s best Cantonese dim sum banquet halls — which closed almost four years ago. The new space offers 12 tables that will seat around 100, with a small stage at the end of the room. There are 10 stalls, of which seven are currently occupied. Potted plants festooned with ribbons, tokens of good luck wishes, are everywhere.
The biggest stall fills what might have been four regular stalls, and is separated from the common area by plexiglass. On the right side, ducks and other roasted meats hang from hooks; on the left, dim sum is displayed; and pastries like youtiao are arranged in the middle. Called 89 Eatery, this vendor does an admirable job of filling the void left by Joy Luck Palace’s exit by offering similar quality dumplings, congee, and siu mei like roast duck and char siu.
During two weekend afternoon visits, this was the stall that hummed with the most activity and filled seats in the middle of the food court. The roasted meat offerings are indeed impressive, some of the best and most varied currently in Chinatown. Sure, there was the usual crisp-skinned baby pig, sweet char siu, bronze-skinned roast duck, and steamed chicken, but also on display were a dozen or so other varieties.
In addition to pig’s ear, cuttle fish, and soy sauce chicken, pipa duck is offered, which is relatively rare. Named after a violin-shaped stringed instrument, the flattened creature, whose rib bones are prominently visible, is cloaked in a very dark, sweet glaze, and the skin is thereby rendered as crisp as a potato chip. The “old country style chicken” was not nearly as good, similar to a Hainanese chicken in its subtlety of flavor, but with a texture that was a little firmer.
Some of the meats are available over rice with two, three, or four choices ($7.50, $9, $9.50), but many of the less common items are available only by the half or full animal. The dim sum was every bit as good as the barbecued meats, displayed in steamers and then packed into plastic containers once an order was placed. Both rice noodle rolls — one containing shrimp, the other pureed beef tasting of cilantro — were good, though slightly lacking in delicacy.
But the shu mai were top notch, with a choice of several fillings, and so were the crystal dumplings, which feature greens and shrimp in their pellucid, navel-shaped wrappers. The braised chicken feet were more tender than usual, making them easier to eat. All told, about 10 varieties of dim sum are available at any given time. I also tried a pork stomach and liver congee, but it lacked the green onion and shredded ginger flavor that I’ve enjoyed in other versions.
Six other stalls are occupied, four with food offerings. Working our way counterclockwise from the front door, Zhen Pin Café offers bubble teas, ice cream, and baked goods, but for now, only coffee and a kind of sweet drinkable yogurt in plastic cups are sold. Something like an Indian lassi, the viscous white drink is well worth trying.
Next door find Domo Sushi, offering a rather full menu of raw fish as nigiri or hand rolls running to some rather unexpected ingredients like spot prawns, imported scallops, Maine sea urchin, and fatty bluefin, often decorated with truffle shavings or salmon roe, clearly aiming at the higher end of the sushi trade. All this comes from one sushi chef known as Jiro, who recently returned to New York City after a stint in Tokyo and previous experience in NYC, and is working in an incredibly tiny space. The spicy scallop, caviar, and truffle hand roll ($20) was fresh and delicious, though a bit difficult to eat. “The scallop is from Hokkaido,” Jiro beamed. An omakase is available at $70 and $100.
Greeny’s Tea is your typical Chinatown tea shop, but in a much smaller space, where an affable owner sends out cups of tea, both familiar and lesser-known varietals.
Another stall called Burger Pizza Kwan specializes in the namesake commodities. A brass plaque from a police foundation identifies the owner as B.P. Kwan. The pizzas are long and rectangular with the usual tomato sauce and cheese component. The woman at the counter recommended duck ($12), but when I opened the box it featured lobster in finely minced flakes mired in cheese. (It was tasty, though the duck had sounded better.) The so-called house burger ($15) featured a substantial patty nicely cooked, with a square puck of composed lobster on top. It didn’t impress me, but the plain burger is probably a good bet.
The next stall had no English signage other than the name Tinnie Promotion Center. A line of bottles and cans suggests that what is being promoted is soft drinks and teas. (My quick web search was unrevealing.)
The next stall, just across the seating area, was also engaged in a food-related business, but really not selling food. Icook A1 Kitchen displayed a line of contraptions with shiny, large-circumference pipes snaking out the tops, that looked like washing machines. Small plates of steamed bok choy were being passed out for free. A guy in front of the stall, who had the physique of a bouncer, pulled down his mask to explain that these devices washed and then steamed your produce all in one fell swoop.
For a gastro-adventure in a newly christened food court, with some predictable offerings and some surprising ones, too, Mott Street Eatery is not to be missed. And it may be a prototype not only for Chinatown food courts to come, but become a way of replacing many of the tiny storefronts that have long been the lifeblood of Chinatown, but are now disappearing.