While Manhattan’s historic Chinatown is hopping with tourists during daylight hours, its streets empty out as curio shops, bakeries, and bubble tea parlors shutter. A walk along Bayard or lower Mott finds the last customers just finishing their meals at the restaurants still open. But on a recent Sunday, as a couple of friends and I turned the corner of Pell onto Bowery, we spied a hubbub up ahead near the intersection of Bowery and Bayard, where a crowd loitered excitedly under scaffolding in front of a restaurant. It was almost 8:30 pm.
As we drew closer, that restaurant turned out to be Joe’s Shanghai. Founded in Flushing in 1994, it established a Chinatown branch on Pell the next year. Even though there had been places in Chinatown specializing in Shanghainese food since at least the 1940s, these two locations popularized the cuisine in a way that caused restaurants with similar menus to appear all over town. And the reason Joe’s Shanghai was successful? It’s often credited for introducing New Yorkers to xiao long bao, also known as soup dumplings, steamed buns, or little juicy buns. These culinary miracles — often pork-filled pouches with a pucker on top and scalding broth inside, originated in the early 19th century in the Jiangsu province northwest of Shanghai, but possibly earlier in Henan — required some dexterity, and made eating seem like a rewarding game.
Even though they were only one of several dumpling styles popular in Shanghai, soup dumplings formed the centerpiece of Joe’s menu, and a New York Times review by Ruth Reichl caused a craze to develop. But over the years, Joe’s Shanghai had seemed a little tired, at least to me, before it moved from its original Pell location in the closing days of 2019. It reappeared soon after in a flashy new space right on the Bowery, still owned by Mei Ping Matsumura and helmed by chef Kiu Sang “Joe” Si. And while the former location had the fusty appearance of Chinatown’s older restaurants, the new place was exceedingly modern looking.
My friends and I oohed and aahed as we were finally admitted after a 45-minute wait. We walked past a greeter’s desk where brown bags were lined up for the delivery service, and then down a short hallway, as views of three interconnected dining rooms, seating perhaps 80, unfolded. The interior provided windows onto the historic passageway between Bowery and Elizabeth, where an expensive sushi parlor is now situated. Space age light fixtures dangled from the peaked ceiling, and blond woodwork covered the walls, while geometric lattices clung to the windows.
Having each eaten there a number of times since the 90s, we resolved to try some signature dishes. We began, as all great Shanghai meals begin, with a selection from among the small cold plates, sometimes said to be a style of eating introduced by the Russians who flooded the city fleeing the Russian Revolution. In this case, we picked soya duck ($9.75), from an intriguing collection that included smoked fish, sliced beef, and chicken poached in rice wine.
The duck was cool and smooth on the tongue, dense and quite smoky, and the serving was big enough that it satisfied three diners. Another Shanghai classic quickly appeared, a steaming plate of shredded eel with yellow chives ($24.95) in a thick, gingery glaze that was unabashedly sweet. The eel tasted freshly of river mud, like good crawfish in Cajun cuisine, and picking up each slippery bite was a delicious challenge.
Like most early Shanghai restaurants, the menu at Joe’s includes quite a few Sichuan, Cantonese, and Chinese-American dishes. Some dishes feel like a mashup between Cantonese and Chinese-American cuisine, such as the chicken pan fried crispy noodle ($18.25). A ring of crunchy noodles lay like a bird’s nest under a poultry stir fry dotted with button mushrooms, an altogether enjoyable dish, but one that would be eschewed at places like CheLi, which are more concerned with defining a regional cuisine rather than pleasing every potential diner with familiar dishes. I should mention that the best part of the dish are the crispy noodles that are turned almost into mush under the seafood.
Finally, the soup dumplings arrived, eight beauties in a bamboo steamer with a fragrance more crab that pork. These tasted much the same as they were when Ruth Reichl declared, “These are the best things in the whole world,” as the waiter set the bamboo steamer down on her table and doffed the lid.
While you might have preferred these morsels to arrive at the start of the meal, the popularity of these wobbly pouches guarantees that the kitchen always labors under a backlog of orders. There was a good quantity of soup in each one, but frankly, these are not the best soup dumplings in town. The reason? The skin is a bit thicker than it ought to be; on the other hand, this makes them more substantial, and the $10.45 price tag is a bargain ($8.95 if you pick the version without crab).
Well, we’d inadvertently saved the best for last. Flavored with star anise and ginger, and cooked in a solution of Shaoxing wine, soy sauce, and rock sugar, the braised pork shoulder ($21.95) is a mountain of pork coated in thick black sauce. The waiter ceremoniously slices into it, revealing wobbly layers alternating meat and fat. If you were already full to the point of passing out, this splendid dish will execute the coup de grâce.
With the caveat that Joe’s Shanghai isn’t the best restaurant in Chinatown, it is probably the most popular, and while the Shanghainese food there often has an old-fashioned quality about it, it is often very good. And I recommend going there around 9 pm, when the place is still hopping in a relatively quiet Chinatown.