You know that feeling when you’re early to a party? When there’s not quite a crowd, but you know there’s about to be, and for some reason that new Drake album is playing over the speakers. It’s the best analogy I have for how it feels to be standing outside of Munchiez right now. The small restaurant opened in Greenwich Village — at 126 MacDougal Street, near West Third Street — last weekend, channeling the convenience stores of Hong Kong with a menu that lists barbecue pork buns, cheung fun, tea eggs, and grilled skewers. On weekends, the kitchen stays open until 3 a.m.
The restaurant is the latest arrival on MacDougal Street, a stretch of Greenwich Village that’s become a grazing place of sorts for inebriated New York University students after sundown — to the point that some businesses here hire bouncers to manage the late-night crowds. Munchiez doesn’t have the same kind of crowds just yet, but you have to wonder how long the peace will last.
On Saturday night, smoke poured out of a narrow charcoal grill stationed at the front of the restaurant, hung in the air like a cloud, then seemed to mix with the steam from stainless steel containers of fish balls and tofu skewers, before setting off the fire alarm. In the back, owners Ivy and Ben Chen, whose parents run Chinatown’s decades-old Mei Lai Wah bakery, poured shots of sake into plastic cups meant for condiments to toast the grand opening.
“At night, a lot of people in this neighborhood are drunk or high or both,” says Ivy Chen, a trained pastry chef who also sells weed-infused baked goods on Instagram. Her new restaurant is a bet that pineapple pork buns can cure their drunchies.
Munchiez is set below street level, with not much more than a counter for ordering and a single wooden table out front. Somehow, around 6:30 p.m. each night, the team finds space for a small charcoal grill at the front of the restaurant, where Henry Chen, Ivy Chen’s husband, prepares skewers with tofu, pork belly, chicken, and other meats with one hand in a cast. They come dusted in red chili and cumin for $3 each.
Up front, find a row of stainless steel containers with rice noodles, hard-boiled tea eggs, and oden, a one-pot beef soup that comes in spicy and non-spicy versions. The dark broth is brimming with skewered balls of fish and tofu. A cup full of them costs between $6 and $8.25 depending on the size. “This is casual fast food,” Ivy Chen says. “Almost everything we sell you could find at a 7-Eleven in Hong Kong.”
A handful of steamed and roast buns, made at Mei Lai Wah and baked here, round out the menu. Chief among them is the pineapple pork bun, a roast bun that gets its name from its yellow crust on top. Videos of customers splitting them open, revealing brown barbecued pork insides, became something of a fixture on social media during the pandemic. They cost $2.80, a half dollar more than in Chinatown.
Chen and her brother hadn’t planned to open an extension of their family business, but those plans changed during the pandemic. Their parents are planning to retire soon and would have closed Mei Lai Wah. “We weren’t interested in taking over the business at first, but it’s hard to imagine letting it go,” she says.
That story is becoming rarer in Manhattan, where many Chinese business owners are now retiring and closing the restaurants that helped put their children through school. In some ways, this small takeout counter covered in graffiti offers a glimpse of the Chinese restaurants Manhattan may see more of as businesses are handed over to a younger generation.
For now, find Munchiez in Greenwich Village from Sunday to Thursday, between noon to midnight; and on Fridays and Saturdays, from noon to 3 a.m.