Since Sichuan food first appeared in Chinatown around 1970, it has gradually become the city’s most popular Chinese cuisine. At the same time, the food in other parts of China like Shanghai, Hunan, Yunnan, Dongbei, Qingdao, and Xi’an have also swelled in popularity. Meanwhile, New York’s own version of Cantonese — with a history dating to the mid-19th century — has waned in popularity over the years. The pandemic didn’t seem to help as Chinatowns across NYC were hit hard by COVID and anti-Asian violence. Over the last decade, I’ve also observed neighborhood Chinese restaurants being replaced by other types of establishments like Thai and Japanese seeking to capture the exploding carryout and delivery trade.
But now Cantonese food has come roaring back. It is appearing in a newer version that brings the cuisine up to date with dishes newly imported from Guangdong, Hong Kong, and Beijing itself — where Cantonese is still considered the country’s most respected cuisine, sought out for banquets and special occasions.
Wu’s Wonton King (2016) and August Gatherings (2019) were harbingers of today’s current trend. Wu’s retained traditional Cantonese and Chinese American dishes, but added higher-end dishes, from rack of lamb in black pepper sauce to black-bean razor clams. Then August Gatherings improvised on a traditional menu with fancy Western ingredients like shavings of truffles and spoonfuls of caviar. The red hot Bonnie’s in Williamsburg is another establishment riffing on Canto classics.
Recently, I visited four new restaurants that have further modernized New York City’s take on Cantonese food.
Stepping into Chinatown on a struggling block of Mulberry in December, Uncle Lou caused a sensation with long lines during the Lunar New Year as dragons and drummers cavorted outside. The artsy interior — featuring giant squares of green foliage on bare brick walls and original paintings — seemed as much like a trendy bistro as a traditional Chinatown restaurant.
A fascinating section of the menu called low wah kiu (“the old timers”) seeks to revive historic dishes from Guangdong. One highlight is “homestyle chenpi duck” ($14.95), name-checking the dried mandarin orange peel that flavors the sauce.
Another is beef with garlic chives ($26.95). Uncle Lou uses premium, well-marbled beef filets, cooked medium-rare, to modernize this dish. It also contains an equal quantity of crunchy garlic chives — which ultimately contribute as much to the excellence of the dish as the succulent meat does. 73 Mulberry Street, between Bayard and Canal streets, Chinatown
The name means “double happiness,” referring to weddings, birthdays, and other events one might celebrate in banquet halls. And indeed, the interior of the Chelsea space has photo opportunities scattered about, including a display of antique cameras, a wall of colorful silk scarves, and a backdrop that makes it seem like you’re in a traditional banquet hall.
At its heart, Hey Yuet, which opened in mid-November, is a Hong Kong-style Cantonese restaurant, with half its menu devoted to a modern collection of dim sum served all day, similar to Tim Ho Wan. It includes pristine standards like shrimp har gow and rice-noodle rolls in the usual permutations, but also newfangled ones like black steamed bao with powdered charcoal coloring the dough and gold leaf painted on top. Cut one open and a salted egg yolk filling spills out.
The same salted egg yolk coats slivers of minced poultry in overlord chicken ($20), the name suggesting the cost of this dish could only be afforded by an oligarch. Indeed, there are many Hong Kong-style flourishes to the solid menu of casseroles and stir fries, including Maggi shrimp: giant head-on beauties sauced with the Swiss-made bouillon; and beef chow fun with spicy XO sauce instead of the usual brown gravy. Distinguished tea varieties (around $7) served in decorative pots encourage parties to linger. Hint: Don’t miss the da hong pao (“red robe”) tea, with the subtle fragrance of orchids. 251 West 26th Street, between 7th and 8th avenues, Chelsea
Grand Master 95
Grand Master 95 recently opened on Chrystie Street in a very modest premises, but with an ambitious menu that runs from Chinese-American favorites like sesame chicken and beef with broccoli to funky homestyle offal, including four dishes featuring pig intestines; to more-expensive seafood, like whole fish and crabs. Nevertheless, among the new Cantonese restaurants described here, it’s the one with the menu that most resembles those of traditional Chinatown restaurants.
Oddly, dim sum is ignored almost completely, while live and expensive ocean fish like sea bass are available by the pound with a choice of five cooking methods, including steamed with ginger and yellow chives, perhaps the quintessential Cantonese treatment for ocean fish. 95 Chrystie Street, between Hester and Grand streets, Chinatown
So Do Fun
The brilliant monochrome interior could be mistaken for a cocktail lounge in an airport with its red lanterns, banquettes, and walls inset with panels of mahjong tiles. Neon signs glow with slogans and a bathroom is decorated with good luck tokens. So Do Fun, an elision of a slang term for Sichuan province plus the owner’s name (Fung), is the first American branch of a 90-location chain based in Guangdong’s capital of Guangzhou, presenting Sichuan food for Cantonese tastes.
That said, around half of the dishes are straight-ahead Sichuan, such as perfect double cooked pork belly stir fried with glove-soft leeks and fermented black beans; and maoxue wang ($24.95), a lake of red chile oil, crushed red chiles, and Sichuan peppercorns bobbing with pork liver, tripe, and heart with bonus planks of spam and twisted little cookies that have become all the rage in Beijing and Flushing.
But the balance of the menu features subtler Cantonese fare in its modern form, including a plate of shrimp-dotted lo mein, and a bowl of wonton soup ($7.95) with the palest of broths that provides no distraction from the gossamer-wrapper dumplings. While the lo mein might have been sent by taxi from any of Chinatown’s older Cantonese establishments, the wonton soup stands in stark contrast due to its ethereal lightness to its Chinese-American counterpart (see the version at Grand Masters, above). And it demonstrates how the soup may have evolved over a century, as it transitioned from the old world to the new. No surprise that the Chinese-American rendition is much heartier. 155 Third Avenue, between 15th and 16th streets, Union Square