Cantonese has always been the core cuisine of Chinatown, though gradually supplanted by Fujianese, Taiwanese, Sichuan, Shanghainese, and non-Chinese food. Nevertheless, the cuisine continues to flourish, with Great NY Noodletown – newly reopened after a six-month rejuvenating hiatus – one of its key proponents. This restaurant, once celebrated by the New York Times in an exceedingly voluptuous review, arrived 41 years ago as part of a revival that saw new Hong Kong-style Cantonese restaurants springing up all over Chinatown. Great NY Noodletown remains an institution for its classic Cantonese fare, reasonable prices, and as an anchor of the neighborhood (its former late-night hours have not yet returned). I went twice last week to check out the reopening scene.
At 6 p.m., tourists were just finishing up as locals arrived for carryout, waiting politely just inside the door. The boxy room is still as you might remember it, strings of pork, duck, and chicken barbecue hanging in the window to the right, with the chop-chop-chop of the meat cutter serving as staccato background noise. Round and square tables stand under a coffered ceiling dangling chandeliers that look left over from the 1960s. As yet, the walls are still bare. In the course of two visits, I retried and would recommend the following five classic orders:
1. Shrimp wonton noodle soup ($7.50) – There are no better wontons in town. The wrappers are gossamer thin and trail off like jellyfish into the rich brown broth. Rather than the usual pork or shrimp-and-pork filling, these bulge with shrimp alone, posing the question, “How many shrimp can you stuff in a wonton?” Indeed, jumbo shrimp are one of Noodletown’s signatures, with salt-baked shrimp ($19) another great order.
2. Choice of three barbecued items on rice ($9.75) – The Chinese roasted meats (“siu mei”) hanging in the window is the soul of the cuisine, representing meat preparation methods so succulent that every bite is a salty and slightly sweet delight. The choices include lacquered strips of char siu pork, crisp-skinned baby pig, meaty Cantonese roast duck, and steamed chicken delicately flavored with scallions. You can’t make a wrong choice, but the baby pig (“roast pig” on the menu) is so popular, it sometimes runs out early in the day. Look in the window before you order, because bright-red cuttlefish, pork ribs, and chicken wings are sometimes additionally available. Make sure you request the green ginger-and-scallion sauce sometimes known as jiang rong.
3. Seafood pan-fried noodles ($18) – While Chinese-American cooking focused on a version of chow mein featuring hefty browned noodles, the HK version emphasizes more delicate noodles lightly fried and served in a thick nest. The sauce is rife with fresh seafood, including shrimp, fish balls and fish cake, squid, and scallops. Some of the underlying noodles turn softer as they saturate with sauce, so you can enjoy a gradient of crunchy and squishy textures as you eat this wonderful dish.
4. Beef chow fun ($13.50) – Beef chow fun is an important dish from the Chinese American canon, a thicket of agreeably soft and wide rice noodles dressed with tender beef and green vegetables. Two versions of this dish are available, though the menu doesn’t mention it. Ask for chow fun “with gravy,” making it one of the world’s great comfort foods.
5. Lobster in black bean sauce ($36) — Now that you’ve tried some of Noodletown’s bargain dishes, why not delve into a couple of expensive items? The bill of fare features all sorts of pricier Cantonese stuff, and even though the ambiance may not match that of Ping’s, August Gatherings, or Uncle Lou, the luxury ingredients prove just as luxurious. See if salt and pepper soft shell crab is available; if not, go for one of the whole-lobster presentations. While the lobster in black bean sauce pictured isn’t ready for its IG close-up, it sure is delicious with its fermented tang, smoky taste of the wok, and tender flesh that’s easy to extract.
Open Sunday through Thursday, 9 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 9 a.m. to 11 p.m.
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