Many of my best dining experiences never make it to the page: If an eating establishment doesn’t merit a first look, dish of the week, is it still good?, point on a map, or paragraph in a feature story, it often disappears. Those fleeting encounters with restaurants are often the most enjoyable. Accordingly, I resolved to keep an informal diary reflecting my unvarnished daily experiences. Here’s the tenth installment and here’s last week’s edition.
Hong Kong cafe cuisine is springing up like daffodils around town. Many are aimed at an immigrant constituency and their second-generation kids, but the collision of Cantonese and English food that they represent at cha chaan tengs (tea restaurants) is appealing to a broader range of diners. There are macaroni dishes; toasts smeared with butter and honey; fortifying soups with sometimes-surprising ingredients; dim sum and congees; stews, stir fries, and curries over rice; chow mein and chow fun; and lots of eggs, pork chops, chicken cutlets, and Spam. Much of the food is aimed at a breakfast and lunch crowd.
Mabu Café is among them, along with Toni’s Fresh Rice Noodle, and Kong Sihk Tong in Chinatown; King’s Kitchen in Sunset Park, which partly concentrates on clay pot dishes; and Hey Yuet in Chelsea, which specializes in dim sum. These are the tip of the iceberg: There are many lesser-known places to be found, especially on the Lower East Side. Named after its proprietor, S Wan is a low-key walk-down space on Eldridge just south of Grand. The room has a row of small tables along each wall and its principal feature is a giant menu printed in Chinese and English, listing among dozens of dishes a series of Hong Kong-style breakfasts designated with capital letters.
Posters celebrate Chinese boy bands like Mirror, as does a soundtrack that runs in the background, as customers dash in for carryout and diners both single and in groups eat in a businesslike fashion and then leave. There are no laptops in sight and diners don’t linger over their meals.
At about 2:00 p.m. when I arrived, only a couple of seats were empty. At the counter, I ordered milk tea, which an employee handed to me in a paper cup with a discreet amount of sugar. I sipped it as I waited the arrival of my breakfast designated “D,” which I’d had improved with a pork chop and waffles. (The bread at these cafes, BTW, is often like milk bread, sometimes with the crusts cut off.)
The breakfast made quite a picture, the thin chop slightly glazed so it was sweet. The eggs were cooked over easy, diner style, so the yolks flowed yellow when cut into. The biggest surprise were the waffles, which were Eggo sized, spread with peanut butter sprinkled with white sugar. This breakfast ($8) had an undeniable homey quality, as if assembled in one’s own kitchen in a hungover blur, and it made me want to explore the menu further. (My tipster had told me to check out the ho fun, which she said showed Fujianese influences.) 85 Eldridge Street, near Grand, Lower East Side
Walking down the street whistling an Anson Kong song I’d just Shazamed, I came upon for the umpteenth time Nuan Xin Rice Roll, at the corner of Hester and Eldridge, which has occupied the corner space for several years. You might assume it’s one of those dim sum rice roll spots where you can get glistening rice noodle sheets folded over shrimp, beef with cilantro, a cruller, or other fillings. But no, it specializes in stout rolls of sticky rice — including grains of the arresting purple variety — wrapped in nori, a meal in themselves usually eaten hot for breakfast in Taiwan.
I got duck and beef ($4.50 and $4.25), and both were prepared to order. The counter person warned me that they contained “mayonnaise sauce,” not sure why, but when they arrived, the mayo had been modestly applied inside so that it oozed and didn’t make a mess. The duck was particularly delicious, filled with pinky size pieces of duck, skin on. The beef one was on the dry side, almost like jerky. 67A Eldridge Street, at Hester, Lower East Side
A bigger Hong Kong cafe
The next day, dying to have another Hong Kong style cafe meal, I went at lunch to M. Star (also styled “Em Star”) on Division Street in the shadow of the Confucius Plaza skyscraper. It is less bare bones than S. Wan, with a colorful mural on one wall depicting a map of Hong Kong and its environs in front of which cavort a number of HK celebrities I couldn’t identify.
This bill of fare is far longer than S. Wan’s — which is already long — offering toasts, sandwiches, breakfast specials, bubble tea, baked dishes based on rice or spaghetti, dim sum, fruit salad, congees, and noodle soups with a choice of nine noodles: ramen, egg noodles, ho fun, fun, udon, rice noodles, macaroni, instant noodles, and spaghetti.
I went for a sandwich of corned beef and egg ($4), which was made on bread with the crusts excised, really quite wonderful, and one of the signature cart noodles of the place. This category offers three add-ins from a list of 30 and the same choice of noodles made into a stew for $9.25, with each extra ingredient for $2.25. I picked the broad rice noodles, along with a hot dog, fish balls, pickled daikon, and satay beef. That beef is a ubiquitous ingredient in HK cooking that is invariably spicy and peanutty, and it really added flavor and heat to the broth, so that I went back to the D train with my mouth on fire. 19 Division Street, between Bowery and Market Street, Chinatown