Almost eight years ago, Chang Lai Cheong Fun Cart opened as a food cart, on the Northeast corner of Bowery and Grand Street, specializing in cheung fun, or rice rolls, topped with curry fish balls — both Cantonese street-food staples.
The cart came from Lai Sheng Zhang, who also goes by Leo. When he first moved to New York, a little over a decade ago, he worked as a taxi driver. But he soon found that as an immigrant hailing from Guangdong province, food was a way around the language barrier while also being able to share a taste of his home, according to the Street Vendor Project, which acted as a go-between for this story.
The cart has evolved to become a counter-seat restaurant: Chang Lai Fishballs Noodles. As of the restaurant’s opening about a week ago, Chang Lai is now located at 55B Bayard Street, at Elizabeth Street, in Chinatown, across the street from Mei Lai Wah (the food cart has ceased operations).
Zhang owns the business with his wife, Li Qing Wu, who also goes by Natalie — together they commute daily from Woodhaven, Queens to work. He shared that they wanted a restaurant because the food cart had become too “stressful” and subject to the drastic “changes in weather.” Not to mention, it was a “less pleasant” experience for customers. They had been looking for a location for the past couple of years, in order to serve an expanded menu, before landing on Bayard Street.
On a recent visit, a steady flow of morning customers were all regulars who had been patronizing Chang Lai for years, which more recently also includes those who found the green-and-white umbrella-topped cart via social media; they were excited to that could now rely on their affordable dishes rain or shine, and actually sit down to chat with the owners (there’s a couple of counter stool seats).
In 2019, Eater reported that Chinatown was experiencing something of a rice roll boom on its streets, which has only since kept coming, after years of finding them more readily at dim sum parlors around town. At the time, Eater wrote that Chang Lai specializes in a version of the Cantonese street food that looks similar to “Korean rice cakes” which continues at the new location; they’re stubby, chewy little guys, without stuffing, or translucent, thin folds you find in other rice roll variations (though they have those, too).
With the new restaurant, Chang Lai Fishballs Noodles continues to sell loaded-up plastic containers of rice rolls with curry fish balls. Ask for it smothered in everything: which means a creamy medley of soy sauce, hoisin, sesame, peanut sauce, and sriracha (a small is priced at $5.75, with a large at $9.25). The menu also offers pork skin with radish over rice noodles, fish balls with oyster sauce and rice noodles, and beef tripe and spleen with radish over rice noodles. Elsewhere on the menu, there’s congee with pork and preserved egg ($3.25 to $6), curry fish balls (10 to an order for $4.25), fried pork dumplings ($6.25), tea eggs (three to an order, $2.50), and the unusual addition of French fries ($3.75). Drinks include Hong Kong-style milk tea and kumquat-lemon juice with an option to add in boba.
Chang Lai Fishballs Noodles is open daily from 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.