The Cantonese Comeback
I think of the 1980s as the decade that Cantonese food made a comeback. Not the faux-Cantonese food I grew up with, but the true southern Chinese cooking that is truly one of the world’s great cuisines. Hong Kong-style seafood palaces and dim sum parlors proliferated during that decade, fueled by the great Hong Kong exodus as the re-annexation by China loomed. Some of those places, notably HSF and Silver Palace, had opened a bit earlier, but by the ‘eighties their ilk was dominant. They all had large tanks at the front of the restaurant with live fish and shellfish, presumably all unaware that they were about to meet their maker.
I learned a good deal of what I know about southern Chinese food at the foot of a master, Victor En Yu Tan. Victor is a top theatrical lighting designer who worked for years with the New York Shakespeare Festival. Every Friday night, at 11 PM, he would convene a group for a Cantonese dinner in Chinatown. It was an open call. All you had to do was show up.
I was introduced to Victor and his dinners by mutual friends, Dikko & Esther of Purgatory Pie Press, in 1981 or ’82. The Friday tradition was already established for several years, originating when the crew from Shakespeare in the Park were looking for chow after the show. There were usually between six and ten diners on any given Friday, a rotating cast, but at one of Victor’s gala Chinese New Year’s banquets 75 people showed up, all alumni of the weekly feasts.
Victor did all the ordering at these dinners, though he certainly entertained suggestions. This, I learned, is the only way to properly order a large Chinese meal. You need an organizing intelligence who is intimate with the menu (and the off-menu offerings) and who can compose a well balanced ensemble of dishes. There were always preparations of fresh seafood, a hallmark of these restaurants, and seasonal greens, like ong choi or snow pea leaves. I can’t remember many of the specific dishes Victor ordered, as I’ve eaten so much of this cuisine ever since. Victor did occasionally order duck’s blood, but I never developed a taste for it. One of the problems Victor faced was that many of the Hong Kong-style restaurants did not keep late hours. It was a movable feast, moving as restaurants closed or started slipping. For most of the time I attended the dinners we went to a now-defunct place on Mott Street whose name I can’t remember.
After enjoying Victor’s ordering handiwork for a while I struck out on my own and started organizing similar dinner parties for friends at a more reasonable hour. We would audition several restaurants until we found a winner. The first I can remember was Tao Yuen, on Chatham Square. This became a regular haunt for several years, until the kitchen took a decided downturn in quality. It was clear that something had changed in the kitchen, but when I asked the wait staff they were evasive.
I was crestfallen. The food at Tao Yuen, once so good, was a shadow of its former self. I had to find a replacement restaurant. I wanted to find out where the Tao Yuen chef had gone, but I didn’t think I’d get any help from the staff, so I didn’t bother. A year or two later, after Tao Yuen had closed (a major kitchen slippage usually means the beginning of the end) I did see one of the former waiters on the street. I wanted to stop him and ask about the original Tao Yuen chef, but I chickened out. I browbeat myself for days afterwards.
The next restaurant we settled in at was Lan Hong Kok, at 31 Division Street. We had a nice run there until they changed management and name. The great thing about finding a great Chinese restaurant is that you eventually get to know which dishes you can count on, and you can compose a meal of old favorites and new dishes. When a new dish works it enters the repertoire.
After Lan Hong Kok, Kam Fung, on Elizabeth Street, won our favor for a while. Over the years the name morphed, first to King Fung, then to Jing Fong. Jing Fong has a good reputation among some diners, but their ongoing labor practices are so reprehensible that I give the place wide berth.
One of the great revelations, somewhere along the line, was the discovery of salt baked soft shell crab. The term “salt baked” is used for chicken, which is really salted and baked, but also for lightly breaded and salted fried seafood. The Cantonese preparation of soft shell crabs is one of my greatest culinary pleasures. Since the mid-nineties I have arranged a “welcome back soft shell crabs” banquet in Chinatown every year around Memorial Day.
In the ‘nineties my two favorite Cantonese places were Sun Golden Island and Tai Hong Lau. Tai Hong Lau, at 70 Mott Street, is still in business, but they are no longer worth visiting. Sun Golden Island is now gone, lamentably. They had the absolute best soft shell crabs I have ever eaten. The restaurant served Cantonese and Chiu Chao cuisine, a related style from Guangdong Province (specifically from Chaozhu Prefecture). Luckily, my favorite Sun Golden Island waiter, Fan, ended up at Ping’s, which was overall even better for a time (though their crabs could not compare). Unfortunately, my last couple of meals at Ping’s were rather disappointing.
It’s hard to tell what direction Chinatown is headed in these days. The Hong Kong seafood restaurant phenomenon has leveled off, perhaps due to changing immigration patterns and developments in the outer boroughs. There are now more regional Chinese cuisines in New York than ever before, but you won’t find them all in Manhattan’s Chinatown. For real Sichuan food you’ll have to go to Midtown or Queens. For Taiwanese, and several relatively obscure Northern Chinese cuisines you’ll definitely have to go to Queens. I definitely need to get to Queens more often.