Twice in the last six years, I have had disastrous (well...unpleasant might be more accurate), trips to Chinatown. On October 13, 2008, this column addressed these misspent adventures from October 2003 and July 2006 in a piece called, "NOTHING SAYS COLUMBUS DAY...LIKE CHINESE FOOD."
Since that last time being burnt, I actually considered taking Chinatown trips off my to-do menu-of-life. Luckily, this past Friday, my son Andrew had no school on my day-off, so we were free to gamble and give C-Town one more chance.
Under threatening skies and a stinging raw wind, we left South Jersey armed with foul weather gear. A sprinkle or two couldn't dampen our spirits as we persevered north, on the Garden State Parkway past the exit for Herbertsville. Later, in an unlikely turn of events, the bright sun greeted us on the Outerbridge Crossing as we entered Staten Island (New York's last frontier). By the time we got to Brooklyn to visit my mom, a beautiful day had thrust itself upon us.
My mom loves Chinatown and was disappointed that she couldn't join us. But she was more green with envy when we said that we also going to the San Gennaro feast in Little Italy...especially because she'd be missing out on her favorite, "rum baba" from Ferrara's Bakery.
One of the tell-tale scars of previous Chinatown debacles was the curse of parking. This time we made an unsuccessful, preliminary sweep of Mott Street, (the heart of Chinatown). Then went off the beaten-track. With kismet on our side, we quickly found a legal, free spot on Henry Street. The weather was so pleasant that we wished we were wearing shorts and tee-shirts for the ten block walk to lunch.
Our favorite restaurant in Chinatown is Wo Hop, (it translates to... harmonious union). Established in 1938...with few added amenities since, this 24-hour Cantonese-style eatery occupies the basement at 17 Mott Street.
NO! I AM NOT STANDING IN A HOLE...IT'S ONE FLIGHT DOWN TO THE PALATIAL PARADISE.
Almost lost in their photo clad and graffiti scribbled walls, I noticed a blue-ribbon poster boasting Wo Hop as; "THE BEST CHINESE RESTAURANT IN THE WORLD!" And they get no argument from me. My cronies and I have been braving long lines up their outdoor steps, in all kinds of weather, since in mid-70's. While its true I have strayed to a few wannabes over the years, these days, I wouldn't think of eating anywhere else in C-Town.
Due to previous difficulties, Andrew hasn't eaten there since he was four. So it was a new experience. He loved what he ordered, (Egg Drop Soup, General's Chicken and fried rice) as well as everything he sampled from our plates...he especially liked the tasty, giant soup noodles and the thinner-styled duck sauce.WOULD YOU LIKE AN AFTER-DINNER MINT? ...IT'S WAFER THIN !
He even drank the hot Chinese tea without sugar and called it the best too! His appreciation was proven when he spent 15 minutes in the restroom...texting his friends to describe the "culinary orgy."THE BUSTLE OF CHINATOWN NEVER ENDS
I used their bathroom facilities too...but I didn't text anyone. I was strictly business and I'm happy to report that in regard to cleanliness...Wo Hop scored a vast improvement. Since my last visit, their "sparkling" toilet area jumped all the way up to a "1" on the "1 to 10" scale...with 10 being the highest.DURING CHINESE NEW YEAR, MOTT STREET GETS EVEN CRAZIER.
To walk off our meal, we searched and found the "chicken" arcade. This arcade got its nickname because you could pay a quarter to watch a live "dancing chicken" or play tic-tac-toe against a different live chicken. Since we were there last, PETA, the Board of Health or common-sense put an end to that. We also cruised through the ubiquitous tee-shirt shops and souvenir stands...Andrew bought-up some gifts and mementos.SHORTLY AFTER THIS PHOTO WAS TAKEN, WE WERE ASKED TO LEAVE AFTER HE KNOCKED A DISPLAY DOWN WITH A TOY SAMURAI SWORD.
Then we crossed the great ethnic cultural divide called Canal Street and walked one block west to Mulberry Street. Before turning the corner, the first wisps of deliciousness wafted their way into our self-consciousness. The first full-blown whiffs of fried onions, sausage etc are almost overwhelming. For the next eight blocks, the heart of Little Italy is turned into a gastronomic pedestrian mall.THE FEAST COMMEMORATING SAN GENNARO, THE PATRON SAINT OF NAPLES ITALY BEGAN IN NYC ON SEPTEMBER 18, 1926. ORIGINALLY, IT WAS A ONE-DAY ROMAN CATHOLIC RELIGIOUS CELEBRATION, "ORGANIZED" BY FOUR "RIVAL" COFFEEHOUSE OWNERS. THE OBSERVANCE WAS AND STILL IS HIGHLIGHTED BY A CANDLELIT PROCESSION THAT CARRIES A STATUE OF SAN GENNARO ALONG MULBERRY STREET AND BACK TO, "THE CHURCH OF THE MOST PRECIOUS BLOOD." TODAY, DUE TO COMMERCIALIZATION, THE HOLIDAY HAS GOTTEN SO BIG THAT IT HAS EXPANDED TO 11 DAYS AND ONTO EVERY SIDE-STREET IT TOUCHES.
Nearly every inch of the way is crammed with extensions into the street of existing restaurants. Added to that, booths, kiosks and tents sell everything related to Italian food. Throw in a marching band, parades, carnival rides, side-show attractions, the occasional non-food vendor and you have the San Gennaro Feast.THE SAN GENNARO FEAST IS CELEBRATED EVERY SEPTEMBER. ITS HARD TO BELIEVE, IT GETS MUCH BUSIER AT NIGHT. ALSO, THE MAGIC OF HOLLYWOOD REALLY DIDN'T HAVE TO EMBELLISH MUCH WHEN THEY FILMED "THE GODFATHER PART TWO." IN THOSE SCENES, DON CORDELEONE IS A YOUNG MAN ON THE ACTUAL MULBERRY STREET DURING THE SAN GENNARO FEAST.
While there, our eyes popped out of our heads and our taste buds followed as we strolled past the sea of temptation. I even regretted our great lunch because I wanted to eat everything I was seeing. Soon, we took our last picture of food, did a little more shopping and as we began to peter-out...it was time to decide where (and what) to have for dessert.
AS THE DAY TURNED TO NIGHT THE CRUSH OF TOURISTS MULTIPLIED.
We slipped into Ferrara's Bakery and went cannoli-happy. We also got an assortment of pastries for friends back home. Our cannoli-fueled walk through Chinatown back to the car went fast except for my detour to Chattam Square to photograph the famous the statue of Confucius. You can imagine my shock when we got there...the statue was some other "unknown" dude. At least nobodies feet were killing them, so I only got a little teased.
Yes, the third time was the charm! The trip went so well that the hour-long cross-town jaunt just to get to the Holland Tunnel couldn't deter our warm afterglow.