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And the five best Chinese places in New York


The Perils of Dim Sum


by Ken Mondschein



Chinatown has always held a great fascination for me. Most places I go, I feel like an alien; there, at least I have an excuse.

When I was a kid, I was in my school's "gifted program," which gained me both the enmity of the other kids and one Friday a month off from school as our teacher was sent for extra training on how to deal with the geniuses. On those days, my brother and I would alternate coming into work with my father. We would meet my Aunt Jean at a restaurant on Mott Street and feast on spareribs, sweet and sour pork, wonton soup, and other assorted porcine products, while tourists would stare in the window at the sight of the little round-eye kid with the John-John haircut who could handle chopsticks better than he could use a fork.

In college, I was introduced to a slightly deeper level of appreciation for Chinese culture that, in my eyes at least, confirmed the superiority of their civilization. I speak not of Daoist philosophy, of Jackie Chan movies, or of my required course in Chinese civilization (thank you, Prof. Des Forges), but of dim sum.

For those not familiar with this ritual, it's quite simple. After being shown to a table by waiters muttering something about guai loh, you are given a pot of tea, an empty water glass with a ticket in it, and some forks. You then place the forks in the middle of the table because you've been using chopsticks since you were three, and damned if you're not going to impress the restaurant staff with your savoir faire. After a brief interval, middle-aged Chinese women will begin wheeling around carts stacked high with steam trays of various sorts of snack foods that look like the Klingon cuisine from Star Trek. They will offer each in turn, and, if you acquiesce, place it on the table and mark the appropriate price box on the ticket with a stamp.

The aim of the game is to guess what each dish is. Interrogating the lady with the cart will not help, because she will most likely not speak a word of English. This is made more interesting when you are a vegetarian and are constantly reassured that the plate of dumplings contains "no meat." Upon asking why it contains bits o' Babe, you are given a strange look and told "no meat-- pork!" You then shrug and pass the dish to your brother, who will eat anything that doesn't squirm too much. If, however, the staff is feeling mischievous, they will pass him a plate of tripe or chicken feet, which even he will not touch.

It is essential that you not put sugar in the tea or soy sauce on the food, because this is an insult to the chef, and he might come out of the kitchen and kill you with a cleaver. Despite the hardships, however, one will keep going back to the dim sum restaurant for several reasons. The first is that a full meal costs about five dollars per person. The second is that one gains a pleasant, global-village-type liberal buzz from exploring another culture (no matter what they think of you, Mr. No-Meat White Guy). The third is your brother will invariably insist on getting dim sum at least once a week, so that he can have the deep-fried shrimp wrapped with bacon strips, each of which contains more oil than Kuwait.

To observe the American Jewish community, you would think that we emigrated to find a good takeout place. If the Promised Land had flowed with lo mein and egg foo young, the Diaspora might never have happened. I have a vision of Judah Maccabee or Bar Kochba being made into the protaganist of a kung fu movie: "You have looted the Temple! Now, we fight to the death!" the holy zealot is dubbed as saying before using his Seven Drunken Rabbi style against the evil Roman proconsul.

My involvement with the Chinese-American community does not, of course, end with a mere patronization of restaurants and viewing of kung fu flicks (or gung fu flicks, for those who prefer the pinyin system of transliteration). I, in fact, have a Chinese brother. This was my mother's idea.

My mother seems to have adopted one of her former students, a nice young lad named William. She's sort of a surrogate mother figure to him, but I never figured out what he is to her, since she already has two sons. He might plausibly be her mah jongg coach, but I'm uncertain. (I was quite shocked when I learned that "marjon" had been invented by the Chinese; I had always thought the game was the exclusive domain of matronly Jewish women.) Quite possibly, he treats her with a Confucian respect that my brother and I are missing, since she constantly reminds us to "put our dishes in the dishwasher like William does." To Will's credit, we have had lots of good times together, including getting very drunk and humiliating myself at a karaoke bar in Buffalo and finally visiting Chinatown with someone who speaks Chinese and can tell the nice lady that I don't eat meat, not even pork.

My Mom remains to this day an unapologetic Sinophile. In fact, she is convinced that she was Chinese in a past life. At times like those, I have to remind her that Jews don't believe in reincarnation. She, however, remains secure in her multiculturalist embrace of Asian metaphysics.

Still, when she and I go for dim sum, she doesn't eat the chicken feet, either.

The Five Best Chinese Restaurants in New York

1. East: All the way in the far land of Flushing, at the very end of the 7 train, lies the golden palace of Asian-American decadence. Sure, the buffet costs $20, but you won't have to eat for a week after visiting the place. We're talking about mounds and mounds of terrific Chinese food. On Thanksgiving Day, they had lobsters--whole lobsters. All you can eat.

2. 41 Grand: The restaurant doesn't actually have a name, but it's on the corner of Grand and Bowery. The food is really greasy, but this place does have one thing going for it: It's cheap. Dirt cheap. A heaping Styrofoam tray of noodles costs a mere $1. It's good food to be consumed very quickly by very poor people.

3. House of Vegetarian: If you're a vegetarian (and so many of us are), you can't miss this Mott Street eatery. We didn't know how much we were missing hot and sour soup until we had some at House of Vegetarian. The place has to be the #1 vegetarian restaurant in the city.

4. Lucky Cheng's: OK, it's not really Chinese food. But the waitresses are drag queens. (1st Avenue between 1st and Houston.)

5. My Mom's Apartment: Because William taught her everything she knows.



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Posted February 18, 2002 1:52 AM






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