Thursday, May 5, 2011
Eating Manhattan-- Finding Jing Fong!
You don't have to ask me twice to go have Dim Sum.
My favorite place has always been a chaotic and Chinese-centric establishment called Triple 8 Palace at 88 Broadway under the Manhattan Bridge. The din of the clanging dishes, chaos of the carts, and array of food always make me feel like I'm back in Hong Kong. It's the place where anyone visiting me from anywhere is taken for the closest to authentic Dim Sum experience I've had in the Big Apple.
We didn't go there.
You see, I'm also open to having my mind changed when it comes to the "best place for this" or the "best place for that." So, on our Wednesday excursion when Ric suggested a different Dim Sum place on Elizabeth Street, I was game!
Jing Fong is located off of Canal about mid-block on Elizabeth in New York's Chinatown, and the lack of a true store front may have you missing it completely if you are not careful.
One almost needs a trail of fortune cookie crumbs to find the place!
But once you do, just greet the girl gatekeeper standing at the gilded podium. She then points you to either the elevator that opens on each floor, revealing something akin to a level of Dante's "world," OR to that seemingly never ending escalator yonder. (I mean this escalator goes straight up to the sky, almost as if one if ascending onto Cloud 9, or visiting Shangra-La.)
The decorators have missed the obvious opportunity with the wall space to put anything calming or soothing on the bare walls as you ascend, giving you plenty of time to think about your boot laces getting stuck in the teeth...or wondering if that lady with the two roller shopping bags will stop at the top, bottle-necking the few folks behind her...or thinking about just getting OFF. Yup...Plenty of time!
I don't know what decor I'd want exactly… something that makes you feel as if you are being transported back in time, or at least to Hong Kong-- or even just Chinatown. But thankfully there were no foreign language advertisements for toothpaste or the latest Chinese movie mag, or bubble tea of dubious color, laden with sinking balls of unknown origin, either. (Although sometimes, admittedly, I like seeing those too.)
Ric arrived before I did, as he usually does. But when I entered the cavernous eating arena, the lady seemed to know just who I was looking for. Ric had already staked out his prime spot closest to the stream of food trolleys, tenaciously careening about. He stood up, waved--that unmistakable bearded beacon in the gilt and red array that was the fashion of Jing Fong (and almost every Dim Sum restaurant for that matter).
He'd already ordered me hot sauce too. Nice man.
For those of you that are Dim Sum virgins, let me explain the process at this juncture.
In a true Dim Sum establishment, ladies push around carts filled with all sorts of delectable morsels. You ask them to stop, look at what they have, and pick accordingly. Each plate you pick is then marked on your score card, and at the end of the meal, you are charged by the plate.
I immediately got to work.
Dim Sum is nothing is not a competitive sport.
As the first cart pulled into the station, and the pusher was calling out her wares. I listened intently for my favorites, and asked for them in my limited and rusty Cantonese, when not found--which was more often that not.
My Cantonese served me well, though. And I have Jackie Chan to thank for that.
I picked up a bit of the language with Jackie in Hong Kong for various movie set visits and publishing endeavors. He always tells wonderful jokes in Cantonese, and was sweet enough to translate them for me. One day when I lamented that I couldn't understand the jokes as they were told. His response was "then learn some Cantonese before you come back." I said "I will."
I did so, and on my next trip proudly told him I knew a little Cantonese, and jokingly said "You'll have to watch what you say now." Without missing a beat, Jackie punched me in the arm, and said "I'll just speak Mandarin." Ohhhhhh…that guy!
I never have been able to have Dim Sum and not think fondly of Jackie and his gang. A gregarious and wonderful lot. The hum of a good Dim Sum restaurant reminds me of many similar times elsewhere, eating family style with good people.
Entering Jing Fong that day, the smells of the kitchen were not just wafting. They were a wave of recollections...
Certain smells always bring back vivid scenes to mind, don't they?
Most of the time in full Technicolor.
Jin Fong was a kalidoscope.
So, armed with my limited vocabulary, a sharp nose, waiting stomach, and lovely memories, I dived in, and the table was soon full of (I'll just spell them in English), shrimp dumplings, roasted pork buns, beef noodles, red bean buns, tofu with sweet almond sauce, and some miscellaneous stewed meat that Ric took a chance on (hot sauce can fix almost anything you know).
It was a colorful array...but...and here it goes... not really quite the palette we wanted to throw together.
Okay… I hoped I wouldn't, but I have a few complaints about Jing Fong.
1.) Ric and I arrived around 2:00 which is still Dim Sum time, albeit a late one. But the carts at Jing Fong, had been picked over, and there wasn't much of a selection. And the carts that were empty were not being restocked, as if they just wanted us to settle for what they had. Sorry, but I was not in the mood for 10 plates of chicken feet.
2.) As such, the food we did get, was not that fresh, with the exception of one Shrimp dumpling (Ha Gau) that I ordered towards the end, which was steaming and tender. Everything else was kind of tough, and room temperature--looking like the kids last to be picked for the soccer team.
3.) Because of the issues mentioned above, I didn't get many of my favorites-- rice steamed in leaves and stuffed with meat, lotus buns, Mexican buns, shrimp stuffed flat noodles-- you know, pretty standard fare for a Dim Sum place worth it's soy sauce.
4.) When I asked the higher ups for the wrapped rice, they said, "no more." No attempt to offer us anything not on the carts.
5.) And this one is just a personal preference, but I generally don't go to Dim Sum places too full of non-Chinese. The food generally is NEVER as good, prices are higher, and they cater to a Western palette. This place had hardly an Asian face to be seen that wasn't wait staff. Not really a good sign.
Good things about Jing Fong:
1.) The staff is very friendly. Especially the tofu lady. She almost adopted me.
2.) The room is extremely large like most Dim Sum places, FYI if you plan to host a party.
3.) Price is very reasonable, as compared to other places that try to draw the Western crowd.
4.) The bathrooms are large, and very clean-- some of the cleanest I've seen in this part of the city.
So, when it was all said and done, and the room boss tallied up our bill, we'd had roughly 12 plates. Despite the lack of freshness, we were full! And our pockets were not light either after paying.
The total bill came to $26. for 2 people!
In case you were wondering, that's a jaw-droppingly good price!
Final analysis. I'd like to try Jing Fong again, earlier in the day, and see if I like it better. I wouldn't come again at this time though. In truth, I wouldn't come here again anyway if I had to choose between Jing Fong and Triple 8.
So, if you only have time for one Dim Sum in Manhattan, with no time to take a chance, I don't think this is the chance you should take.
It just didn't win me over.
Me... and other folks as well. The Chinese as a culture--they know Dim Sum. It's a societal event to ask someone to "go have tea"--the term for partaking of Dim Sum. In short-- It's a national pastime. If they weren't here, they were somewhere else.
Tell me where, and I'll be there next Wednesday.
(Renee Witterstaetter is a writer, editor, publisher and artist agent living in NYC. Her website is: www.evainkartistgroup.com)
(Above: Wonderful and friendly Tofu server at Jing Fon. Dim Sum in various states of being devoured. Photos by Ric Meyers.)