by Mike Pardus*
Bob and I and a few other foodies started getting together a couple of years ago for occasional (mostly biannual) binges of food, drink, and discussion.
This year we decided crawl around Lower Manhattan-Chinatown. Armed with a map of the area and a list of well recommended street stalls, markets, dives and restaurants. Six of us met at the corner of Mott and Pell Streets and set out to eat everything in sight.
Before we even had a chance to get our bearings and choose a direction, we ran into an old friend with whom I'd toured Singapore and Vietnam. She was out for Dim Sum with her husband and invited us along. First stop Pings, on Elizabeth Street for Dim Sum.
After about an 90 minutes of "tea snacks", our friends left us to find our own way, so we wandered across the street to Aji Ichiban - a Japanese snack shop which sells typical sweets (gummy worms, that sort of thing) but also dried, fried, and flavored fish bits and fruits , that are pickled dried, and seasoned in ways most westerners can't imagine. We were soon buying tiny sacks of interesting - sometimes unidentifiable - tidbits for sidewalk snacking and later inspection: dried shredded sweet squid, tiny sesame glazed whole fried crabs, baked cuttlefish slices, salt pickled and dried plums...mouth explosions every one; some interesting but not compelling, while others begged to be loaded into a bag with deionized water and hooked into an IV line.
"Beer" said Kris Ray, fellow founding crawler "we need beer." 'Nuff said.
After establishing our position on the map and reconciling it with our list of approved sites, we crossed the street and walked into Oriental Garden. The somewhat formal sit-down restaurant was nearly vacant at 3:30 pm, and the Maitre'd hotel was glad to seat us. Fresh, live shrimp by the pound, stir-fried with garlic, was the perfect snack to give us and excuse to order beer. Heads, shells and all, they were like so much crunchy popcorn and enticed us to sit through 2 rounds of Tsing Tao.
2 meals and a snack in less than 3 hours, we allowed ourselves a leisurely stop to check out the fancy chop sticks at Yunhong Chop sticks and expensive, exotic teas at TenRen's Tea.
On another day I might have been content to stumble from one place of food and drink to another, but unbeknown to my increasingly hyperglycemic colleagues I was on a mission. For a month I'd been asking everyone and checking out websites, looking for the best Bahn Mi (Saigon Sub Sandwich) in Manhattan. I'd narrowed the search down to three, but we only had time (and appetite) to check out two of them.
The first choice was Saigon Bakery at 138 Mott St. A sandwich shop literally in the rear of a jewelry store, there was a line five deep when we arrived at 5:00 PM. "No more, we are closed" pronounced the proprietress.
The look of dismay on my face must have flipped a sympathetic switch in her heart ( or the greed button in her purse) because she said "For you, we have one left - but only chicken. " And I walked out ahead of the line, undoubtedly with someone's dinner tucked under my arm. My five accomplishes on the side walk passed it around, relishing each sweet, savory, and tangy bite. Bits of marinated and griddled chicken thigh were packed onto a warm bun slathered with mayonnaise and made succulent with cucumber slices and sweet pickled daikon and carrot shards.
Then, after a few of our crew made a pit stop at an unremarkable looking chocolate shop for coffee sodas, we headed over to Kuma Inn for dinner.
* I found this post by Pardus in our "Drafts" folder. It was written on June 29, 2009 a day after we'd concluded our trip to Chinatown, NYC. -Bob dG