Article link: Read it on Bowery Boogie here
Originally published in September 2020
In our Friday column, “Fridays Under $40,” Boogie writer Sara Graham again hits the streets to find cheap eats and affordable things to do during these weird times.
It’s been awhile since we chatted with the folks at Send Chinatown Love, the unofficial ambassadors of Chinatown’s mom-and-pop shops. Since the pandemic, they’ve been working hard to support immigrant-owned eateries through crowd-funding and building online platforms for low-tech eateries. Their latest effort to get foot traffic to Manhattan’s Chinatown is through a self-guided food crawl for the month of September.
How does it work? Pop by any of the 13 participating merchants and spend at least $5 with them—in return you get a ticket with a QR code to scan. Scan three codes, from three different merchants, to unlock your “Passport to Chinatown,” which offers discounts from other Chinatown businesses (salons, jewelers, tea shops and more). I got the full details on their website. After getting the scoop, only one question remained: how much could I do in Chinatown for under $40? Turns out, a lot.
I start my day at Golden Fung Wong Bakery. It’s quiet on Mott Street at 8:00 am and this old-school bakery is one of the last of its kind. I notice that the cool bulk candy store a few doors down (Aji Ichiban) seems to have closed permanently, its wooden shelves bare. At Fung Wong, I order a hot green tea with milk ($1.25) and a pineapple mooncake ($5.50). I also get a melon hopia to bring to a friend ($3.75)—there are 5 little winter melon paste cakes per package. I go back to my apartment to start working at the computer and already my day is amazing because I begin it by eating dessert (the mooncake).
Golden Fung Wong Bakery
41 Mott Street
7 AM-7 PM
For lunch, I meet Chris, my fiancé, at Wok Wok, a favorite for Malaysian and Thai dishes. We split the spicy sambal stone rice bowl with veggies and tofu. It’s got just a hint of shrimp paste and enough spice to knock your socks off. We devour the entire thing while we enjoy their outdoor seating, complete with plexiglass barriers and disposable cutlery and plates. Pro tip: they take cards but prefer cash. They also serve beer.
11 Mott Street
After lunch, we get a Japanese cheese tart, obviously. If you’ve never had one, here’s the deal: a twice-baked crust with loads of butter gets filled with a whipped concoction of cream and white cheese until it’s so pillowy, it’s like eating a flaky cloud. I leave with two (strawberry-filled chocolate and original cheese) and overhear someone else at the register asking for a food crawl ticket to scan, which makes me smile to myself. It’s like we all want to give Chinatown a hug.
Pinklady Cheese Tart
11 Mott Street
12PM-7PM (Closed Wednesdays)
I live one block north of Chinatown proper and head home for more work and a nap, because I’m full of delicious food. I wake up hungry and stroll back down to Mott Street. The sun starts to set and I duck into 46 Mott, a Cantonese-style bakery that’s been donating free meals to people in need since the March shutdown. Outside the store, there are inspirational quotes and messages about kindness and how New York is strong, which lifts my spirits each time I walk by. I slip in and grab a zongzi (bamboo sticky rice) for $2.50.
I chat with general manager Patrick Mock about the food crawl and eagerly ask if it’s been busy, though it’s only day one. Another customer comes in, so I leave to be mindful of social distancing in the small shop, but not without grabbing a container of peanut cookies for Chris, who loves anything peanutty. Four cookies for $2.75 is an absolute steal, so I know where I’ll return if they’re a hit (they are).
46 Mott Street
46 Mott Street
By the end of my day, I’d scanned my tickets, unlocking my “passport.” For a moment, I think about my actual passport, collecting dust in my drawer. It’s not a popular opinion, but honestly, I don’t miss traveling. When walking a radius of 15 blocks in downtown New York can uncover new places you’ve never been, why go anywhere else?
Total cost of walkabout: $35.84
Costs recorded do not include tip, so tip generously. Wear a mask.
It is fairly common knowledge by now that Chinatown businesses have suffered greatly since early January due to declining foot traffic caused by the Covid-19 outbreak and the citywide lockdown ordered two months later.
Many Chinatown restaurant owners felt optimistic when the phased reopening of the city led to the “Open Restaurants” program, which allowed participants to “Self-certify” online to offer curbside seating. But that optimism soon turned to despair when Department of Transportation denied applications due to traffic restrictions; restrictions that seemingly are not uniformly adhered to throughout the city.
Mayor de Blasio allowed the reopening of retail, cultural establishments, and gyms (with capacity restrictions), but admittedly has no such plan for restaurants. Which leaves many owners in limbo and fearful of permanently losing their livelihoods.
In an effort to bolster suffering businesses, the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association (which is an umbrella of 72 traditional Chinese businesses, family and fraternal organizations) together with community partners and elected party reps, hatched a plan to close the traditional core of Chinatown on weekends for the “Open Streets” program. Canvassing happened last month, and the CCBA announced 95% of its membership was in favor. The plan would allow restaurants on both sides of a street to offer curbside seating, and gift shops to display their products outside of the shop.
What seemed like a no-brainer application wasn’t, and just caused more confusion. We saw Mayor de Blasio visit Chinatown on August 11 with six of his commissioners in a publicity stunt that quickly soured when he turned his back on a local bakery manager instead of listening to his plea for help. Throughout the 90-minute visit, the mayor fielded zero questions from reporters or community stakeholders. Yet we did see Councilwoman Chin’s staffer Ian Chan state her opposition to the plan. A week later, though, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, State Senator Brian Kavanagh, US Representative Nydia Velazquez, Assemblywoman Yuh-line Niou, State Senator John Liu, and Councilmen Reynoso and Levine visited Chinatown to support the plan.
And in the latest twist, two “members” of a newly formed group going by the acronym MCSRB (The Manhattan Chinatown Small business and Restaurant) circulated their own petition two weeks ago which opposed the “open streets” application by the CCBA. The document opposes the creation of a “night market” and “outside vendors,” neither of which were part of the CCBA initial pitch of closing streets for the benefit of benefit of merchants. Also in a Chinese media Sinovision interview one of them can be heard saying “outsiders” could possibly introduce Covid-19 to residents of the community but in the same breath say Chinatown needs its parking to accomodate people driving into the neighborhood to shop. One could surmise these “shoppers” driving in are not residents and can also introduce the disease to the area.
Several residents have expressed fears of after hours public intoxication on our streets, but Chinatown simply does not have a concentration of bars or clubs to support this fear. In fact, the proposed Mott street closure zone contains six licensed restaurants for beer-wine and one licensed for full liquor; of the six beer-wine, three have yet to re-open. This second petition appears nothing more than a NIMBY argument employing fear mongering tactics to garner signatures.
Chinatown is the largest and fastest growing naturally occuring retirement community in the city, and our businesses need help. It is ridiculous to think a senior citizen can shop at our stores, then eat out three meals a day to support local businesses.
In the meantime, merchants are caught in the middle wondering when some relief will come.