To many folks, Lunar New Year in Chinatown means massive crowds threaded by 25-foot dragons hoisted on sticks, drumbeats delivered at ear-splitting volume, and the occasional burst of firecrackers than have managed to dodge the Giuliani ban. But to many Chinese-Americans, the holiday represents something quite different: a family gathering in which generations are reunited, feasts consumed, gifts exchanged, and auspicious inscriptions handed around on bright red paper. Finally, the Kitchen God is sent off to heaven by the burning of his effigy, to be replaced by a new one.
To find a place to celebrate with the city’s Asian-American community (Vietnamese and Koreans also observe the same holiday), look for a restaurant on the edge of Chinatown far from the tumult and noise. For me this year it’s been Wu’s Wonton King, on the corner of East Broadway and Rutgers, deep in the Lower East Side. The place is newly opened, and a sign reading “Trial Operation” affixed to the front door. Ducks and roast pigs hang in the window, and a well-lit sign that says “Wu’s” towers overhead like a beacon for lost celebrants.
Wu’s is one of those institutions reviving the Cantonese tea house on East Broadway, replacing Fujianese establishments that previously occupied the same real estate. Not only does it provide the usual southern Chinese charcuterie, dumplings, and noodles, but it also mounts an ambitious menu featuring seafood, pork, and chicken, along with plenty of vegetables, some of the fare with Hong Kong flourishes, while other dishes are drawn from Thai, northern Chinese, Fujianese, and Sichuan menus.
For high-rollers, luxury ingredients abound.
For high-rollers, luxury ingredients abound. Eels in the saltwater aquaria are still squirming. Get them in a garlic-laced casserole, or try razor clams with black bean sauce (both market price). Several friends and I enjoyed a platter of snow pea shoots flavored with plenty of conpoy (dried scallops, $18.95), which gave the sweet greens a wonderful salty and fishy flavor. We began the meal with a half-duck ($10 carryout, $13.95 eat in), a bird that was so big, the five of us couldn’t finish it. The burnished skin was affixed to the dark flesh with a beautiful layer of fat, and is there anything better than duck fat?
[Clockwise from the top left: Clams, duck, pea shoots with dried scallops, and e-fu noodles.]
As families around us celebrated the holiday with a leisurely and enthusiastic meal, we knocked back course after course, the dishes arriving at pleasant intervals as the kitchen labored to keep up with the festivities. Sauteed clams with black bean sauce ($13.95) were a particular delight, the delicate bivalves heaped with fried garlic and green onions, while the loquacious “famous garlic aromatic crispy chicken” arrived golden brown, with a hint of star anise in the lacquered skin.
What’s a Cantonese meal without a tureen of soup? Our choice featured, in a subtle white broth with plenty of egg-white drops, crab meat and fish maw, the latter actually fish flotation bladders rather than actual mouths, with a texture something like the end of a Q-Tip. We finished up our meal with a massive serving of e-fu noodles, thick soft wheat noodles said to come in a single strand and to symbolize long life. They made a lucky start to the new year. 165 East Broadway, 212-477-1112.
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