If this were a regular Thursday, I’d be writing this post from the Starbucks on the corner. I would have weaseled my way into a little table by the window – near an outlet if I was particularly lucky – and all around me would be the frantic clamor of distracted New Yorkers scrambling for their fix.
But today’s not a regular Thursday. And I’m in Chinatown.
Off a recommendation, I ventured down to Mei Li Wah Bakery, a tiny little restaurant just below Canal Street. The suggestion came from one of my favorite regulars at the bar – a great guy and an old school New York Italian, the kind that seems to have a buddy in every joint in the city. He said if I wanted the best coffee in New York to go down to Chinatown. So here I am, in a corner booth a mile from the familiar, trying to figure out what exactly I just ordered.
The meal started simply enough – a small cup of coffee and a pork bun. Both were great. The coffee was only nominally similar to the stuff I’m used to from Starbucks. It came to me in a shot glass of a paper cup and may have been more than half hot milk. The pork bun was fresh from the oven, soft and golden on the outside. It was filled with really tasty – if a little unidentifiable – sweet bbq pork. There’s a trendy pork bun spot near my apartment in the LES, but this blew it out of the water.
For my entrée I went with a big bowl of congee, which I guess is Chinese rice porridge. When I asked the waitress for the congee with eggs, she responded with what I thought was a pretty peculiar follow-up question: white eggs, or black? By the look on my face I’m sure she could tell there was really only one option. What came to me was gingery, spicy and delicious. And black eggs – while maybe just a little “eggier” than the white ones we’re used to – are very cool in that they look like little cross-sections of the earth. Let me tell you, it’s making for some great congee.
Still, what stands out most about this place is the atmosphere. By all rights, I should feel very out of place right now. I’m the only white face in the room and the only one that doesn’t understand a word of what’s being said around me. But there’s something else going on here. Where Starbucks can be a crazed collection of commuters and vulturous squatters, this room seems to be filled with a community. The staff carries on conversations with counter customers, tables share laughs with others across the aisle, and everyone, with good reason, looks really into the food. I’d like to think I fit right in.
UPDATE: After leaving Mei Li Wah, I saw that the next storefront over (which had been closed up when I walked in earlier) was in fact another Chinese restaurant. This one, though, was covered in newspaper clippings raving about the food. “Uh-oh,” I thought. “Did I just go to the wrong restaurant.” I decided to hedge my bets and go to this new place – Nice Green Bo Restaurant – for lunch. The Singapore Mein Fun I ended up getting was pretty good. Still, the food didn’t match nextdoor’s and the service didn’t come close. If you find yourself on Bayard between Mott and Elizabeth, I’d go with Mei Li Wah.