While New York City is one of the world's great food cities, a place where beef bulgogi can be found alongside Neapolitan pizze and Afghan kebabs, its track record with Chinese food is a little spotty, especially (and somewhat perversely) in Chinatown. If you're in the Big Apple on the hunt for Chinese that falls somewhere between Panda Express and a style-over-substance restaurant, it pays to know where to look.
Eddy Buckingham and Paul Donnelly, restaurateur and chef of Manhattan restaurant Chinese Tuxedo, know this only too well. The pair relocated to New York a couple of years ago to open the contemporary Chinese diner, whose style will be recognisable to those who've eaten at Sydney and Melbourne restaurants Mr Wong, Spice Temple or Lee Ho Fook. The menu draws widely from China's regional cooking styles as well as focusing on star ingredients such as uni and dry-aged beef.
"Tuxedo was born out of what we saw as a gap in New York," Buckingham says. "We had a lot of meetings in Chinatown and were always a bit underwhelmed by the food and the whole restaurant experience."
When Buckingham was growing up in Melbourne, Flower Drum was the preeminent Chinese restaurant and to this day continues to fly the flag for upscale Chinese dining in the city. Donnelly, for his part, trained under David Thompson and Jowett Yu before working in some of Sydney's top kitchens including Ms G's.
"We thought that Chinese food was a bit left behind compared to other prestige categories in New York," Buckingham says.
But the pair maintain that New York City is still full of great examples of Cantonese cooking, spicy Sichuan noodles or delicate yum cha. Here, they share their little black book of Chinese restaurants in New York.
Where to go for Cantonese
From live crabs to conche, groper to ocean trout, river snakes or eels, it's all about the seafood tanks at Congee Village.
"There's a lot of live seafood that I'd not seen before until I lived in New York," Donnelly says. "Conche is like a giant sea snail. It's so big you can't even fit it in your hand."
Most conche in New York is from Caribbean waters, according to Paul. Seeing it on Chinese restaurant menus is "an interesting mash-up of geography and culture". You might see it poached in garlic butter and served over egg noodles or deep-fried until the edges curl up slightly. Curious diners should order up.
100 Allen St, New York, +1 212 941 1818, congeevillagerestaurants.com
This palatial Cantonese restaurant is something of a New York institution, established in 1998 by Hong Kong chef Chuen Ping Hui.
"If I'm honest I can't remember the last time I looked at the menu at Ping's," Buckingham says. "We go there so often."
Eddy and Paul's must-order dishes include the master stock pigeon (you'll have to ask for it as it's not on the menu), a whole steamed fish and live prawns from New Brunswick in Canada, prepared in the house style: after being gently steamed in their shell, the prawns are served with ginger puree and black vinegar on the side. Peel the prawns, dip in puree, then in vinegar and repeat. Other highlights include the steamed dungeness crab with egg white, ginger and Shaoxing wine, and steamed oysters served with XO sauce.
And don't skip the frog legs. "It's really normal to have them here," Donnelly says. "People ask you how you want it: salt and pepper, stir-fried." At Ping's the tip is to go with salt and pepper. A batter of egg white and chestnut flour makes for an extra-crisp coating that's then seasoned with sliced bird's eye chilli, spring onions and white pepper before serving.
22 Mott St, New York, +1 212 602 9988, eatatpings.com
Manage your dim sum expectations
"I find the dim sum game [in New York] quite behind compared to other parts of the States," Buckingham says.
That's not to say that you can't get perfectly acceptable dim sum any day of the week. Most restaurants offer a seven-day service, however the wait can be long on weekends.
Try Jing Fong, which operates a gargantuan restaurant with trolley service in Chinatown (20 Elizabeth St, +1 212 964 5256) and a smaller branch on the Upper West Side (380 Amsterdam Ave, +1 646 678 5511) that serves dim sum at night only. Elsewhere, the décor at Golden Unicorn (18 East Broadway, +1 212 941 0911) is in-your-face but don't be distracted: keep an eye on the dim sum carts rolling past to get the freshest har gao, steamed chicken feet and lotus leaf-wrapped parcels of sticky rice.
Get out of Manhattan
Buckingham and Donnelly aren't alone in thinking much of New York's best Chinese food is found outside of the city's original Chinatown, the enclave that borders Manhattan's Lower East Side and was established in the 1870s.
Flushing has established itself as the new epicentre of Chinese cuisine in New York. There, on Main Street, Roosevelt Avenue, Prince Street and the surrounding area, a mix of first-generation shopkeepers, restaurateurs and residents who hail from northern China and Taiwan are putting the Queens neighbourhood on the map.
"If you go to the places that are operated by first-generation Chinese, the food is quite traditional," Buckingham says.
Flushing Chinatown is now one of the largest communities of expat Chinese outside Asia. Here you'll find everything from Hakka to Hunanese cuisine, with restaurants specialising in the food of Sichuan, Xinjiang and more.
The menu at Dumpling Galaxy, the follow-up to owner Helen You's dumpling stall Tian Jin Dumpling House in a nearby food court, includes more than 100 choices of dumplings and they're not your stock-standard pork and prawn fillings either. Preserved egg with pine nuts, shrimp and celery siu mai and lamb with green zucchini give some indication of You's imagination.
Buckingham's advice? "The best move here is just to go with an appetite."
42-35 Main St, Flushing, New York, (212) 518 3265.
Asian Jewels Seafood Restaurant
At this Flushing institution you can try the likes of gelatinous goose feet and steamed conche alongside a popular dim sum service that's regularly touted as one of the best in the borough.
"Goose feet are much more substantial than chicken's feet," Buckingham says. "They've got broad webbing and the texture is really interesting. It's something I certainly have never had in Australia."
13330 39th Ave, Flushing, New York, +1 718 359 8600, asianjewelsny.com
Szechuan Mountain House
"The corner stone Sichuan ingredient is really the star of the show here," Buckingham says, referring to the Sichuan peppercorns that contribute to the cuisine's characteristic numbing sensation.
Embrace the spice with classics such as kung pao chicken or ma po tofu or take the plunge with ox tongue and tripe in chilli oil, but keep an eye out for cooling side dishes such as the lotus root with Chinese celery – you'll need them.
Szechuan Mountain House, 39-16 Prince St G03, Flushing, New York, +1 718 888 7893, szechuanmountainhouse.com
But if you can’t get out of Manhattan…
Hao Noodle and Tea by Madam Zhu
Owned by Zhu Rong, a restaurateur hailing from Chongqing who also operates four businesses back in her homeland, this Chelsea restaurant offers everything from mapo tofu to siu mai in contemporary surrounds that suit the neighbourhood. Think exposed brick, high ceilings and marble-topped tables. There's no strict regional focus to the menu, but it's the noodles that keep Buckingham and Donnelly coming back. They recommend the dan-dan noodles or one of the many noodle soups on the menu: pork intestine in a spicy broth or lion's head meatball soup. On a cold day, don't go past the spicy fish stew, loaded with fresh chilli and Sichuan peppercorns.
401 Avenue of the Americas, New York, +1 212 633 8900, haonoodle.com
Danny Bowien's San Francisco export has grown up, moving out of its original New York digs on the Lower East Side to a grander room that, while only a few blocks away, couldn't be further apart in spirit. Chandeliers, velvet and elbow-room (lots of it, too) are now as much a part of the restaurant's DNA as the experimental style of Bowien's food and the attendant queues that form each night. The menu has changed, too, making room for flavours other than searing Sichuan spice and expanding the brief to take a tour of China and the rest of Asia.
"It was a revelation here," Buckingham says of the restaurant. "It's been great for getting people more familiar with Chinese food."
171 East Broadway, New York, +1 212 432 0300, missionchinesefood.com
Of course, Buckingham and Donnelly agree that a trip to New York would be incomplete without a meal at their restaurant, located in what was first Chinese-language theatre on America's East Coast. The space is now dotted with potted plants and features Scandinavian-style furniture and black leather booths but wrought-iron posts and stripped-back walls are a nod to the building's storied history in Manhattan's Chinatown.
"Tuxedo straddles a middle ground: we're contemporary and thoughtful about decor but the food has to stand up, too," Buckingham says.
Some dishes you'll recognise – barbecue pork buns and Sichuan-style fried eggplant – while others are given subtle twists such as san choi bau of crisp skin duck leg, say, or the steamed baby bass that's lifted by leeks in addition to ginger and soy. There are also plenty of cocktails that utilise Chinese and Asian ingredients, including the Tiger Balm: a mix of tequila, grapefruit, Sichuan pepper and lime.
5 Doyers St, Chinatown, New York, +1 646 895 9301, chinesetuxedo.com
Grand Sichuan International
Sichuan food has enjoyed a surge in popularity over the last 15 years in America. "As the demographic has gotten better informed, the regionalisation has gotten interesting," Buckingham says.
With the proliferation in restaurants specialising in Sichuan cuisine, there comes a confusing number of restaurants bearing similar names. Of the many Grand Sichuans in New York City, be sure to look for one bearing International in its name.
"It's not a sexy place," says Buckingham. "But the food is consistently good."
First-time visitors could do worse than to order the poached chicken in Sichuan chilli oil (served at room temperature), the strange-flavour noodles and the black fungus dish, which brings some relief from the intense numbing spice found in many of other the dishes. Sichuan favourites like mapo tofu, kung pao chicken and dan dan noodles also make appearances.
Grand Sichuan International, 229 9th Ave, New York, +1 212 620 5200, grand-sichuan.com
Eddy Buckingham and Paul Donnelly appeared at The Bloody Good Dinner 2018, a fundraiser for research into blood cancer and bone marrow failure.