Story by Sukie Park, Translation by JuWon Park
Installation artist Ik-Joong Kang knows everything about Chinatown. After graduating from Pratt Institute in 1988, Kang rented a small studio in Chinatown for $250. After 25 years, the artist still resides in the neighborhood.
Every morning, young artist Kang, poor and starving, went to his studio, wondering where to get some cheap, and yet, still tasty food. He began to have lunch with other fellow artists, equally poor and starving, in search of cheap and good food in Chinatown area. The artists comprised of Byron Kim, Bing Lee, Ken Chu, and Allen Huang, all of whom had studios in the neighborhood. Frequent lunch meetings led to the creation of Tuesday Lunch Club (TLC), a self-explanatory lunch union that lasted for 8 years but casually broke apart as the members became “big names” and much busier.
Mr. Kang’s Restaurant Guide on the window of Bo Ky.
In 1996, Kang made a Starving Artists’ Restaurant Guide, a small booklet that introduced 14 selected places from his culinary quest with the TLC members, featuring their best menus under $4 as well as his personal favorites. 100 booklets, foldable like accordion and $3.50 each, were printed and sold at the Whitney Museum of Art. The little souvenirs were sold out in half an hour.
Kang made revised versions in 1998 and in 2000, which, again, got sold out soon. Even Kang doesn’t own one himself. At least, he knows of a copy over the glass at Bo Ky on Bayard St.
Of course, knowing some Chinese characters helps understand the menus in Chinatown.
Restaurant menus in Chinatown tend to be in Chinese only, or with rather poor and less accurate English on the side. Urge to better understand the menus like his Chinese friends inspired Kang to make “I Have to Learn Chinese”: Kang copied down the entire dictionary of Chinese characters from the beginning to the end. He submitted the mixed-media installation to the 1997 Venice Biennale and won the Special Merit Award.
By 2000, the rent for Kang’s studio in Chinatown rose to $2,000. Kang moved to Jay Street in DUMBO across the river. The studio got bigger to 5000 square feet, but the neighborhood did not have the same cheap-and-good restaurants. Kang started cooking for himself, yet always longed for Chinatown, where he knew all the food places and friends.
$3.50 for 4 different menus and a soup? It means a take-out buffet in Chinatown.
Missing his old town, Kang rode on his bike across the bridge to get a $3 take-out and eat at a nearby park. It was his own way of assuaging his nostalgia for Chinatown.
Life in Brooklyn ended after five years; the studio was renovated into a condominium. So the artist went back to Chinatown.
Kang was already a famed installation artist by 2005, when he got a new studio on Bowery Street. And yet, he was happier when he ate $2-$5 Chinese food like he used to as a starving artist.
Kang still gets his hair cut in Chinatown. Every Wednesday, he goes to his favorite barbershop. $7 for a haircut, plus $5 tip. The price hasn’t changed for years.
Since the Venice Biennale in 1997, Kang has been creating artworks that interweave the East and the West, the old and the new. He communicates with the children from over five continents and his projects span across the world, but the core of Kang’s life and inspiration lies in Chinatown. No longer starving and now very wealthy, the artist still enjoys his $5 lunch in Chinatown.
Mr. Kang introduces his best places in Chinatown to the readers of NYCultureBeat.
Ik-Joong Kang’s Chinatown Restaurant Guide
A Combo set to enjoy Chinatown= haircut + food + foot massage
1) Haircut: starts from $5 2) Restaurants offer foods that are both cheap and good.
The degree of satisfaction from restaurants and barbershops is irrelevant to the price.
3)Food rub: New places seem to pop up every day, over night.
They say it’s better to get massage from someone of your opposite sex.
#1 Recommended but relevantly pricier restaurants
1. Oriental Garden Restaurant:Oriental Garden Restaurant: one of the best Cantonese restaurants in town. Known for its fresh seafood and dim sums. Make sure to ask the price for ‘seasonal’ seafood menus, which tend to be expensive.
Cantonese-style lobster and clams with black bean sauce at Oriental Garden.
★Recommended menus: Lotus leaf sticky rice, Pork and shrimp combo dumpling, Cantonese seafood casserole.
Wintermelon soup at Ping’s
2. Ping's Seafood: Ping’s Seafood: the star of Gangnam-style, PSY, and his friends went over on this New Year’s Eve this year. Also known for fresh seafood and dim sums. Group reservation is available for the basement room.
★Recommended menus: Crispy fried rice, Ping’s chicken, Giant oyster.
3. Peking Duck House: One of the most well-known Peking duck restaurants. Highly recommended for the Peking duck manias, while seafoods are not worth the try. Also BYOB.
Eating Peking duck with scallion, cucumber, and hoisin sauce on a wrap inspired David Chang in developing Momofuku pork bun.
★Recommended menus: scallion pancake, chopped chicken with pine nuts, sizzling sliced beef with scallops
#2 Reasonably priced restaurants
1. Fuleen Seafood Restaurant: The most famous Chinese seafood restaurant along with Ping’s. Owner changed a few years ago but it still tastes great. Fuleen’s wall covered by all kinds of reviews, including the Zagat Survey and Michelin Guide. Chinese restaurants often have the words “luck,” “wealth,” and “money.”
Fuleen’s wall covered by all kinds of reviews.
★Recommended menus: Steamed flounder with ginger and scallion, Scrambled eggs with shrimp, Diced fillet steak
11 Division St. 212-941-6888.
2. Congee Chinese Restaurant: Famous for congee, Chinese rice congee, as the name suggests. My close Italian friend visits for fried squid. Koreans usually like the eel clay pot. Ask for more garlic!
★Recommended menus: Sizzling eel in casserole, Salt baked shredded squid with cashew nuts, Deep fried chicken with garlic and scallion sauce. 98 Bowery St. 212-965-5028.http://congeebowery.com
3. Shanghai Heping Restaurant: I was really glad to see this place when it first opened – I didn’t have to wait in a long line for Joe’s Shanghai Restaurant! They have great Chinese-style noodles with meat sauce.
A cook makes pork and crab meat dumplings in the kitchen.
★Recommended Menus: Mapo tofu, Noodles with meat sauce(Jarjar myun), Crab and pork soup dumplings
104 Mott St. 212-925-1118.
#3 Cheap and Great Places
Mr. Kang with eggplant and seafood casseroles. He also ordered eel casserole.
1. A-Wah Restaurant: This place is my recent favorite. A big surprise: They used to let you take the nice clay pot when you order any clay pot menu! I already collected 8 of them.
These clay pots are linked to Korean rice clay pot and Kamamesh of Japan. Free clay pot for take-out or delivery.
★Recommended Menus: House special chinese sausage and minced pork, Eggplant casserole, Salt baked calamari
2. Excellent Pork Chop House: Chinatown in NYC supposedly began on the tiny corner of Doyer St. This Taiwanese pork chop restaurant is located right next to one of the city’s hottest bars “Chemist” and Mexican place “Apotheke.”
★Recommended Menus: Pork chop over rice, Wonton with spicy oil, Herbal soup
3. Great NY Noodletown: One of the most famous noodle shops, this place opens til 4AM and is also known as the city chefs’ place after work.
Ruth Reichl, former New York Times food critic raved about soft shell crab at Noodle Town.
★Recommended Menus: Shrimp dumplings and noodle in soup, Salt baked soft shell crab, Clam in black bean sauce
4. New Kam Hing Coffee Shop: I drop by here every morning. This hard-to-notice, humble place has, in fact, the city’s best coffee and sponge cake. Of course, it gets the best reviews on social media.
soft and sweet sponge cake $0.70 and a cup of coffee ($0.75) make it total $1.45
★Recommended: Sponge cake, Coffee
119 Baxter. St. 212-925-0425
#4 Other Not-To-Be-Missed Restaurants
Banh Mi sandwich with sardine
1. Banh Mi Saigon: Relatively new Vietnamese sandwich place. Sandwich for Vietnamese is like pizza for Italians and Kimchi for Koreans. This place is definitely on the frontline of all the sandwich shops.
2. Nyonya: This Malaysian restaurant is always full of the young. When you’re lost in the extensive menu, just look around and pick what everyone around you is having. But don’t miss out the chicken rice!
food cart of the Jin Fong restaurant, which can take in more than 700 people
3. Jing Fong Restaurant: This Cantonese dim sum spot is as enormous as a soccer field, which means it’s as boisterous and lively as a market place. A friend of mine, a fan of chicken feet, once finished off five plates of them.
4. Mahayana Buddhist Temple Association:Most of the restaurants in Chinatown don’t give out fortune cookies. If you must try out some magic of the fortune, visit this place across the Manhattan Bridge. You can get a piece of “fortune yellow paper,” in place of a fortune cookie, which can be obtained with any amount of donation (I usually pay $1). It is said that these fortune papers are more accurate than any fortune-teller. 133 Canal St. 212-925-8787. http;//www.mahayana.us
5. Wah Fung #1 Fast Food: There is always a line. I used to drop by for a take-out almost every day when I had a studio on Bowery St. It’s a taste of heaven to eat the food on a bench at the nearby park. Closed on Mondays.
★Recommended: Roast pork or chicken over rice($3.25)
78 Chrystie St. 212-925-5175.
Pig's Feet on Rice
6. Bo Ky Restaurant: a Cambodian noodle place. I have been a regular for 20 years since I visited with my Tuesday Lunch Club friends. 80 Bayard St. 212-406-2292.