Eating Asian in the Big Apple: The Highs, the Lows, the Many

Having been on a business trip in New York for the last two weeks, I thought, surely I'd be off blogging duties. However, the man had different ideas for me, with a seemingly innocuous send-off of, "Have a safe trip. Send in anything interesting you might find."


Seeing as how I've got a double whammy of Asian responsibility/Catholic guilt complex going on, this, to me, signaled that when I wasn't working 12-hour days, I should be looking for some kind of tie-in story to Walk the Wok. Fortunately, finding a story proved easier than I feared, especially when I encountered the $25 bowl of pho.

Prune, 54 E. 1st St., New York, NY 10003 

Although this story would later give my mother a heart attack, I couldn't resist myself: I had to have it. Work brings me to New York fairly frequently, and I always return with a restaurants wish list. Top of my list this visit: Prune.

While the East Village eatery is immensely popular for its fantastic weekend brunch, the restaurant is equally well known for its roasted marrow bones, made famous by an episode of Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations. After a drink with an old friend one evening, my brother and I ventured around the corner for a late dinner at the infamously tiny restaurant (seating wasn't available until around 10 pm.)

Taking a look around at all the roasted marrow bones on every other table, it seemed as if everyone else had the same idea. We placed an order for the Jurassic-sized bones and perused the rest of the menu. That's when I saw it: a $25 bowl of pho.

Technically the menu read, "Pho Style Short Ribs," or something to that effect. The fact that my brother (who went to college in the city) and my mother insist that there aren't many consistently great Vietnamese restaurants in Manhattan made this bowl of short ribs even more fascinating to me. In a city obsessed with really good Chinese, Japanese, and Korean food, it's only recently that I've noticed an insurgence of Vietnamese cuisine curiosity (i.e. Baoguette- a chain sprinkled across Manhattan serving $7 Vietnamese sub sandwiches).

Granted, while there are a few pho restaurants in Chinatown, there's never been much of a mass Vietnamese food movement. That night at Prune, however, I was witnessing an obvious, albeit surreal, shift, as almost every table in sight had ordered the short ribs.

What does a $25 bowl of pho taste like? Apparently, it tastes bland. The diners sitting at the table next to us requested salt. The dish came with three large pieces of short ribs, sitting in a shallow pool of beef broth, garnished with typical pho accoutrements, but sans pho noodles. While the consensus leaned toward bland, in all fairness, not all bowls of pho are created equal. From my past yammering, you might recall that northern pho typically is less seasoned with salt and spices than its southern counterpart. Chef and owner, Gabriele Hamilton, wasn't available to comment on the specifics of her inspiration, but it would be safe to say her homage to pho veers toward a northern Vietnamese interpretation.

Despite the lack of salt, the broth was quite fragrant, and the meat was nicely cooked to tender.

As for the roasted marrow bones, the dish lives up to its hype. Served with toast, pickled parsley onion garnish, and sea salt, the marrow was delectable. While the $16 a plate appetizer is pricey, the restaurant makes up for it with its generous serving of velvety fatty tissue. (We had to order an extra plate of toast just to sop up all the savory goodness.) Along with Blue Ribbon's legendary beef marrow and oxtail marmalade, Prune's roasted marrow bones are a must-try for visiting fans of the delicacy.

Next up...

Prosperity Dumplings, 46 Eldridge St., New York, NY 10002

Nothing in New York City's wondrous world of cuisine cures the wallet's ailments quite like Chinatown. When my bank account needs a breather from the likes of Babbo and $16 bowls of ramen (I'm looking at you, Momofuku), I can always find reliable rescue in a bowl of Mott Street's Big Wong wonton noodle soup or Prosperity's $1 dumplings.

Oh, Prosperity. Were I poet, I'd dedicate a sonnet or two thousand to your greatness. Words fail in describing a good dumpling; thin, homemade skins; flavorfully seasoned fillings; abundant, yet well proportioned. It all reads so less exciting than it actually tastes. To eat a good dumpling is to awaken the senses. To eat a good dumpling is to never be able to turn back to anything inferior.

The tiny dumpling shack (I use that term lovingly), sits in the less busy part of Chinatown, which borders the Lower East Side. The restaurant has six wooden stools, but most of its business is for people eating on-the-go. Above the small ordering counter is a white sign with menu items priced so ridiculously low, it almost seems like it's a joke. Five potstickers for a $1. Ten pork steamed dumplings for $2. Six Shanghai buns for $2. Granted, the restaurant's overhead probably isn't very much, making dumplings, especially with homemade skins, is a laborious task. Behind the counter, five Chinese women knead, cut, roll out, and stuff, while a single man stands steaming and frying the dumplings behind one gargantuan-sized wok. Beau-ti-ful.

Fried potstickers had the initial wonderful crunch before completely dissolving. The dumplings melted in our mouths as we inhaled them like air. Vegetarian dumplings stuffed with mushrooms, leeks, and cabbage proved that Prosperity could do savory flavor even when meatless, while a Chinese sesame flatbread sandwich made with braised five spice beef and pickled carrots showed the restaurant has more than just dumplings up their sleeves. Our 20 dumplings, the sandwich, Shanghai buns, and noodles added up to a grand total of $11.

Your regularly scheduled Dallas-centric Walk the Wok returns next week, but just in case there are any City of Aters planning on a future trip to New York:

Fuji Bakery, 224 W 35th St.

This Mid-town bakery is packed every morning during rush hours and specializes in Chinese baked goods, i.e. BBQ pork buns. Try the crumb topped, Taro-filled baked buns.

Hyo Dan Gak, 51 W 35th St., Mid-town west

Dza Jiang Mien. Period.

BonChon Fried Chicken, Several locations

Pricey, but well worth the try. $13 will buy five drumsticks or ten wings of sweet and spicy chicken with the most indescribably crispy skin known in the world of fried poultry.

On a non-Asian note...

Babbo, 110 Waverly Pl., Greenwich Village

Mario Batali's flagship restaurant will require reservations weeks ahead of time if you plan on eating at a decent hour. No matter how tempting, skip the carne, stick to the pastas. Specifically, the beef cheek ravioli and the linguini with clams. Portions are small for the hefty price-tag, but the pasta makes up for it.

Wafels and Dinges, www.wafelsanddinges.com for the rotating locations

This adorable yellow truck travels to a different location in Manhattan every day of the week, spreading its contents of love and deliciousness. The truck serves up two types of Belgian waffles -- the liege waffle and the more generally known Brussels waffle -- with a variety of toppings galore. Try the denser and richer liege with a slathering of Speculoos. The name might not sound very appetizing, but the creamy gingerbread spread tastes highly addictive, all the same.

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