Chinatown isn’t beautiful. Garbage lines the streets and on hotter days the smell of fish – thrown out from many restaurants – is overpowering. But it’s precisely Chinatown’s refusal to accommodate the city’s ubiquitous would-be gentrifiers that makes the experience of being there so intoxicating.
Despite its ripe-for-redevelopment location – in the heart of Manhattan’s ever-pricier Lower East Side – the warren of streets that comprise Chinatown has remained staunchly, defiantly, closed off to change. Shop-signs are in many places exclusively in Chinese; unmarked restaurants cater to the same locals whose families have been eating there for years. Even more recent, Mandarin-speaking Chinese immigrants can find the largely Cantonese-language neighborhood a challenge.
Today I slip into Vanessa’s Dumpling House – one of New York’s cult institutions. Four dollars gets me a steamed red bun, several pork dumplings, and a drink. The woman behind the counter slides a number my way without looking at me. "Wait," she says.
I watch the workers behind her. With dizzying speed they steam, boil, fry – pour out oil, flip the pancakes, stir, fill trays, call out numbers, pass trays across the counter. There’s nothing fancy, nothing precious, no fusion accents or delicately braised kale. We all sit at undecorated tables, regulars and locals and tourists side by side, no room between us.
It’s the best meal I’ve had in years.
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