The Budget Traveller's Guide to Chinatown Exploring one of New York's Oldest Ethnic Neighborhood's food scenes without breaking the bank

By: Charlie Colasurdo '18 and Megan Doyle '18

Asia may seem like a world away, but bits and pieces of its culture are scattered around the globe, in areas collectively known as Chinatowns. One such Chinatown is easily accessible to Westporters like us, nestled between Tribeca, SoHo and Little Italy on the tip of Manhattan.

Shopping for fish at a Chinatown grocery

It’s just a train ride and a few subway stops from home, but New York’s Chinatown is a tiny warren of streets packed to the gills with Chinese, Korean, Japanese and Thai culture, and delicious, authentic (and cheap!) food. We invite you to join us on a tasting tour of some of Chinatown’s best cheap eats.

In Chinatown, seafood and fresh fruit spill onto the street

With bustling crowds, pungent scents, and vendors hawking their wares from small shops spilling on the street, Chinatown, at first glance, can seem bit daunting. But we made it our mission to explore each nook and cranny without spending more than an off-peak train ticket (about $25). From Grand Central, 10 minutes heading downtown on a 4, 5 or 6 subway, puts you at the edge of the Chinatown-Canal St. Station.

Assorted produce at a Chinatown street market

Our first stop was to fortify ourselves with a strong cup of coffee and a bite of breakfast to jumpstart our day. We went to the tiny cafe Kam Hing Coffee, which claims to have the best sponge cakes in town. The aromatic coffee was $0.75 and the satisfying sponge cake was only $1.25. We haven’t had many other sponge cakes, but this one definitely lived up to the hype.

Kam Hing Coffee Shop, famous for sponge cake

After a walk around Columbus Park, and an exploration of a few markets displaying crates full of dried and fresh fish, Asian greens, and a variety of foods we could not identify, we went window shopping, and decided to make a pit stop at Tasty Dumpling, a hole-in-the-wall for all manner of dumplings--steamed, fried and packed with ground pork, scallions, veggies and other tasty fillings. These pork-fried bundles of goodness were addictive -- we gobbled up the five dumplings for $1.25 in a few minutes.

Pork-Fried dumplings at Tasty Dumpling

A few blocks away, we purchased multiple delicious baked goods at Mei Li Wah Bakery for under 5 bucks ($4.40, to be exact). For that amount, we got two “original buns” and one “pineapple bun.” Contrary to our initial belief, this bun only looks like a pineapple, and doesn’t actually have pineapple in it. Although they resembled rolls, these fat pastries were surprisingly sweet (as are most Asian desserts), and much simpler than the decadent cream-filled pastries we are more accustomed to.

Original Buns at Mei Li Wah Bakery

After scarfing down our buns, we barely had room for more food, so we made one last stop at Big Wong, a busy restaurant. We ordered six rice crepes for $3.30. The rice crepe had an interestingly gooey texture, but was insanely delectable nonetheless, filled with mouth-watering roast pork. Here, they serve an assortment of crepes, filled with minced beef, fresh shrimp, fried cruller and dried shrimp topped with scallion.

Passing rows of Vietnamese restaurants touting their famous “Banh Mi” sandwiches, consisting of cilantro, cucumber, pickled carrots and meat, we made a mental note to return here on our next visit. We proceeded down to Bangkok Center Grocery, home to authentic and hard-to-find Thai ingredients. For under $12, we left the store, our bags stuffed with curry pastes, coconut milk, palm sugar, kaffir lime leaves and fresh, aromatic Thai basil.

Bangkok Center Grocery

Heading home, stuffed with Japanese sweets from Aji Ichiban Candy, Chinese pastries, and an assortment of savory Asian treats, we were already planning our return trip to Chinatown. We hope that next time you venture to the Big Apple, you’ll consider exploring this ethnic enclave. After all, it’s like venturing to another continent (without the $1,500 airfare or vaccinations!)

Looking over Mott St.

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