Zak Pelaccio, (1) the chef at Fatty Crab (View Menu) and 5 Ninth, works out of a loft on Division Street, almost directly under the Manhattan Bridge. It’s large and light-filled, but for Pelaccio, whose menus are heavily Asian-influenced, the choice was as much about local food possibilities as the view of the bridge. We spent half a day browsing (and eating) through his regular circuit of Chinatown restaurants and shops, with Pelaccio’s assistant, Emily Lai, translating when necessary.
First stop: The grill cart on the corner of Division and Market. “Do you have chicken heart today?” he asks. We get two lamb skewers, and opt for a skewer of gizzards (2) instead of hearts. “This is grilled on real hardwood charcoal, which you can’t use even in a restaurant because there are so many problems with exhaust,” he says, explaining his preference. The lamb nuggets are spicy but tender. The gizzards: salty, cumin-flavored chew toys.
Next, soups at Sheng Wang (27 Eldridge St., nr. Canal St.; 212-925-0805). We order oxtail with pulled noodles and fish ball with peel noodles. The pulled noodles are made fresh as we watch; the peel noodles are shaved off a large block of dough into boiling broth. Pelaccio douses the soups (3) with chile paste, fish sauce, vinegar, and soy. “They have a new noodle guy here, and he’s really good,” he says. “The guy they had before, the noodles weren’t as light.”
On the way to the grocery store, Pelaccio spots a tiny new dumpling spot, inventively named Chinese Food (25B Henry St., nr. Catherine St.; 212-608-8962). The dumplings are so-so, but the kimchee is great, with thin slices of fresh apple and ginger balancing the chile and garlic flavors.
At a fruit vendor under the bridge, Pelaccio looks at the five-foot lengths of sugar cane but dismisses the spiky durian. He generally doesn’t buy fruits and vegetables off the street in Chinatown; prices might be low, but the quality is questionable. “These durian are from Thailand. They’re frozen for export. You really have to eat durian fresh,” Pelaccio says.
Inside New York Super Market (75 E. Broadway, nr. Market St.; 212-374-4088), he points out the fresh, neatly stacked garlic and flower chives (4), pea shoots, and cilantro.
East Corner Wonton (70 E. Broadway, nr. Market St.; 212-343-9896) “has the best roast duck and wontons in the city,” says Pelaccio. We have those, plus some tripe, just for the heck of it.
Dessert is at Egg Custard King Two Cafe (271 Grand St., nr. Forsyth St.; 212-226-8882). “Get the crème brûlée one,” advises Pelaccio (it’s actually a Portuguese egg tart). (5) Warm, not too sweet, with a flaky crust, easy to eat while walking, it makes any trendy cupcake seem juvenile by comparison.
Catherine Street has several butchers, but Pelaccio likes the spotless Catherine Meat Market (21 Catherine St., nr. Henry St.; 212-693-0494). “I like their Chinese sausage, and the marinated oxtail is delicious steamed,” he says.
One favorite fish vendor is Tan My My (249 Grand St., near Chrystie St.; 212-966-7878). He orders crabs from Aquabest (276 Grand St., nr. Forsyth St.; 212-285-1422) up the block. He gets tofu at Tung Woo Co. (230 Grand St., nr. Bowery; 718-486-5586), and he buys spicy beef jerky (6) at Malaysia Beef Jerky (95A Elizabeth St., nr. Grand St.; 212-965-0796). For other ingredients, he goes to Asia Food Market (71½ Mulberry St., near Bayard St.; 212-962-2020). “We didn’t get out of my immediate neighborhood very much. But what I like here is the relationship to food,” he says as he heads back to the loft. “In Chinatown, you eat fresh, every day.”